Can college be saved?

With rising tuition, dropping enrollment and funding, the future looks grim. An expert explains why it need not be

Topics: Education,

Can college be saved? (Credit: hxdbzxy via Shutterstock/Salon)

During the 20th century, the American college held a vaunted position. It was the mark of a successful upbringing, and the launching pad from a bright childhood to a promising future. In the past few years, however, the idea of college seems to have lost its way. With rising tuition, the need to attain specialized knowledge earlier and earlier, and the massive funding cuts to state institutions, college has become more precarious, isolated and marginal. While undergraduate students will exceed a record 20 million within five years, only a small fraction will experience college in the traditional sense. Most will either attend online or vocational programs, and, at most, only 40 percent will get a degree — and, on average, a college graduate will incur more than $25,000 in student debt. In his new book, “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco acknowledges that the hour is late, but there’s still time to save this valuable institution.

By tracing the history of the American college back to its founding by Protestant congregations looking to fashion constructive members of the community, to its transition to forgotten parts of larger universities, Delbanco illustrates how fundamental college has been to the prosperity of the country. He laments the ways that colleges have ceased to make substantial attempts to offer an education to students of every socioeconomic background, and how more often than not, they just mirror the existing hierarchy. At times a history lesson, an elegy, and a call-to-arms, “College” looks to jump-start a discussion of the importance of a liberal arts education, and why Americans still need the time in life to contemplate a meaningful life.

Salon spoke with Delbanco about why colleges are an endangered species, Obama’s community college initiative, and the possible demise of our democracy.

You point out that only one in 14 American undergraduates attend independent private liberal arts colleges. Isn’t college, as we have conceived it in the past, already obsolete?

I hope it’s not becoming obsolete, but there’s no doubt that I wrote this book in part because it is in real danger. If you want a thumbnail description of what this book is, I would say that it’s the biography of an endangered institution.

You describe it as a funeral dirge.

No. I try to distinguish it from the funeral dirges we are hearing all around us about the future of the American college. There is a lot of end-of-the world talk out there, but I’m not prepared to take that point of view. The American college can and must be defended. In fact, the rest of the world is becoming more and more interested in the model of the American liberal arts college even as we are throwing up our hands and saying, “We can’t afford this anymore, this doesn’t work anymore.” If my book makes a difference, I hope it will be because of its effort to crystallize and articulate what is so valuable about the American college, and to make us think long and hard before we let it disappear. We still have a lot of thriving colleges, we still have a lot of students who are getting a very excellent experience in college. I would like to see more students get it, rather than fewer, and we should resist the forces that are undermining the chance of that happening. I hope this book doesn’t come across as fatalistic or pessimistic. I hope it is understood as a call to arms.

In this era of extreme specialization of knowledge, why is college, and a broader understanding of the humanities, still necessary?

Academic specialization has been taking hold earlier and earlier among undergraduates, and there are a lot of understandable reasons for that. Students are concerned about getting the credentials and skills they need for graduate school or for entering a profession that requires advanced capabilities. Parents are worried whether the money they’re investing is well spent and whether their children will come out with good prospects. Another factor is the enormous expansion of knowledge, especially in science, which means one can only be truly competent in a narrower area than in the past. So I understand the reasons students feel compelled to specialize early, but I think there is something valuable lost when we give in to these pressures — namely, what college has traditionally provided: the opportunity for young people to make a pause between adolescence and adulthood, to reflect on life, on their choices, on who they are or want to be. We don’t want to lose that precious chance — what the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls “the gift of interval.” In my mind, that gift is the essence of the American college and what has made it an important institution in the world.

You argue that college should be a place where young people expose themselves to the ideas that help them lead a meaningful life. Why are colleges the best way to facilitate this exposure?

