How Our Universities Are Failing Us


The Closing of the American Mind dealt with the way academic relativism has failed our democracy, but it did not spark the kind of fruitful conversation that Allan Bloom hoped for; much less did it inspire a systematic effort to rectify the errors of modern academia. Today’s college students say they believe in democracy but cannot explain why, and neither can they explain what they are actually getting with their college education. In the past half century, higher education has gone through a democratizing revolution, with the result that more and more students are being sold an increasingly expensive product that neither their professors nor the deans and presidents of their colleges can even begin to define.

College for All

A college education is now deemed one of those prizes that, if good for a few, must therefore be good for all, even if no one in a position of academic authority can specify what such an education is or should be. College enrollments have grown steadily year by year, more than doubling since 1970 and rising by nearly one-third since the year 2000. This year, more than twenty million students will enroll in the four thousand or so degree-granting colleges and universities now operating in the United States. More than 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in a community college, a four-year residential college, or one of the new online universities, though only about half of these students earn their degrees within five years. The steady growth in enrollments is fed by the widespread belief that a college degree is a requirement for entry into the world of middle-class employment.

Higher education is a growth industry in America—one of the few that foreigners (now mostly Asians) are willing to support in large numbers. College tuition and expenses have grown by five times the rate of inflation over the past three decades, forcing parents and students far into debt to meet the escalating costs. Fed by a long bull market in stocks, college and university endowments have exploded since the mid-1980s, providing even more resources for salaries, new personnel, financial aid, and new buildings and programs.

A handful of prestigious colleges and universities, mainly private, are overwhelmed each year by applications from high school seniors seeking to have their tickets punched for entry into the upper strata of American society. But these institutions are far from representative of higher education as a whole. The vast majority of colleges and universities—90 percent of them at least—admit any applicant with a high school diploma and the means to pay. Given the availability of financial aid, any high school graduate who wishes to attend college can do so.

Many universities, and not a few colleges, have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies with their layers of highly paid executives presiding over complex empires that encompass semi-professional athletic programs, medical and business schools, and expensive research programs along with the traditional academic departments charged with providing instruction to undergraduate students. Like other industries, higher education has its own trade magazines and newspapers, influential lobbying groups in Washington, and paid advertising agents reminding the public of how important their enterprise is to the national welfare.

What Is All This For?

In contrast to business corporations, whose members generally agree on their overall purpose, colleges and universities have great difficulty defining what their enterprise is for. What is a college education? What are students supposed to learn during their four years on campus? On just about any campus at any given time, one can find faculty members in intense debate over what a college education entails and what the mission of their institution should be, and one will find little consensus on the answers. Few businesses would dare to offer an expensive product that they are incapable of defining for the inquiring consumer. Yet this is what colleges and universities have done at least since the 1960s, with surprising success.

The most trenchant criticisms of these developments in higher education have come primarily from the conservative end of the political spectrum. From the time William F. Buckley Jr. published God and Man at Yale in 1951, conservatives have been the main critics of the evolution of colleges and universities away from their traditional role as guardians of civilization and into the political-corporate institutions that they have gradually come to resemble. Over the decades, conservatives like Russell Kirk, Allan Bloom, and Roger Kimball have criticized academic institutions for dismembering core curricula, offering trendy but intellectually worthless courses, surrendering to political correctness, and providing comfortable sinecures for faculty paid for by hardworking students and their parents. Conservatives were always skeptical of the campaign to democratize higher education, arguing that it was bound to lead to lowered standards and loss of purpose. Events have confirmed their predictions, even if their diagnosis has done little to alter the path of the American university.

Some Liberals Become Critics

Liberals have been more reserved in their criticisms of higher education, no doubt because they (in contrast to the conservatives) have been in charge of the enterprise over these many decades. To the extent that they have called for reform in higher education, it has usually been to urge colleges and universities to move more rapidly down the path on which they were already traveling—that is, in the direction of more diversity, easier access, more student choice in courses and curricula, more programs for special groups, and so on. Because they have operated inside the walls of academe, liberals (and leftists) have never had much difficulty in translating their proposals into academic policy.

