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This much we all can agree on: The past several years have been difficult ones for American higher education; in every sector, major changes are afoot -- or are already under way.

After that, things start to get murky quickly. Who should go to college? What should they be taught? Who should pay the bill, and how? On these issues, among many others, the only consensus seems to be that there is no consensus.

In College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press), Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco tries his hand at answering some of the most fundamental questions about college in America: What is college for? What should college -- as distinct from university -- look like? And what on earth is to be done about it?

Delbanco, who is Mendelson Family Chair in American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities, has a longstanding reputation as a thinker and writer on higher education issues. In College, he looks to the lengthy and dynamic history of higher education in America as a lens through which to examine its current crises and unsettled future.

In an e-mail exchange with Inside Higher Ed, Delbanco answered questions on some of the ideas in his book.

Q: "The best reason to care about college," you write, " not what it does for society in economic terms but what it can do for individuals, in both calculable and incalculable ways." Does this mean that you agree with the trend toward viewing higher education as a private rather than a public good?

 A: If a college functions well, it should break down, or at least diminish, the distinction between private and public good. Genuinely educated persons recognize how much they owe to the society that has furnished them with opportunities, and they feel an obligation to give back. This doesn’t mean that a college should teach its students to be ascetics or try to turn them into saints. Personal ambition will always be part of what a successful education requires and rewards. But a good college fosters an atmosphere of public-spiritedness. It teaches its students that individuals depend for fulfillment on community, and that a true community is constituted by responsible individuals.

Q: You discuss a wide variety of threats and challenges to American higher education today. Which issues or trends do you see as the most worrisome?

It’s a long list. High on it is the transformation of the faculty into contingent workers. I expect that the threat to college teaching as a respected and attractive profession will increase as digital educational technologies become more widespread, and the promise of cost-saving through one form or another of distance-learning becomes alluring to both non-profit and for-profit institutions. Meanwhile, as everyone knows, there is a severe problem with the cost of college: the growing student-loan burden; rapidly rising tuition at public institutions as public subsidies decline; pressure on financial aid budgets at private institutions. Also high on the list is the increasingly obvious problem of the inadequate preparation for college provided by many K-12 schools. Beyond these readily evident challenges are less measurable matters that constitute the main focus of my book: the perennial problem of balancing research with teaching; the decline of the humanities as “soft” subjects on which many parents, students, and even educators feel that tuition money is wasted; and, perhaps most fundamentally, the tremendous (and understandable) pressure on students at all socioeconomic levels to regard education as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Q: Your book is primarily concerned with a small portion of America's higher education institutions: elite (and relatively elite) residential colleges. Why is it important to focus on those institutions? Is such an approach elitist or exclusionary?

A: Yes, so-called “elite” universities and colleges account for only a small part of higher education. And yes, they figure prominently in my book. In part, this is because they tend to be the oldest educational institutions in America, and I try to offer an historical narrative that explains where the principles and premises of college education came from, how they evolved over several centuries, and where they stand today. This is a story in which the “elites” play a foundational role. The struggle between university values (research, pre-professional and professional training) vs. college values (education for citizenship, encouragement of reflection on ethical questions) has been fought for centuries at these institutions, and they continue to exert a disproportionate influence far beyond themselves. Teaching methodologies, curricular design, financial aid principles — all have been debated and, to a large extent, determined, in a small number of institutions whose culture thereby affects the experience of many more students than their own.  It’s also important to keep in mind that most college teachers, wherever they teach, have received their training in a relatively small number of research universities. Whether we like it or not, this means that what happens, or doesn’t happen, in a few well-known institutions matters to virtually every college in America, and to every college student. 

Q: "College, more than brain-training for this or that functional task, should be concerned with character," you write. What does this mean in practical terms? What actions might be taken by a college that hopes to develop the character of its students?

I talk in my book about the senior-year course in moral philosophy that, in days of yore, was the college “capstone” course.  No one should want to return to the age of dogma, when beliefs were treated as facts, and anyone who demurred was considered a heretic. But in liberating ourselves from the pernicious effects of doctrinaire religion, we have become squeamish about giving moral and ethical questions any significance in the curriculum. And yet students, at least in my experience, are hungry for the chance to reflect on and debate such questions. As more and more students move out of such fields as literature and philosophy and into the STEM fields, or toward practical majors such as business, we have a natural, and urgent, opportunity to engage them in discussion of the moral dilemmas that arise, for instance, with new medical technologies, or from the competing allegiances of corporations to their shareholders, customers, employees, and the public. Questions of justice and responsibility and the meaning of citizenship should be front and center in every college curriculum, and should not be quarantined in the philosophy or religion department.

