What Ails the Academy?

American higher education and its discontents

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

From the perspective of Harvard Yard—or Yale’s Old Campus, Swarthmore’s sloping lawn, or Stanford’s Main Quad—higher education presents a pleasing prospect: lively students; lovely buildings; an otherworldly serenity (most of the time); visible evidence of stability and strength, and the promise of progress and prosperity. 

But shift the view. Away from the elite, selective universities and colleges that host a single-digit percent of American higher-education seekers, the scene changes utterly: soaring public tuitions and student debt; abysmal rates of degree completion; queues for introductory classes and required courses, often taught by migratory adjuncts; fraught battles pitting liberal learning and education for citizenship against pragmatic focus on vocational training; a stagnant or falling rate of attainment among the population as a whole.

The distressing features of this much larger part of the higher-education industry have spawned a critical, even dire, literature that merits attention for its own sake—and because the issues echo in the elite stratum, too. And for those seeking entry to the top-tier institutions, the ever more frenzied admissions lottery has begun to provoke overdue skepticism. Herewith, an overview of some recent books with heft.

 Featured Books 

Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars, Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins, $34.95)

Kevin Carey, The End of College (Riverhead Books, $27.95)

Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be (Grand Central, $25)

Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy (Beacon, $24.95)


Michael M. Crow, former executive vice provost at Columbia, has since 2002 been president of Arizona State University (ASU), at the center of the public-university problem: rising demand to enroll, and plummeting state funds to pay the bills. He has written and spoken indefatigably about important issues. At the forefront is the need to educate the population at large, given that “our success in maintaining excellence in a relative handful of elite institutions does little to ensure our continued prosperity and competitiveness, especially if we stop to consider the disproportionately few students fortunate enough to be admitted to these top schools.” ASU measures itself “not by those whom we exclude, but rather by those whom we include.” He demands that legacy organizations (academic departments, for example) adapt to better meet modern, interdisciplinary challenges. And he champions “use-inspired research” of immediate, practical import (as opposed to, and alongside, curiosity-driven, basic inquiries).

In pursuit of these aims, Crow claims to have set ASU on a fresh trajectory, what he terms the “New American University,” and has helped to organize the “University Innovation Alliance” of 11 major public institutions: a coalition dedicated to the genuinely essential mission of “making quality college degrees accessible to a diverse body of students,” particularly “large numbers of first generation, low-income students.” In a new category of its annual rankings, U.S. News & World Report put ASU atop its “most innovative schools.”

Crow and William B. Dabars have pulled his ideas together in Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins, $34.95), intended as an inspiration and a road map for quick-marching higher education into the twenty-first century. Given the urgency of the issues raised and Crow’s prominence in doing so, the result is, unfortunately, a missed opportunity.

The text alone will dismay lay readers, and tax even committed educators. Take one representative sample: “As the central nodes of an integrative discovery and commercialization network, research universities are key institutional actors in national systems of innovation, a concept that encompasses theoretical and analytical frameworks for the interrelationships between entities that determine the rate and direction of innovation.” The legislator eager to encourage growth may find her attention wandering, and it is hard to imagine how faculty members might respond to this vision.

But the substantive shortcomings matter more. For all their emphasis on the “design process” that is supposed to undergird the refashioning of universities, Crow and Dabars remain frustratingly silent on how to do so. The chapter on ASU during Crow’s tenure lists examples of departments joined in thematic and multidisciplinary entities, but offers little insight about either the results or other paths toward interfaculty collaboration. The larger question posed by “disruptive innovation” theorists Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn (see “Colleges in Crisis,” July-August 2011, page 40)—whether universities will be forced to separate their research, teaching, and civic-preparedness functions—is never addressed head-on. Should ASU be a research university, or is remaining so a legacy issue too politically costly to raise with faculty members and the public officials who control the purse strings? Finally, Designing the New American University simply has too little to say about teaching, which is at the core of ASU’s self-identified mandate to become “an adaptive knowledge enterprise in real time and at scale”—especially given its aggressive, extensive use of technologically based teaching, and its ambition to enroll 100,000 “online and distance-education degree-seeking students.”