Yet a curious thing is now happening in the ever-expanding commentary on higher education: many of the criticisms formerly made by conservatives are now being reprised by liberals, or at least by authors who are in no way associated with conservative ideas or organizations. At least two distinguished academic leaders, Anthony Kronman, former dean of the Yale Law School (Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, Yale University Press), and Harry Lewis, former dean of students at Harvard (Excellence without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, Public Affairs), have published stern critiques of colleges and universities for failing to challenge students with the great moral and political questions that were once at the center of the liberal arts curriculum. More recently, several books written from a liberal point of view have taken colleges and universities to task on various counts: they are too expensive; the education they offer is subpar, especially in relation to costs; they are administratively top-heavy; their faculties are too specialized; they do not emphasize teaching; their catalogs are filled with bizarre courses; and, importantly, they are not providing the liberal arts education that students need and deserve.

Here Come the Weird Courses

These are serious charges, especially when one considers who is making them. What lies behind them? And what do the authors propose to do about them?

The most comprehensive of these indictments is set out by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in a book titled Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do about It, Henry Holt & Company. The authors cannot be accused of being outsiders to the industry or lacking in understanding of their subject. Hacker is a distinguished political scientist, author of many academic books, formerly a professor at Cornell, and now an emeritus professor at Queens College in New York City. Dreifus writes for the Science section of the New York Times and is a faculty member at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It is surprising, even refreshing, to encounter a wide-ranging critique of higher education by authors with such impeccable credentials. Yet one would never call this a dispassionate analysis. It is meant to arouse indignation and to bring forth remedies for the ills it diagnoses.

Hacker and Dreifus begin from the premise that higher education has lost its way and no longer fulfills its basic obligations to the rising generation of Americans. As they write, “A huge—and vital—sector of our society has become a colossus, taking on many roles, and doing none of them well.” The central purpose of higher education, and of the liberal arts in particular, is to turn students into “thoughtful and interesting human beings”; but colleges and universities have weighed themselves down with so many ancillary activities, from technical research to varsity athletics, that they have lost sight of their basic mission.

No Return to the Sixties

The authors write from the standpoint of a pre-1960s liber alism, which assumed that democratic education and the liberal arts should operate in harmony. Thus they assert that every student can learn, that a college education should be available to all, and that such an education should revolve around the liberal arts, loosely defined. They are unable to come to terms with how the campus upheavals of the 1960s succeeded in overthrowing the traditional liberal arts curriculum in the name of democracy, diversity, and inclusion. The authors think that the older synthesis can be resurrected on campus if only some institutional encrustations like disciplinary research, administrative bloat, and varsity athletics can be peeled away. Though they are undoubtedly wrong about this (since the problems go much deeper), their book contains much valuable evidence that something has gone wrong in the world of higher education.

Hacker and Dreifus point to a basic contradiction in the higher education industry: students enroll to receive an education, and many pay dearly for this service, but faculty members are paid and promoted on the basis of disciplinary research that is unrelated to teaching. In the authors’ view, in fact, “there is an inverse correlation between good teaching and academic research.” A heavy emphasis on research causes professors to short-change teaching responsibilities and to view colleagues at other institutions as a more important audience for their work than their own students. It also encourages faculties to load up college catalogs with narrow and arcane courses as young professors “teach their dissertations” and veteran professors teach their latest research projects. In this way, the research agenda in the various disciplines invades the undergraduate curriculum. The tenure system, originally created to protect the freedom of faculty to conduct research, now insulates professors from incentives to perform in the classroom. Given the evolution of First Amendment protections on campus, tenure is no longer needed to guarantee academic freedom for dissident professors.

PhDs But No Jobs 

Moreover, since research professors must have graduate students, major departments at large research universities must have their own Ph.D. programs whether or not their graduates have any hope of finding positions in the academy. The authors cite a telling statistic: from 2005 to 2007, American universities awarded 101,009 doctoral degrees but created just 15,820 assistant professorships. Given such a ratio, few young men and women who have spent between four and eight years earning their doctoral degrees can entertain hopes of pursuing careers in academic teaching and research. Many of these redundant Ph.D.’s wind up in fields unrelated to their studies and for which an advanced degree is probably more of a handicap than a qualification. Some are recruited back to campus as adjunct professors to teach courses for nominal sums that are a fraction of what tenured professors are paid. The authors estimate that 70 percent of all college teaching is performed by adjuncts, graduate assistants, and other non-faculty personnel.

