IT IS ODD to think that we live in a time when the college model may be in the process of breaking apart. So much suggests that college has never been more successful. Record numbers of students graduate every year. Every graduating class is more diverse than the one that preceded it. Foreign students flock to American quads. Harvard economists tell us that the college degree has never been worth more, relative to the high school degree, than it is today. Bill Gates and President Obama call for a doubling of the proportion of young adults with college degrees over the next decade. We seem to be heading for the day when we won’t have enough commencement speakers to go around.
And yet other indicators suggest that the college experience has never been more imperiled. Tuition has been increasing faster than inflation for more than 30 years. Some economists have begun to argue that college costs more than it is worth. Studies like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift suggest that the bottom third of students are not developing their analytical skills or thought processes in college, largely because not much is required of them. The fastest-growing parts of college budgets have nothing directly to do with teaching, but instead go to administrators and student affairs staff. In their efforts to shift enrollments to two-year community colleges, politicians like Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal have stated flatly that “most future jobs [in America] will require more training than a high school diploma but less than the traditional 4-year college degree.” More radical still are plans to break up degree programs into distinct, definable skills and to award badges for successful acquisition of each skill. Even institutions like Harvard and Stanford are hedging their bets on the future of site-specific four-year baccalaureates by sponsoring ambitious online projects. Maybe those legions of commencement speakers won’t be necessary after all.
The ideal image of college remains that of a four-year experience, offered to young adults over the age of 17 who have successfully completed a secondary school education. It is located on a physical campus setting, and places a high value on the face-to-face interaction of professors and students, which is thought to be essential to the process of students’ intellectual and personal growth. It involves intensive study in the classroom, laboratory, and library, under the tutelage of teachers with doctoral degrees, as well as opportunities for personal development through participation in student-led organizations. The purpose of this experience is the creation of more intelligent members of society. For this reason, the experience is open to students from all socio-economic backgrounds, provided that they have shown the motivation and mental capacity to gain from it. Above all, it is not intended to be simply a preparation for work, but a time to “find oneself” and to develop the interests, the ways of seeing, and the spirit that will carry one forward in life. The history and defense of this ideal is at the heart of Andrew Delbanco’s new book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.
For most of American history this experience was limited to the children of the economic and cultural elite, plus a few highly-motivated scholarship students. The American project to provide college for the masses is a phenomenon of the 1950s and 19...read more