The potential of online education itself is the subject of The End of College (Riverhead Books, $27.95), a journalistic tour of the evolving technology of teaching by Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation, a frequent contributor to The New York Times and other media. Carey’s title may suggest a fatal, and unwanted, disassembling of higher education, à la Christensen—and he is indeed critical of the high cost and poor quality of much undergraduate instruction. But his subtitle points in the more positive, or utopian, direction of “Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.” In his UofE, unanchored from, say, desert Arizona, “education resources that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free” through digital pipelines. Admissions “will become an anachronism” because the UofE will be “open to everyone” on Earth. Learning this way “will be challenging,” with “no more ‘gentleman’s Cs,’ no grade inflation, no more slacking through adolescence.” And traditional credentials, based on course units and credit hours, “will fade into memory,” with two- and four-year degrees superseded by students accumulating “digital evidence of their learning throughout their lives.” 

Perhaps. One online pioneer, Udacity, has segued from providing massive open online course (MOOC) versions of college classes to fee-based instruction on computer programming, Coursera is venture-funded as a for-profit enterprise, and the Harvard-MIT edX online venture is certainly interested in generating revenue to offset the huge costs of creating its courses, at a minimum. (HBX, Harvard Business School’s separate online venture, is already fee-based, and poised to earn significant revenue on its own and through its new venture with the Extension School.)

Lots of those prospective learners around the world lack reliable Internet access, sufficient prior preparation, or the language skills to take advantage of the courses now on offer. As for rigor and integrity: in August, Harvard and MIT researchers identified a new form of cheating on edX courses, in which registrants create multiple accounts to get the right answers to online exercises—particularly in pursuit of an online credential. And thus far, acceptance of credentials from general online courses (as opposed to those nested within a distance-degree program, or a specifically vocational offering like Udacity’s “nanodegrees”) is nil.

But those caveats about today aside, Carey validly aims for the not-too-distant future. He is sharp on the Ph.D. culture that understandably prioritizes the creation of knowledge, but often sells teacher training woefully short, making “many American universities…grotesquely expensive and shamefully indifferent to undergraduate learning.” He appreciates the research enterprise, and in fact helpfully guides readers to Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and elsewhere, to introduce pioneers in computing and cognitive science whose discoveries make it possible to envision major advances in learning.

He is vivid on “the fundamental difference between computers and every other kind of information technology that came before them”: the distinctions between earlier advances in information storage (books, film) and movement (postal-enabled correspondence courses, radio, TV), and, now, information processing, adaptive artificial intelligence, and so on. In the future, but not the indefinite future, online learning will go beyond recorded lectures and even the interactive exercises they now contain to something much better, he believes, finally addressing “the two most important aspects of college: how much it cost and how students learned”—both lamentably unaffected to date.

This vision, beyond the current crops of MOOCs, ultimately extends to transferring certification of learning—the transcript, the diploma—from institutions to the individual learners themselves, “[o]vercoming the college diploma’s tick-like embeddedness in the labor market.” The result, Carey thinks, will be remarkably positive for humanity, but not so much for the current “inefficient hybrid university model” whose hidden costs and internal subsidies are “a feature, not a bug.” Thus, back to the Christensen disruptions looming on the horizon.


The challenges that engage Crow and Carey resonate throughout higher education, although thus far with diminished force among the best-endowed, most competitively funded research universities and colleges. For earnest high-school students and their tense parents, the biggest concern is not elite institutions’ viability, but how to get a fat envelope or its e-mail equivalent.

By almost any metric, the process has become unhinged. As admissions rates plunge toward 5 percent (recent Stanford and Harvard classes) and the common application facilitates applying, students who formerly aimed for half a dozen schools routinely send checks off to a score. Standardized-test preparation is a multibillion-dollar industry—and obviously disadvantages lower-income applicants. No parent who knows children in a good prep school, or even a good suburban school system, is unaware of the phonied-up public-service “experience,” often paid for, the chief aim of which is buffing up an essay, world betterment be damned. The New York Times, knowing its readership, blogs about admissions, and is now sponsoring a for-fee conference about it. None of this brings credit to anyone, and none of it produces much of worth for society.