Of course they’re not the only way. We all live in multiple contexts in which we work out the kind of life we want to lead. Family, church, synagogue, friendships, the workplace — all of these can be vital and life-changing. But college has some unique advantages in helping young people achieve the goal of self-knowledge and we ought to beware of letting those advantages slip away. Colleges, when they work well, are places where young people from different backgrounds converge and learn from one another.

One of the points I mention in this book is that the idea of diversity, which we think of as a modern or contemporary idea, has, in fact, always been an element of what the American college is about. It goes back to the early Protestant churches from which our oldest colleges emerge — churches in which membership was defined as having the capacity to “edify” other members of the community. In other words, you were admitted to the church because you had something to bring to the community — not just something to take from it. And that’s still supposed to be the premise that every admission officer works from in asking of every candidate, “What is this person going to bring to this class?” A college, when it’s working well, should be a place where young people interact with other people whose experiences are different from their own — a place where you consider other perspectives before you formulate your own. It’s a place for forming what might be called the democratic self. College is never going to be the only place where people begin to forge a meaningful life, but I think it’s contributed very significantly to those efforts for a long time, and we should be worried if it ceases to do so.

According to your book, college seems to be reinforcing the established hierarchy, with low-income and minorities underrepresented. What can be done to remedy this while keeping independent colleges solvent?

This is a very complicated question. One thing I try to make clear is that there are no silver bullets, there are no one-sentence answers to the very big problems that colleges face. Still, I think it’s imperative to recognize what the problems are. We need to lift our heads out from the sand, and stop pretending we don’t have some serious problems. The truth is, the challenges facing students from low-income backgrounds must be addressed from multiple directions. For the very wealthiest private colleges that have large endowments, I feel comfortable in saying that all of them can do better in opening their doors to talented applicants from low-income backgrounds. Some of them are trying harder than others, and some of them deserve praise for what they’ve been able to do in the last 10 or 20 years, but they could all be doing better. For the wealthiest institutions, there’s no threat to their solvency if they take certain steps to increase the numbers of students from low-income backgrounds.

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Public institutions have different problems. All the way from the four-year flagship state universities to the two-year community colleges that are so important to first-generation students, they’re all struggling because they’re not receiving the tax revenues they need to keep their tuition down and to provide the best possible educational experience for their students. This is a problem of political priorities. And it’s not an easy problem. It’s easy to wag the finger at the state legislators or the governor and say, “You people don’t understand the value of education.” I don’t take that point of view. These people are trying to figure out how to pay Medicaid, keep the police department running, how to allocate scarce tax revenues to essential services. What we have to hope for is that as we come out of the economic recession, and we have a little bit more breathing room, we continue a more informed conversation about how important post-secondary education is to the future of our country.

President Obama has already gotten that conversation going, and I’m all for that. The broader point is that the challenges that low-income students face are multiple and various so the solutions are multiple and various. They will have to come from different directions, depending on the type of institutions we’re talking about. Community colleges need to be better funded, and the wealthy institutions need to be more serious about making available opportunities for the economically disadvantaged.

In some ways, the schools that face the toughest challenge are the less wealthy, private colleges. One point that is not well understood is that, in fact, even those students who pay “full tuition” at a private college are not paying for the entire cost of their education. It would be very helpful if more people understood this fundamental point.. Another way to put it is to say that, if you’re in business, you set the price of your product above the cost of manufacturing the product. That’s how you make a profit. If you’re in the nonprofit world of education, however, you are setting your price below cost. This is surprising to a lot of people, because college seems very expensive. But if you actually think about all the things that students get at most private colleges, they not only get instruction (tuition) from the faculty, they get athletic facilities, career and psychological counseling, dining services, dorm accommodations, opportunities to participate in theater or the arts or scientific laboratories, campus security — all kinds of services that if they were provided when you check into a hotel, you wouldn’t be surprised if the price of the room is high. So, in fact, colleges are in the businesses of giving away more than they charge for.