The expansion of administration—or administrative “bloat”—is a major factor in the escalating costs of higher education. The ratio of administrators per student has doubled over the past three decades, from about 30 to more than 60 administrators per 1,000 students. At many of the prestigious colleges and universities, the ratios are far higher. At Williams College, roughly 70 percent of the employees are occupied in pursuits other than teaching. Administrative expansion at Williams has not taken place through the hiring of groundskeepers, janitors, health and safety personnel, or cafeteria workers, but by the creation of positions like Babysitting Coordinator, Spouse-Partner Employment Counselor, and Queer-Life Coordinator (really).

Superfluous Funds, Superfluous Jobs

This is a common pattern at top-ranked institutions that probably have more money than they need to operate high-quality educational programs. Their superfluous funds therefore underwrite superfluous activities. The Chronicle of Higher Education routinely runs advertisements for positions like Sustainability Director, Credential Specialist, and Vice-President for Student Success. Wouldn’t students be better served if, instead of filling positions like these, colleges and universities hired more philosophers, classicists, and physicists? From the authors’ point of view, the question answers itself.

All of these administrators not only cost money (with their generous salaries) but invent work that requires still more of their kind, thus diverting institutional attention from learning and instruction to second- and third-order activities. A portion of administrative bloat is a function of the growing complexity of academic institutions, some of it self-imposed and some of it flowing from governmental requirements related to financial aid, research contracts, and civil rights laws. In many cases the new administrators serve as advocates for special causes, demanding the hiring of more faculty and administrators in fields like feminism, environmentalism, and “queer studies.” Thus, administrative expansion also grows from the politicization of the modern campus.

Overpaid Hired Guns

The most obvious expression of the administrative takeover of higher education is the emergence of “hired gun” presidents who move from institution to institution gaining bigger salaries for themselves and their peers as they do. The president of Ohio State University—who previously held top positions at Brown University, the University of Colorado, and West Virginia University—had a pay package exceeding $2 million before he resigned in 2013 and returned to West Virginia University s president. The president of the University of Chicago has a compensation package that exceeds $3 million. It is not uncommon today for college presidents to receive salary packages exceeding $1 million, courtesy of student tuition payments and taxpayer subsidies, while the average faculty member receives a salary one-tenth of that sum. Do these presidents fill the role of academic and intellectual leader on their campuses, as college and university presidents (like Robert Maynard Hutchins and Charles William Eliot) did at one time? The answer in almost all cases is no. They are hired mainly to raise money, manage complex bureaucracies, and keep their faculties happy. The emergence of this new kind of academic administrator is one of the more obvious signs of the overall loss of intellectual purpose in higher education.

The  Golden  Dozen

Hacker and Dreifus reserve their strongest criticisms for a handful of elite institutions—the “Golden Dozen,” as they call them—that set the tone for higher education as a whole. The list is familiar: the eight Ivy League institutions, plus Duke, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst. These are the prestigious schools that attract applications from ambitious students across the country and around the world. The existence of this elite stratum of institutions seems to violate the authors’ sense of democratic fairness; in their view, these schools are overrated and do not merit their hallowed reputations. They name several institutions of lesser rank (including the University of Mississippi and Arizona State University) that they believe do a better job of educating their students.

While all this may be true, the authors offer scant evidence for their conclusions. They do not try to assess the quality of education offered at these institutions, but try instead to assess how successful their alumni have been compared with the graduates of other institutions—an exercise that cuts against the overall purpose of their book. They conclude on the basis of an examination of entries in Who’s Who that the alumni of the “Golden Dozen” do not fare any better in life than any other group of college graduates. Unfortunately, in using worldly success as a measure, the authors endorse the dubious proposition that what matters most in an academic institution is the financial and vocational status its students attain, rather than the substantive education they gain in the liberal arts.

