3 Problems with "Higher Education?"

February 3, 2011

I recommend that you read Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus.
This is a brave book with some big problems. "Higher Education?" is equal parts insightful and overly simplistic. A more nuanced, contextualized, historical, and sympathetic view of higher education would have increased the power of the authors critiques, and provided opportunities for more realistic recommendations for reform.

3 Problems With "Higher Education?":

The Professors: Professors do not come off very well in this book. Hacker and Dreifus argue that they are coddled and incurious, too often lazy and irrelevant. This description simply does not square with my working experience as an undergraduate, graduate student, professor, and administrator at 5 very different institutions. The vast majority of the faculty I have known and work with today are passionate about their disciplines and enthusiastic educators. One thing that I'm eternally grateful for is having worked for a time outside of academia in the publishing / technology world. When you step out of academia you realize that mediocrity exists at every level and ever industry, but I think less so with academia. If you go and look for bad apples, as Hacker and Dreifus did, you will find them in every profession. I'm continuously inspired and enthralled by the dedication, brain power, and effectiveness of the faculty that I work with each day.

Educational Technology: The most atrocious and unforgivable section of "Higher Education?" is the chapter on educational technology and online learning. Hacker and Dreifus completely miss the story of how technology has created an opportunity through higher education to re-examine and re-engineer teaching and learning. When education and technology professionals partner with faculty to design on-ground, blended or online courses the emphasis is always on learning. The authors take an extreme example from Florida Gulf Coast University and call it representative of all course redesign and technology assisted learning. The sheer laziness of the Hacker and Dreifus to ignore the revolution in teaching and learning that is occurring as a result of technology opening up new economic and pedagogical models in higher ed is difficult to forgive.

The Economics: The major message of "Higher Education?" is that "colleges are wasting our money", that the costs do not justify the product that is being delivered. Hacker and Dreifus believe that this value mismatch is due to a system that privileges research above teaching, administrators above educators, high priced but low productivity tenured professors over hard working junior faculty and adjuncts, athletics over learning, and tenured faculty over students. While I would not argue that we have created an academic utopia, I do believe that our (admittedly flawed) system of higher education is superior to any other system that I know of. Yes, costs are a problem. And yes, a focus on learning and students is essential. But the strength of our system of higher ed rests in its diversity and ability to evolve. I don't know of many educators who would argue for the status quo - we are all working to improve our own institutions and the system in which we are a part. The major problem in U.S. higher ed is not too much money devoted to this sector, but too little. We have systematically eroded the public resources that fund the vast majority of post-secondary institutions, a trend I once heard referred to as "eating our own seed corn". Higher education represents amongst the best investments our society can make, as investing in our nations human capital is the only way to insure a decent living standard in an increasingly competitive, globalized and aging world.

The problems of "Higher Education" are made more depressing by fact that Hacker and Dreifus' hearts are clearly in the right place. You get the sense that they are critiquing higher education out of affection rather than anger (Hacker is a professor himself, at Queens College). The want reform, and are exasperated at the failures within the higher ed family. But in treating institutions as monoliths, and by arguing that the same people who have given their lives to higher ed are the cause of higher ed's problems, Hacker and Dreifus miss an opportunity to create allies in support of their vision for reform.

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