Those colleges that don’t have very substantial endowments, which is true of the great majority of American private colleges, are running a pretty tight operation. They are scrambling for money from their alumni, from their local communities to support what they provide for their students. It’s very hard for them to admit more students than they already do who are paying an even smaller proportion of what it costs to educate them. So the commitment to support more low-income students requires making a distinction between short-term cost and long-term gain. One argument you can make in favor of adding more low-income students is that historically some of the most generous donors to our colleges have been those alumni who, when they were students, received financial aid. At Columbia, where I teach, the largest donor in the history of the university is John Kluge, who went to the college on financial aid. So if you make the investment upfront, and admit more low-income students, there’s a good chance you’ll get a return on that investment down the road. That’s not the most public-spirited argument in favor of providing support for more low-income students — but it’s an argument.

You point out that many writers have declared college “at risk” before. Why is now different?

One needs to be wary of the end-of-the-world narrative. Despite appearances to the contrary (all those liberal professors, etc.) academia is actually an inherently conservative world. Faculties and administrators tend to think that the way things used to be is the way things should always be. I’m trying to walk a fine line here. Academia is going to change. Technology is going to become more and more a part of the educational experience. American colleges are going to become more global in their students and their orientation. The classical languages are never going to return to the center of the college curriculum.

However, there are certain fundamental principles at the heart of the college that we should be very careful about preserving, such as the small class experience, which I think has certain incomparable advantages for the education of young people and it’s very hard for me to imagine how distance learning of any kind could re-create what the small class, at its best, can provide. The chance to have civil discourse and debate with people with whom you disagree, to learn to listen and consider arguments rather than just put forward opinions. These are the things that happen in a good, small class under the direction of an informed and engaged teacher. I’m not prescribing what the subject of that class should be or saying that there are only five great books that students must read in that class, but I think that giving up the format as an obsolete or tired form of education would be a great error.

I also do believe that reading certain texts that express the fundamental ideas on which our culture is based — the ideas of experimental science, of a society based on laws rather than on the arbitrary power of high-placed persons, the power of free markets and yet the idea that free markets need regulation — these are very important ideas that every citizen needs to understand. They can have different points of view about them, they can see the pros and cons about them, but they need to understand the basic ideas and where they came from. It should be the goal of every college to educate students to become informed and thoughtful citizens. There’s a lot of wisdom in the past that we should be careful about disregarding,

Why are other countries becoming interested in our liberal arts model?

The United States had a very impressive record in the 20th century. It became the dominant power in the world — economically, militarily and culturally. Leaders and educators in other countries draw the conclusion, correctly, that one explanation for the great vibrancy and vitality of the United States has been the strength of our post-secondary education. It opened its doors wider and wider throughout the past century and, by and large, stuck with the idea that students should not immediately specialize, that they shouldn’t necessarily make up their minds when they’re 17 or 18 what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives. This idea seems to have worked pretty well for the United States. We’ve created a population that’s creative and adaptable. We still have the most creative science in the world, a vibrant culture and resilient economy — and surely part of the reason is the success of our educational system. I think it’s a considerable irony that as countries like China and India look to our educational system as a model, we seem to want to go in the other direction — toward narrower training and earlier specialization. We should be building on our success rather than reversing it.

What do you think of Obama’s push to promote community colleges? Do you feel that they can offer the same benefits for disadvantaged students as a liberal arts college does for the better off?

I’m very supportive of President Obama’s push for community colleges. I visited a lot of colleges while writing this book, including quite a number of community colleges, and I’ve always been tremendously impressed by the vitality and drive of the students I’ve met there. Community colleges are filled with students who are making big sacrifices to get themselves an education. A lot of the students are older, and one of the things we have to realize is that college is no longer exclusively for young people coming straight out of high school. Many college students today — especially those in community colleges — already have a family, are holding down a job — all at the same time they are trying to get further education.

