The End of Higher Education

Louis Menand is a distinguished professor of English, whose book, The Metaphysical Club won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. As a seasoned, thoughtful, and increasingly vocal public intellectual, he is worth listening to.
In today’s The New Yorker, Louis Menand offers an extended review essay on what amounts to the devolution of liberal arts education.
He begins with a story every college professor knows all too well. He recalls a student at his first teaching post at an Ivy League school whining that infamous interrogative: “Why did we have to buy this book.”  That question is, of course, a species of another question, namely, “Why did we have to read this book?”
Menand uses this question to explore several possible aims of higher education. His chronicle of the history of higher education is worth the price of the magazine. Prior to the mid-20th century, higher education was pitched at a certain socio-intellectual strata of society. According to Menand, in 1950, there were only about two and a quarter million students in colleges across the country. Today, more than fifteen million students are enrolled in public colleges, and just under six million in private colleges. Observes Menand:

There is now a seat for virtually anyone with a high-school diploma who wants to attend college. The City University of New York (my old employer) has two hundred and twenty-eight thousand undergraduates—more than four times as many as the entire Ivy League. The big enchilada of public higher education, the State of California, has ten university campuses, twenty-three state-college campuses, a hundred and twelve community-college campuses, and more than 3.3 million students. Six percent of the American population is currently enrolled in college or graduate school.  In Great Britain or France, the figure is about three percent.

So, with those kinds of numbers, how is it that higher education can be characterized as devolving? It’s smoke and mirrors.  That is, the system, according to two recent analyses, only seems to be working. The first study finds that many students think college is just a social club.

Students spend less time studying than they used to, for example. In 1961, students reported studying an average of twenty-five hours a week; the average is now twelve to thirteen hours. More than a third of students in Arum and Roksa’s study reported that they spend less than five hours a week studying. In a University of California survey, students reported spending thirteen hours a week on schoolwork and forty-three hours socializing and pursuing various forms of entertainment.

Here’s the crunch. What education students do receive—at least in the liberal arts—is being increasingly dumbed down. Yet, the price of this four-year trip junket to educational Las Vegas is skyrocketing. It’ll cost a student at Princeton or Stanford more than fifty thousand dollars per year for this kind of recreation, while the average tuition at a public college is $7,605.
Just as bad, in this tough academic job market, student evaluations often mean as much to a professor’s future as sound pedagogy. Educational consumerism means that the customer is always right, and if a student pays for an education, he or she should at least get a “B” in the course—“after all, that’s what I paid for.” Not only that, the course also should be “exciting.” Professor X, one of the authors Menand reviews in his essay, cites the example of one of the prof’s student evaluations:

Course was better than I thought. Before this I would of never voluntarily read a book. But now I almost have a desire to pick one up and read. I really like [Professor X], this is why I took the course because I saw he was teaching it. He’s kind of enthusiastic about things that probably aren’t that exciting to most people, which helps make the three hours go by quicker.

Menand concludes his review by entering a transitional phase in the history of higher education. For previous generations college was not about marking time or primarily about socializing. Since college was not available to everyone, it was more precious. “College,” says Menand, “was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers.”
Today, college is not only an entitlement, so are good grades and a good time. But one can buy a lot of time in Margaritaville for a quarter of a million dollars, the cost of four years in the Ivies.