Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

There is no shortage of higher education critics out there today. In fact, it is hard not to find someone who is not disappointed in American education. People will always complain that education is too pricey, too underfunded, too specialized, too generic, too exclusive, or too easy. It is difficult to understand the problems of higher education, especially when society as a whole cannot agree on the definition or function of education.

This book was written by two full-time writers who are also part-time professors. I expected this book to be another volume in the classic argument that we need to retreat back to the idealistic colleges of yesterday when students sat and learn and professors stood and spoke. I was pleasantly surprised when I found the authors asking real questions about the problems of higher education; however I found their supposed conclusions weak, shortsighted, and misinformed. Though they cite a fair number of sources, they definitely cherry pick throughout the book, finding anecdotes from students and faculty that support their case.

I agree that there are plenty of problems in higher education. Professors more concerned about research than instruction is an issue, but having a professor on the cutting edge of a particular field is an exhilarating piece of education. Having a huge network of support staff on campus can take a toll on the budget, but these staff members are ones guiding students through their college experience making sure students are retained.

There are a wide range of schools across this country: the outrageously expensive and the free, exclusive and open, urban and rural, and so on. I think the best analogy for higher education is the car buying experience. Today, cars cost a lot of money. Using the same style of arguments from the book, the authors would cite details such as stereo systems, heated seats, and CEO pay as to why our cars cost so much. They would recommend building a small car with no frills that simply could get you confidently to point A to point B. I’m sure many people would buy that car. However if a new car comes out with a few more features (let’s say air conditioning and a radio) that costs only a couple hundred dollars more,  I am sure a lot more people would buy that car.

The same thing happens in the higher education world. Every student, mom, and dad is looking for something different. Some people want the elite college experience. Some want the football town. Some want the small community feel. There are a large array of colleges and universities across this country because there is a large array of desires out there.

I think the authors ask some really great questions in this book, however I think they lack a basic understanding of the reality of American higher education.