Community colleges are extremely important institutions for the future of the United States. We don’t want to make a distinction here and say, “The four-year college ise the only place where people get the great education, while the community colleges are for people who can’t afford a broad education, and who just need immediate skills in order to enter the job market.” If you talk to the leaders of the great community colleges — I’m thinking particularly of someone like Eduardo Padron at Miami Dade Community College — they would make a strong case for the importance of a liberal education for all students and not just those at four-year institutions.

One of the things that the four-year colleges need to do is to admit more students from community colleges. We don’t want a track system in this country, whereby you are told when you’re 15 or 16 what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. In this country, we have always believed that people should have the opportunity for second chances, that people mature at different stages of life, discover new interests. We don’t want to close down those possibilities. We want to open them up.

In the book, you make the case that a liberal arts education is incredibly important to our democracy. It allows graduates to discern the difference between truth and lies. How detrimental would the demise of college be to our democracy?

My friends who work in sociology always warn me about confusing cause and correlation. Yet I think most people would agree, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, that the public discourse in this country has been declining rather than improving in recent years. I would suggest that there might be some correlation between that decline and the degree to which our commitment is weakening to the kind of education I’m talking about. I tend to trust the public more than politicians, but too many politicians try to get the conversation down to the lowest possible denominator and reduce the conversation to slogans and sneers. If you have an educated citizenry, they will recognize that. That’s the bedrock tenet of our democracy. We cannot have a thriving democracy without an educated citizenry. If college works as it should, you will have more citizens who can tell the difference between panderers trying to sell you a bill of goods and someone who is making a reasoned argument and respecting you as a thinking human being. If we don’t have a citizenry like that, we can just close up our democracy. That’s perhaps the biggest reason we should all be concerned about the future of college as an institution.

How do large universities short-change their college students?

This is an old problem. As Clark Kerr put it in his famous book, “The Uses of a University,” “A superior faculty can mean an inferior undergraduate experience.” The reason he says that is because universities became, in the second half of the 20th century, the central location for advanced research, especially in the sciences. The federal government decided it was going to make its investment in research through our universities — not through separate, government-funded research institutes, as is the case in Europe. That plan has worked tremendously well, and is one of the reasons why our universities are always at the top of the world rankings.

I’m not interested in undercutting that kind of excellence; however, we have to face the fact that one consequence of this system is that the rewards and incentives for individual faculty members have almost everything to do with research and nothing to do with teaching. This is just the fact of life in American higher education — especially in the “elite” universities. So we have to be conscious of the fact that undergraduates who find themselves in a large research university are not the first priority. There are things that can be done to mitigate this problem — certain relatively small-scale things that can be done to counter this trend and to improve undergraduate education. When we train graduate students, for example, we can pay more attention to their development as teachers then we do now. We can expect them to value teaching undergraduate students, no matter what their field of study may be. Every research university should have a cabinet-level position in the president’s inner circle whose priority is undergraduate education. And we can do more to help graduate students — the future faculty — become better teachers.

In my book I quote a great chemist at Cornell, Roald Hoffman, who makes the case that some of his best scientific ideas emerged when he was teaching introductory science classes. I can speak from experience, and say that my own undergraduate teaching has been very critical for my own work. We should do what we can to break down the idea that there is a fundamental opposition between teaching and research. There’s always going to be more research than teaching in a large university, but if we can change the emphasis even a little, it can make a big difference.

What do you think of government subsidies for for-profit colleges?

I’m very suspicious of the for-profit colleges. The best argument for them is that they can provide an educational service that nonprofits can no longer provide for an adequate number of people because of cutbacks in public support for education. Theoretically if a for-profit is run well and responsibly, that could be true. But, there is a lot of evidence that many for-profit colleges are, in fact, businesses parading as universities. I’ve met young people who have been very disappointed with their experiences with for-profit universities. We need to scrutinize the for-profits very closely and they need to be better regulated. I am very leery of the idea that they represent the solution to the problem that I’m talking about.

Max Rivlin-Nadler is a freelance writer who has covered culture and politics for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and Gawker.

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