The Truth About the Colleges

Profiles of American Colleges: 2005

Barron's Educational Series, 1,669 pp., $26.95 (paper)

Higher education in America is no longer the preserve of a privileged elite, with more than seven million undergraduates now enrolled in the roughly 2,600 colleges and universities that grant bachelor or higher degrees. In 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, 1,291,900 students received bachelors’ diplomas and 606,958 completed graduate programs. The latter figure is worth noting, since it tells us that almost half of those who are completing college believe that a single degree won’t suffice for what they want to do or be.

A census study last year found that among adults aged thirty to thirty-four, only 41 percent had attended high school without going to college. These high school graduates, moreover, represent a dwindling part of the population. Another 32 percent had earned at least a bachelor’s degree, while 27 percent had spent time on a campus, whether a community college or a four-year college, without finishing. Viewed one way, that figure shows a high attrition rate. Many of the colleges and community colleges, moreover, fail to provide more than perfunctory courses.

The claim that almost six in ten Americans in their early thirties have had some kind of college experience thus needs further scrutiny. The experience can range from small seminars in philosophy at Colgate to lectures in motel management at Southwest Missouri State. Some colleges have rigorous core curriculums: students elsewhere must choose courses from huge catalogs in order to amass the 128 credits needed for a BA. Reed College in Oregon limits its enrollment to 1,312 students, while at Michigan State University an entering student would be one of 34,617.

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In fact, there are places open for anyone who wants to pursue a bachelor’s degree and can pay for it, and many colleges must work hard to attract students. In a study published this year, James Fallows concluded that

for all but the richest ten or twenty universities, an important part of managing enrollment is simply being sure that enough paying customers will show up each fall.1

The Princeton Review, a commercial organization with no ties to the university, compiles useful information about what it calls “the best 357 colleges” in the country. It reports that reputable although less well known schools like Creighton, Duquesne, and Evergreen State accept at least 85 percent of those who apply. But for many American families, knowing that there are many openings is not reassuring. On the contrary, increasing numbers of parents are investing money and energy to ensure that their children be accepted by a college that is recognized and admired.

Ross Douthat writes candidly about these efforts in his memoir of student life in Harvard’s class of 2002, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. “People send their children to Harvard, above all,” he says, “because they want them to succeed.” And an early sign of their success will be the college they attend. When friends ask where the children are going, parents want to give…


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