Q: What do you mean when you write that "some colleges seem to have less than a firm grasp on their public obligations"? What are a college's public obligations, and how have they been neglected?

I mean a number of things: for example, the obligation to provide opportunity to students from low-income families; the obligation to become engaged in the K-12 schools, and, in general, in the surrounding neighborhood. In this respect, some colleges do a better job than others — at everything from hiring and labor practices to direct subventions for community schools and organizations, to encouraging faculty, staff, and students to serve their neighbors. One point I stress in my book is that there is no such thing as a truly “private” institution, since virtually every American college is supported to a significant degree by public revenues — whether by direct appropriations, or through institutional tax exemption, deductions for donors, indirect support via federal research grants, publicly funded grants and loans to students, and so on. Yet as the chorus of “globalization” grows louder and stronger, awareness of what it means to be an American college seems to become proportionally weaker.      

Q: You seem critical of for-profit higher education, but your book does not address it in any depth. How would you characterize your stance toward private-sector higher ed?

: I am skeptical about the quality of much of what is offered by today’s for-profit entities, and unconvinced that humanistic education as I define it in my book will ever be a significant part of the for-profit “business plan.”  At the same time, I recognize that with the changing demographics of college students (more adults, part-timers, people with families and jobs, etc. etc.), the flexibility and freedom of the for-profit model have real appeal and can reach students who — for many reasons, notably cost — cannot enroll in a traditional college. The returns are by no means in on the for-profit sector; and some people of integrity and even idealism believe in it as a way into the future.  But evidence of exploitation, and the lavish earnings by investors and entrepreneurs, are reasons for caution and doubt. 

Q: "[W]hile funding of grants for low-income students has failed to keep up with the rising cost of college, there has been robust growth" in the federal loans that go to middle-income students. How do you think financial aid should be restructured?

A: There is a serious problem whenever two legitimate goals — in this case, making college more affordable for the stressed middle class while also expanding college opportunity for severely needy students — come into conflict with one another. This is the case today as resources available to achieve these objectives are overstretched and failing to keep pace with demand. Both goals cannot be met without significantly expanding public and private investment in financial aid for students at all institutions and at all levels of need. Ultimately, it’s a matter of public commitment to the value of postsecondary education — and, unfortunately, colleges have been losing rather than gaining public respect at just the time when they depend on it more than ever. We need a serious national discussion of creative proposals such as those put forward several years ago by Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson in their report "Fulfilling the Commitment" — for example, basing federal grants on family data drawn directly from the IRS; capping loan repayment at a certain percentage of post-college income; establishing college-tuition savings accounts with tax-free interest for Pell-eligible families, and so on.  There is no magic bullet for the college-cost problem — but these ideas, as well as others put forward by Donald Heller (basing all grants on needs analysis rather than on “merit”) and Ronald Ehrenberg (rewarding institutions with federal dollars keyed to the enrollment of Pell-eligible students), point in the right direction.

Q: Today's college admissions process, you argue, "is well designed to convince the winners that they deserve their winnings" -- i.e., to support students at elite colleges in the idea that they've earned a place at the top of American society. This contrasts with the bygone era in which the educated elite knew that they'd landed at Harvard or Yale by accident of birth and fortune, which (at least theoretically) inculcated them with a sense of "noblesse oblige" and a responsibility to give something back to society. What is the impact of this shift -- and how might it be countered?

The impact of this shift is a good example of why the culture of elite colleges matters more than to themselves. A self-loving cadre of national leaders, convinced of their superiority to their fellow citizens as measured by tests, income, range of influential “contacts,” and so on, brings into view the kind of nightmare society that Michael Young prophesied in The Rise of the Meritocracy nearly half a century ago. We’re already headed there, and we ought to do everything possible to change direction. I try to sound this alarm in my book — but I am also encouraged by the resurgence of civic engagement among many of the “best and the brightest” in selective colleges, who, through volunteer work, or post-college programs such as Teach for America, are expressing their own alarm at what it would mean to live in a silo society in which the winners cordon themselves off from everyone else. In this respect, college always has been, and will continue to be, a battleground for the American soul.

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