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Guidance Counselors

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have written a scathing populist attack on higher education that has something for everyone. Angry right-wing populists will like the argument that fancy institutions are not worth their price; and that snobby liberal professors are overpaid and under-worked and should be stripped of tenure; and that bureaucrats have proliferated beyond reason. And the book will please angry left-wing populists who believe it is unfair for universities to rely increasingly on adjunct teachers (who are paid a fraction of what full professors make), and complain that universities fix prices, and think it is outrageous that wealthy students outnumber the poor on selective campuses by a ratio of 25:1.         

Higher Education? is, in other words, brilliantly timed for the spirit of the Great Recession, but the book itself is highly uneven. It is rather reminiscent of a freshman bull session. It is filled with both flashes of insight and half-baked ideas unencumbered by research findings. Their recommendation that students begin at community college and then transfer to four year institutions is irresponsible. And their call for professors to focus on students rather than research would undermine an important purpose of the modern university. 

But first the good news. Hacker, a political science professor at Queens College and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and Dreifus, an adjunct professor at Columbia University and a writer for the New York Times, communicate in a clear, direct and lively manner. Several of their complaints are right on target. They are on solid ground, for example, in attacking the tremendous economic disparities on college campuses, particularly in elite institutions. Tuition, room, and board at selective private colleges hover around $50,000 a year, which, the authors note, is “almost two-thirds the after-tax income of the typical household with college-age offspring.”  

Despite these costs, at many institutions more than half of students come from families wealthy enough to pay the entire bill. At Duke, 63 percent pay full freight; at Yale, 58 percent; at Stanford, 57 percent; at Brown, 59 percent. Meanwhile, only about one in ten students at Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Middlebury, Colby, and Davidson receive federal Pell Grants, which are normally reserved for families making less than $45,000. According to a study by the Century Foundation in 2004, 74 percent of students at the most selective 146 institutions come from the richest socio-economic quarter of the population, and just 3 percent from the poorest quarter.          

Hacker and Dreifus are also right to be suspicious about price setting by colleges and universities. Noting Kenyon College’s $40,240 tuition fee in 2009, they observe that “the Sherman Antitrust Act aside, pretty much all the private liberal arts colleges in its class charge strikingly similar fees. For example: Reed, $39,700; Hamilton, $39,760; Carleton, $39,777; Franklin & Marshall, $39,980; Bowdoin, $40,020.” Catering to a wealthy clientele, some colleges have actually decided to impose substantial tuition increases because more modest prices were seen as an indicator of lower quality. Sure enough, following these increases applications rose.           

Hacker and Dreifus’s complaint that too many colleges waste money on proliferating bureaucracies, fancy food courts, and sports coaches is also legitimate. Whereas cafeterias used to provide a set menu, today “at Bowdoin, there’s a chef who prepares butternut squash soup, Dijon chicken, and vegetable polenta for incipient epicures.” Sports teams almost always lose money, they note, but almost always receive lavish subsidies. At Williams, there are ten salaried football coaches, more than the number of professors in the physics department.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities are cutting costs in the one area they should leave alone: shifting teaching duties from full-time faculty to part-time teaching assistants and adjunct professors. Between 1975 and today, the proportion of college teachers classified as contingent increased from 43 percent to nearly 70 percent, according to the Department of Education. In one extreme case, Missouri’s Moberly College, there are 254 adjuncts and instructors, and just three professors. Adjuncts and teaching assistants receive about one-sixth the pay as full-time faculty members. With the per-hour rate for instructors as low as $8.65, colleges have, according to one university administrator, “helped create a highly educated part of the working poor.” Yet efforts to unionize graduate instructors have been strongly resisted by otherwise liberal institutions such as Yale. Indeed, many colleges are embracing distance learning to cut instructional costs further.           

But their populist rage sometimes gets the better of Hacker and Dreifus. For a start, they argue that well-known four-year colleges are not worth the cost, and suggest that budget-conscious students should begin with community college and then transfer to four-year institutions. Such advice sounds plausible and compassionate, but it ignores important research on the dangers of “undermatching,” which finds that students are far more likely to graduate if they attend more selective institutions, which have greater resources to help students cross the finish line. Only 10 percent of students who begin a community college eventually earn a four-year bachelor’s degree.

The authors are likewise too dismissive of what they call the “Golden Dozen,” the twelve institutions about which upper-middle class parents are obsessed: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, and Williams. These institutions fail to produce leaders, Hacker and Dreifus claim, pointing to the fact that only 26 of 934 living individuals who entered as the Princeton class of '73 merit mention in Who’s Who in America. The authors recommend instead their own top ten list of colleges which are cheaper and often provide better teaching, including lesser known institutions such as Raritan Valley Community College, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Western Oregon University and Evergreen State College           

In making these recommendations, Hacker and Dreifus ignore extensive research on the value of attending selective and wealthier universities and colleges. Thomas Dye’s research has found that 54 percent of America’s corporate leaders and 42 percent of government leaders are graduates of just twelve institutions—eight of which overlap with Hacker and Dreifus’s Golden Dozen. And while it may seem a bargain to attend a less selective and less expensive college or university, this view ignores the enormous subsidies provided by selective institutions. Colleges with low selectivity spend about $12,000 per student, compared with $92,000 per student at the most selective institutions; and per-pupil subsidies at selective universities are eight times greater than at non-selective institutions. (In the wealthiest 10 percent of institutions, students pay $0.20 for each $1 spent on them, compared with poorest 10 percent of colleges, where students pay $0.78 for each $1 spent on them.) Hacker and Dreifus’s own analysis of acceptance rates at Harvard Law School finds that the best odds come from attending 11 of the 12 Golden Dozen undergraduate schools. (Penn was the exception.)  

The authors’ attack on tenure also seems overblown. Hacker and Dreifus argue that assistant professors censor themselves in order to get tenure, and that tenured faculty disproportionately consume university resources without being held accountable. Besides, tenure is a “feeble shield” against political meddling, pointing to the case of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who said that the victims of September 11 were “little Eichmanns” and was fired after it was revealed that his scholarship included fabricated sources. But tenure has long provided administrators with important political cover not to fire professors with unpopular views: if Churchill had not committed fraud, he would have been protected.         

Hacker and Dreifus’s argument that professors do not focus enough on teaching, and their proposal that universities “shed their research components,” also seems off the mark. They blame extraordinary dropout rates—one quarter to one-third of college freshmen don’t return—on bad teaching. They do not cite any evidence that poor teaching is to blame, nor do they explain why a place such as Harvard (whose teaching they call “pretty poor”) has extraordinary graduation rates. In fact, research suggests that financial pressure on students who have to work full time jobs in addition to attending school is a critical factor in explaining high dropout rates.

There is a serious and legitimate debate to be had about whether the primary purpose of the university should be to teach students or to advance research. The editors of the Washington Monthly magazine, which ranks universities on their social utility, have argued that research is a fundamental way in which universities benefit society as a whole. But a reader looking for a serious discussion of the tradeoffs between teaching and research will not find it in this overheated and somewhat demagogic book.

Hacker and Dreifus’s populist anger about issues such as inequality of opportunity that results in grossly unequal access to great universities is valuable. But their faux populism is exactly what the debate about American higher education does not need. It is not true that mediocre institutions are just as good as the best colleges, and that universities are only about the students. Higher Education? is more a document of its inflamed time than a corrective to it.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is the editor of Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College.