An  Intellectual Vacuum

In view of the intellectual vacuum that has developed on cam pus, it is entirely understandable that students should more and more express vocational aspirations in their selection of courses and majors. Hacker and Dreifus are disappointed that so many students choose majors like business, engineering, and communications over fields in the liberal arts like history, philosophy, and literature. Business is by far the leading major among undergraduates today, far surpassing in student popularity any of the traditional fields in the humanities or social sciences. Traditional liberal arts departments in classics, foreign languages, literature, and philosophy are contracting and some of them disappearing altogether for want of student interest. This is a lamentable outcome, as the authors say, but at the same time one that is easy to understand. If students are required to pay vast sums for their degrees, then they want value for the money spent—and this is found in vocational preparation of some kind. It is also hard to blame students for these choices when they never hear anyone on campus making a good case for the liberal arts as “an education for life.” The long-running agitation for diversity, democracy, and inclusion on campus has at length displaced the traditional case for the liberal arts.

An End to Tenure?

The authors propose several controversial but nevertheless justifiable remedies to lower the costs of higher education and return it to its central purposes. They would end tenure and sabbaticals for professors, emphasize teaching over research in all aspects of undergraduate education, curb the exploitation of adjunct professors, spin off university medical schools and research programs, eliminate varsity athletics, spread resources around to more institutions beyond the “Golden Dozen,” reduce the costs of administration (especially presidential salaries), and take advantage of new technologies to improve classroom instruction.

These are generally good ideas, though perhaps also utopian in current circumstances. Getting rid of varsity athletics, especially football, has long been a goal of academic reformers, and they are no nearer their goal today than they were fifty or one hundred years ago. Even so, some of these reforms, such as the elimination of tenure and the scaling back of varsity athletics, may come about in the coming years due to mounting financial pressures on colleges and universities. The fact that universities exploit adjunct teachers is a clear sign that they cannot afford to spread the costs associated with the tenure system across all instructional programs. As costs escalate and available resources dwindle, all institutions will be forced to confront basic questions as to which programs they can afford to maintain. What advocacy and criticism cannot accomplish, the laws of economics may eventually bring about.

The central weakness of this otherwise useful critique is that the authors never tell us what kind of education is most likely to form “thoughtful and interesting human beings.” What is an education in the liberal arts? What should students learn during their undergraduate years? Should every college have a core curriculum in the liberal arts, as most did a generation or two ago? The authors make a case for the liberal arts but fail to tell us what they entail or how they might be revived from their near-comatose condition on campus.

Collapse of Liberal Arts

The liberal arts are dying on college campuses today from the combined effects of specialization, the diversity agenda, and an emphasis on vocational goals. (Actually, they have essentially expired already, except at a handful of holdout institutions where undergraduate education is taken seriously.) The century-long campaign to apply the scientific model to the humanities has at length yielded the consequences that Hacker and Dreifus document so well. The various academic travesties that they cite are symptoms of this deeper problem. Many of these—such as the proliferation of pointless courses—take place in humanities departments and not in the sciences, where there still exists a ladder of learning and where research is linked to an ongoing search for knowledge.

The fundamental problems of higher education, especially as they relate to its overall loss of purpose, can be traced back to the collapse of the liberal arts. As a consequence, a large gulf has opened up between the sciences, where undergraduate teaching programs are generally very good (as long as resources are available), and the humanities, where teaching and research have lost their purpose and with it their value. Conservatives have known this for a long time. Now, some liberal critics are beginning to feel their way toward the same conclusion.

In elementary and secondary education, costs have risen exponentially over recent decades while student learning as measured by achievement tests has steadily declined. Likewise, college costs have risen several-fold since the 1970s (as Hacker and Dreifus amply document), even as academic rigor has declined, according to recent research by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa from the University of Virginia.

What Do They Learn? Not Much

Arum and Roksa, both sociologists, made their case in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press. Though burdened by some of the turgid language and ponderous methodology that are endemic to the social sciences, this book is a serious effort to find out if colleges and universities are delivering on their promise to educate all students. The authors have assembled empirical data showing that college students today are studying and writing less and learning far less than their peers of a generation ago, while our competitors abroad are passing us in measures of academic achievement and rates of college graduation. America’s competitiveness in the global economy is thus at risk.