One response aims at the students and parents who find themselves mid-frenzy. Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be (Grand Central, $25), by Times columnist Frank Bruni, offers itself as an “antidote” to the mania. He skewers the “industrialization of the…admission process” with its “Ivory Tower porn” marketing and, to extend the metaphor, “fluffing” of candidates. For those whose efforts fall short, the “great, brutal culling” of rejection falls with the deadly weight of a “conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, a binding verdict on the life that he or she has led up until that point.” As if admission, and not the effect of the ensuing education, wherever obtained, were the point of the exercise—sort of like confusing childbirth with the subsequent decades of the new life itself.

Bruni is a reporter; much of what he does most usefully is report on the lives of people, in every walk of life, who went to less than gilt-edged colleges (some you never dreamed of), learned a great deal, and succeeded in engaging, productive, worthwhile lives. He also reveals his own collegiate secret: after prepping at Loomis Chaffee, he turned down Yale to enroll at the University of North Carolina (his siblings went to Amherst, Dartmouth, and Princeton)—and had an absolutely foundational, broadening education. He observes the virtue of pursuing a life that does not unfold in a straight line—resisting the false, and unfair, presumption that “life yields to meticulous recipes.” And he has intriguing things to say about an era of personal “brands” in which “everything imaginable is subdivided into microclimates of privilege and validation”—including higher education, “with needlessly hurtful consequences” that begin with deflated teenagers and their parents, and can end with utterly warped life priorities.

Lani Guinier looks beyond Bruni’s personal narratives and advice to the societal consequences of college admissions as the ultimate funneling device. In The Tyranny of the Meritocracy (Beacon, $24.95), the Boskey professor of law advances a broad argument about the definition of merit as social benefit rather than as individual accomplishment, and the role of inclusiveness in strengthening the civic fabric and better addressing human problems.

Focusing on the SAT as a proxy for credentials, and on admissions to selective schools (which she knows as student at Radcliffe and Yale Law, as professor, and as Yale College parent), she goes after the “testocracy, a twenty-first-century cult of standardized, quantifiable merit [that] values perfect scores but ignores character.” Its sway not only excludes those whose life circumstances and means disadvantage them in test-taking (see Bruni’s “fluffing”), but devalues “democratic merit,” an “incentive system that emphasizes not just the possession of individual talent and related personal success but also the ability to collaborate and the commitment to building a better society for more people.”

One need not accept the wider argument to acknowledge Guinier’s focus on the defects, from society’s perspective, of the Darwinian, quantitative admissions process: “Meaningful participation in a democratic society depends upon citizens who are willing to develop and utilize these three skills: collaborative problem solving, independent thinking, and creative leadership. But these skills bear no relationship to success in the testocracy.” Her examples of programs and teaching practices that elicit leadership skills and learning gains underscore the narrowness of rote testing, much grading, and many of the winnowing devices that make deluged admissions officers’ lives simpler—but perhaps deliver little else of value.

In a way, Guinier is attempting to return education to its first principles. In the final exam for a Harvard Law class, she permits (but does not require) students to work in small groups, modeling the way she has practiced law in collaboration with colleagues—a small instance of testing “as a learning opportunity rather than just a judging opportunity.” Her larger point is that an educational institution’s success “is measured by the skills and contributions of its graduates, not its admitted students.” It is distressing to have to be reminded that that is true value-added—the antithesis of admissions as personal branding.

Bruni begs students and parents to change their behavior within the application process. Guinier would reengineer the system itself. Both refocus on the aims of education, rather than the winner-takes-all admissions gauntlet, with its many individual losers and diminished prospects for social gain. What that education will look and feel like in elite institutions is relatively familiar, at least for the nonce. But for the vast majority of students in the vast majority of less selective schools, the terrain is shifting in face of economic pressure and technological opportunity, from Arizona to the U of Everywhere.  

John S. Rosenberg is editor of Harvard Magazine

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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