In my youth, the whole process was pretty laid-back. Where you went to college was an important decision, sure, but it didn’t inspire existential gloom, nor did it call into play financial and structural resources exceeding those of some European nations. If you didn’t get into one small, moderately prestigious liberal arts college, then another down the road would be sure to take you, and in 20 years it wouldn’t really matter which one, anyway. Of course, as I’m reminded — over and over and over again — it’s a different world today.
A classmate of mine at what was then a reasonably but not insanely selective Northeastern college has since become an education consultant. “So,” I asked him casually, “what chance do you suppose we would have — ”
“None,” he said, before I could finish my question. “Neither of us would make the cut today. Not even close. It’s that competitive.”
None of this is news to any parent, of course, or indeed anyone who has looked at a newspaper, Web site, carrier-pigeon message or smoke signal in the past decade or so. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without another op-ed or speech decrying the crisis in higher education. With a generation of graduates crippled by the double whammy of unemployment and stratospheric levels of student debt, the conversation about what went wrong and how to fix it has become increasingly toxic and recriminatory. Like the blind men and the elephant, each of these four recent books offers some insights into the dilemma, but a comprehensive vision for reform remains elusive.
Former education secretary William J. Bennett and his co-author, David Wilezol, frame the question with characteristic bluntness in “Is College Worth It?” Their answer: a resounding “depends.” If you’re rich and can afford it, yes; if you’re a talented engineer, yes; otherwise, maybe not. The authors’ bugbear is the moderately achieving middle-class kid who, spurred by devious and unrealistic college financial aid departments and abetted by the federal government, takes on massive student debt in pursuit of an impractical education. Their conclusion — that “the most fundamental reform that should be made is abandoning the idea that a four-year college education is the appropriate or even necessary choice for everyone” — is pragmatic enough yet offers little comfort to those who will be left behind in the new economy.
“No matter how high-tech the economy becomes, elevators will get stuck [and] toilets will get clogged,” the authors rumble, sounding pretty much exactly like Ted Knight, in “Caddyshack,” telling Michael O’Keefe that “the world needs ditch diggers, too.” It doesn’t help their case much when they scoff at the “cushy working arrangements” of “underworked” professors or when they begin decrying the evils of coed dorms and the abandonment of the Western canon.
Despite these lapses into Victorian high morality, Bennett and Wilezol would find an unlikely ally in Dale J. Stephens, a young entrepreneur and “unschooler” whose “Hacking Your Education”promises to show the savvy and self-motivated how to do an end run around college. Stephens’s book alternates between fluffy can-do exhortations — “If you write publicly for long enough, people will begin to offer you jobs!” — and breathless cocktail-party anecdotes about his friend Slacker X. McWeb, who dropped out of school, crashed a TED after-party, schmoozed with a bunch of famous people, and is, like, a DJ now and flies first class all over the world! Buried deep within this silliness is some common-sense advice: Use your public library, write 1,000 words a day, force yourself into uncomfortable interactions. More damning is the obvious but unspoken truth that smart, self-directed young people such as Stephens will do well inside or outside a college environment, whereas no amount of “hackademics” is going to turn around lives betrayed by poverty, poor choices or substandard secondary education. My advice: Skim “Hacking Your Education” for its bracing message of self-empowerment, but go to college anyway.
Stephens’s worst suspicions about college can’t touch the barren realities depicted in “Paying for the Party.” This sober sociological analysis undertaken by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton concludes that attendance at a large public “party school” is “far from the class equalizer” that American mythology claims it to be. By following the fates of 45 women who started college life on the same floor of a university dorm, Armstrong and Hamilton paint a depressing portrait of a social ecosystem riddled with condescension, peer pressure, shallowness, materialism, snobbery, envy and bigotry. “Paying for the Party” — a vague and misleading title, by the way — is important but plodding; as with a lot of sociology, the authors provide a mountain of pseudo-scientific “research” in service of staggeringly obvious conclusions. To be sure, there’s plenty to criticize: useless fluff majors such as event planning and sports marketing, a Greek system that codifies sexual pliancy and alcohol abuse, a lack of support structures for at-risk students. The authors wind down with some halfhearted suggestions for reform, but even they seem paralyzed by the university’s slide into irrelevancy as an expensive status-reinforcement machine.
The best of these books, the most evenhanded and competent, is probably Jeffrey J. Selingo’s “College (Un)Bound,” a breezy overview of the major issues affecting higher education. Selingo offers a definitive breakdown of how tuition has become so expensive — it’s not why you think — but for someone who has spent his life reporting on higher education, he can be bafflingly naive. He eagerly buys into yesterday’s buzzy business-lite idea of “disruptive innovation” and is an admirer of online education, the solution du jour to higher education’s woes. He gushes over the achievements of leaders such as Paul LeBlanc, who turned Southern New Hampshire University into “the largest online provider in New England” by “moving it off campus and hiring talent from the corporate world.” (Where do LeBlanc’s own two daughters go to college? Why, Brown, of course.) As for the vaunted massive online open courses(MOOCs), Selingo somehow doesn’t perceive that their transformative potential will quickly be overshadowed by their appeal as convenient and trendy hammers for the further demolition of public education budgets, ultimately putting an end to that indefinable alchemy that still takes place whenever you put a passionate teacher and curious students in a room together.
So it goes. If these books collectively are unsatisfying, it’s partly because how a country educates itself is a deadly serious and demanding process, full of complexities and trade-offs that are almost too cumulatively daunting to address. Even a book as jaunty and defiant as Stephens’s is tinged with melancholy, haunted by a sense that, as in so many other arenas of American life, our collective possibilities have somehow shrunk. These books are written in the shadow of the suspicion that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — about hard work, opportunity, meritocracy, achievement, social mobility — somehow no longer pertain.
The central answer to the dilemmas facing higher education is both obvious and unfashionable: Rather than relying on shortcuts such as technology, or performance evaluation, or data analysis, we need to commit ourselves to substantial public investment in a reinvigorated educational system, top to bottom. In order to educate our citizens, though, we first need to educate ourselves, and that may be the most daunting task of all.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.