Academically Adrift is one product of a movement to measure student learning that was set in motion in 2006 by a report from the Spellings Commission (named for Margaret Spellings, then the U.S. Secretary of Education). The report called for greater “transparency and accountability” in colleges and universities that receive federal aid, and for “better data about real performance” to allow students, parents, and policymakers to compare institutions on the basis of measurable outcomes. According to the commission, such measures are needed in order to determine if “the national investment in higher education is paying off.” The report was a signal that “outcomes testing,” long used in elementary and secondary education, was about to be introduced into higher education as well.

Critical Thinking 

Arum and Roksa took up the challenge. To measure student learning, they drew upon results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test given to more than three thousand students at different institutions upon entry into college and then again at the end of their second and fourth years of undergraduate work. The CLA asks students to examine a complex problem, such as an argument in a political campaign about how best to reduce crime, and then to write up their assessments of different approaches along with their own recommendations. The test purports to measure critical thinking and complex reasoning as well as writing ability.

On the basis of the CLA, the authors report that large numbers of students show little improvement in these skills during their college years. According to this study, 45 percent of the students showed little evidence of improvement after two years of college, and 36 percent showed little improvement after four years. The performance gap between blacks and whites, already significant upon entry into college, widened further during the undergraduate years.

A Lack of Rigor

“An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills,” Arum and Roksa conclude. Even so, nine in ten students say upon graduation that they are satisfied with their college experience.

The authors locate the sources of these disappointing outcomes both in the culture of student life and in the lack of rigor in college curricula. Students spend the bulk of their time socializing with peers rather than studying, reading, or discussing academic subjects. According to the study, students spend on average only about thirteen hours per week studying, far less time than in the 1960s. The reason that students can get away with it today is that they encounter few courses that require much writing or significant amounts of reading. It is little wonder, then, that the culture of student life does not assign great value to learning and achievement.

Administrators with No Mandate

Arum and Roksa agree with other authors about the basic problems of higher education. Colleges are bloated with administrators who have impressive-sounding titles, but none carries a mandate to improve student learning. Adjunct and part-time faculty teach too many courses. Professors do not spend enough time in the classroom or meeting individually with students. College trustees and presidents are preoccupied with fund-raising, budgets, national rankings, and reputations. Students are viewed as “consumers,” and thus are given too much choice in the selection of courses. Colleges devote too many resources to luxurious dormitories, student centers, and expensive athletic facilities, in a misguided effort to entertain students and keep them happy.

One conclusion they do not reach is that too many students are attending college who are not motivated or who lack the skills to do college-level work. The Council for Aid to Higher Education reports that “forty percent of students entering college do not read, write or perform math at a college-ready level,” a figure that closely approximates the proportion of students reported by Arum and Roksa that do not learn very much during their undergraduate years. Is it possible that 40 percent of the students we send to college are not prepared for the experience and are unable to benefit from it? Are faculty and administrators “dumbing down” their curricula to make it possible for these students to pass the requirements? Reasonable observers have answered both questions in the affirmative, even if such answers seem to violate a national commitment to guarantee a college education to every student who wants one.

Academically Adrift has been widely criticized in academic circles because (it is said) the Collegiate Learning Assessment does not really measure learning, but rather aptitude or something else unrelated to classroom instruction. While this is possibly so (although the makers of the test dispute it), results from the CLA are undoubtedly closely correlated with those of the SAT and ACT examinations that administrators use for admissions and which they claim are measures of learning rather than innate aptitude. If the CLA does not do the job, then critics have an obligation to come up with a better test.

Turn Humanities into Science?

t is probably the case, however, that no conceivable test can accurately measure what students should really learn during their college years. After all, the purpose of higher education is not to train students in the basic skills of reasoning and writing, but to take students who already have these skills and supplement them with something more important—namely, knowledge and understanding. The campaign to turn colleges into glorified high schools has been as misguided as the effort to turn the humanities into a science. It is not possible to educate students in something called “critical thinking” in the absence of a foundation of knowledge; and students who have taken the trouble to fortify themselves with knowledge will naturally develop the capacities both to criticize and to affirm, and to understand the difference between the two.

An education in the liberal arts, rightly understood, is one means by which educators in the past sought to engage students in the search for knowledge and understanding. Whatever the weaknesses of that approach, academic leaders have yet to find an effective substitute for it. Appropriately, Arum and Roksa call upon academic leaders to strengthen the general education requirements (that is, the core curricula) at their institutions in order to ensure that all students receive an education in the fundamentals of the liberal arts and the sciences.

While curricular debates have been going on for some time, the recent financial collapse has exposed and exacerbated structural weaknesses in our system of higher education. Mark C. Taylor argues that a situation of dwindling resources has led to a crisis on campus that will force academic leaders to reorganize their institutions if they are to survive. In a controversial op-ed article he published in the New York Times in 2009, Taylor called for the abolition of the tenure system and the elimination of permanent academic departments that he regards as the obsolete equivalents of assembly lines and small family farms. The title of that article, “End the University as We Know It,” provides a sense of the ambitious— and inflated—aims of his proposals.

Professor Taylor, now chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University and previously a longtime professor in the humanities at Williams College, decided to enlarge the essay into a book because of the popular response it provoked. “My analysis of the current state of higher education and proposals for change set off a firestorm of discussion and controversy,” he explains. Well, perhaps—but he would have served the debate better by letting matters stand with the short statement of his position.

Bold but Unworkable Ideas

His book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, Alfred A. Knopf,unfortunately reads like an extended opinion piece, long on assertions and proposals but short on analysis and supporting information. Few of Taylor’s proposals are new or bold. Like Hacker and Dreifus and many before them, he wants to end tenure, but in his case mainly to open up opportunities for young scholars who have worked for years to earn Ph.D.’s only to find no jobs when they are finished (which was not exactly a secret when they began). Like other critics, he thinks that colleges and universities encourage disciplinary research at the expense of teaching. He urges a national collaboration between elite and non-elite institutions to train and reward good teachers, certainly a worthwhile proposal. He thinks that computers and video games should be used widely to improve the quality of teaching and break down barriers between disciplines, and goes so far as to suggest that colleges and universities should be restructured to reflect the open and adaptable characteristics of computer networks.

He is especially keen to promote more cross-disciplinary activities that bring scholars from different fields—like art and physics or religion and international affairs—together to address new problems. There are many professors who resist such collaborations, preferring to focus on the subject matter in their disciplines. At the same time, and as Taylor notes, this kind of cross-disciplinary work has been going on for a long time on major campuses where new combinations of fields are continually evolving into new disciplines like regional science, biochemistry, the history of science, social psychology, and neuroscience. But these fields evolve out of existing disciplines and do not emerge de novo, as Taylor imagines that they can.

Eliminating Departments 

Crisis on Campus does have some ideas that are new and bold, but they are not necessarily constructive or practical. Taylor advances a bizarre proposal to eliminate permanent departments and reconstitute fields on the run to study particular subjects, such as water, time, money, law, and networks. After a few years, these fields would be dissolved, and professors and students would be dispersed to study new ones as they are formed. Graduate students could earn advanced degrees in any of these temporary fields, perhaps by producing films, video games, or websites in place of the traditional written dissertation.

In making such proposals, Taylor has let his imagination run far afield from the institutional realities of academic life. A college or university could never organize its affairs according to such a plan without turning its professors into dilettantes and its students into experts on the passing fashions of the hour. He expresses little appreciation for the way that scientists conduct their enterprise or how they establish new knowledge by painstaking, time-consuming research. It is good that some professors are given to flights of imagination, but also good that some have their feet planted firmly on the ground.

Nor is Taylor particularly sympathetic to the liberal arts as a discipline through which the lessons and achievements of the past are transmitted from generation to generation. He is an enthusiast for the new: new technologies, new ways of learning, new and untested patterns of academic organization. It is unusual to encounter a humanist and philosopher so completely enchanted with the possibilities of computers and online networks—undoubtedly a sign that he knows little about them. Taylor’s proposals would indeed “end the university as we know it.” Would that be a good thing? The university is in real need of reform and perhaps even an upheaval, but not of the kind that Taylor envisions.

Taylor is undoubtedly correct on one point: the financial crash and the long recession have put new pressures on colleges and universities to cut costs and eliminate superfluous programs and personnel. The “higher education bubble,” as he calls it, is bound to burst sooner or later, like the other “bubbles” we have seen. The contemporary university is to a great extent the product of a postwar American affluence that is gradually waning. Rising tuition, escalating salaries, administrative overload, and doubling and redoubling endowments are all reflections in one way or another of a steadily growing economy and a historic bull market in stocks (and the nation’s ability to borrow unlimited sums). As resources become harder to find, as families can no longer afford tuition prices, and as federal resources are withdrawn, college and university leaders will be hard pressed to maintain the gains of the past few decades. Many of the current excesses of higher education that grew out of affluence will be scaled back in an age of austerity.

* * *

A few preferred reforms in higher education based on the information contained in these three books would include these high on the list: (1) Shelve the utopian idea that every young person attend college, and along with it the dubious claim that the nation’s prosperity depends on universal college attendance. (2) Terminate nearly all Ph.D. programs in the humanities and most of them in the social sciences. (3) Replace them with postgraduate programs in the liberal arts that allow students to earn graduate degrees based upon teaching rather than research and permit them to master broad fields that cross existing disciplinary boundaries. (4) Reverse the expansion of administrative layers, especially offices and programs created to satisfy campus pressure groups. (5) Bring back general education requirements and core curricula to ensure that every undergraduate student is exposed to the important ideas in the humanities and sciences that have shaped our civilization.

No one should expect that any of these changes is likely to occur easily or soon. Despite the liberal outlook of most professors, higher education is one of the most conservative of enterprises and one of the most resistant to reform. In recent decades it has been marked more by dissolution and disintegration than by constructive reform. Most of the traditional organizational patterns inherited from the last century—specialized departments organized into colleges, tenure, graduate programs, and externally funded research—remain intact today. Colleges and universities of the future are likely to look much as they do today, except that they will operate with fewer resources and much narrower margins for excess.

This is an excerpt from James Piereson’s new book, Shattered Consensus, published by Encounter Books.


  • James Piereson

    James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and president of the board of directors of Minding the Campus.

    View all posts

5 thoughts on “How Our Universities Are Failing Us

  1. I also believe another great flaw is the lack of initiative encouraged among students. I’m not talking about the opportunities the institutions present, I’m talking about students who go out on their own motivation and curiosity to create something and learn something outside of their school, then bring it back to see actual impact on their academic record.

    Colleges have adopted a sort of “controlled space” policy where anything done beyond their established boundaries has no meaning to them. If they’re not an invested partner in your work, they don’t want you to do it. Do a good research paper through a college opportunity? Nice job. Do a good research paper on your own, with the same quality, and you’ll just get lip service because “policy guidelines” don’t allow them to reward your work.

    Colleges are hung up on bureaucracy and corporate administration. Higher education isn’t supposed to serve like high school, locking you into the campus and institution. It’s supposed to encourage students to seek knowledge through the guidance of their professors. When you don’t let students learn on their own, what use are they at any point in life? Most successful people are the ones who say “I don’t care what the policy says, I will do the work and make my contribution”. They’re the ones who don’t wait for a higher authority to give them an opportunity, permission, or certification to do something(albeit I refer to matters like research or taking initiative, not actual fields that one would need to be certified to ensure they don’t harm anybody).

    In simple, colleges today don’t want to provide an education. They want to control the education. Whatever you learn outside their walls doesn’t matter to them. Not much of a “liberal education” when you bury everything under vague rules and procedures nobody seems to understand(and I’d argue that accreditors contribute to this by serving as something of a 3rd party enforcer of guidelines that most have no power to provide their input on).

  2. AN EYEOPENER…sad but true and the past two generations are being brought up on cell phones, tablets, ipads and computers. Social skills are crumbling and we, the older generation, just sit, watch and pray they will become seniors sooner than later and will finally see the light!
    But we all know it will be to late.

  3. The cost of college is insane. I have two kids out of college, one in and another one in high school.

    The quality seems ok, but it is hard to justify the crazy tuition prices. There is no way it is all going into the class room

  4. Piereson loses me when he takes up the awful ideas of Arum and Roksa. That students aren’t learning anything. Actually, what they found is that students who pursue the traditional fields, the natural sciences, the humanities, the social sciences — actually learn quite a lot and do well on the CLA “critical thinking” test. The ideas to eliminate tenure and spin off research — terrible ideas. The idea that complete “adjunctification” of the faculty is financially necessary — a disastrous idea, and based on a false premise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *