Is College Over?

The American system of higher education, long the envy of the world—and a profound influence on this city's landscape—is under siege. New books and reports raise questions about the staggering dropout rates, sky-high costs, and lack of evidence that anybody is actually learning anything on our university campuses. Suddenly, some very smart people are asking whether the temple of learning is anything more than a shady facade.

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |
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Photo illustration by C.J. Burton

Once upon a time, there was a tower perched high upon a hill. Inside the tower, magical things happened: Teachers taught and students learned, and when their time together was done, the students had been trans-formed into better people who, in turn, transformed the world into a better place. In the pantheon of fairy tales, the fable of the university is the last one that adults still believe. Parents save their pennies to send good boys and girls away to think big thoughts and expand their minds. The money, the time, the crafting of a perfect smattering of extracurricular endeavors to create a well-rounded applicant…all of it is for this. College is the glass slipper, the sword in the stone.

But then, this winter, just after a new round of applications had been mailed, a barrage of studies, articles, and books began shattering the college myth. Robert Schwartz, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, released a report arguing that the well-trod path from high school to college has veered largely off course, with only 30 percent of students who start four-year degrees actually finishing. Then came the news that student loan debt had for the first time eclipsed credit card debt in this country, which did a nice do-si-do with the findings that student loan defaults were on the rise (9 percent for four-year colleges, up from 7 percent in 2008). People like Louis Lataif, dean emeritus of Boston University’s School of Management, and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel began describing college as the next bubble, one that was expanding at an alarming rate.

Most explosively, there was the book Academically Adrift, written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which in January blew up the university mythology like a match flung onto a pile of gasoline-soaked diplomas. The book went something like this: College students aren’t learning as much as we thought. They’re studying fewer than 12 hours a week. They’re graduating without learning how to write. College, in short, isn’t providing the critical-thinking skills they’ll need out in the real world, a world beyond fairy tales.

Arum and Roksa’s conclusions had academics and parents wringing their hands and reexamining long-held beliefs about higher education. These newfound doubts were only exacerbated when the Pew Research Center and the Chronicle of Higher Education released a survey asking whether college was still “worth it.” The answer they came up with was perhaps best characterized by the Chronicle’s headline: “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges.” Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said that the cost of college now far outweighs its value (a Boston-based company, by the way, is now offering shell-shocked parents tuition insurance in case a student is forced to leave school because of injury, illness, or death). And an alarming 38 percent of college presidents said that the U.S. higher education
system is headed in the wrong direction.

What inevitably followed all this—and just as 2011’s graduates were about to don their mortarboards—was a string of breathless articles about young college grads being a “lost generation” and the “new underclass.” A poll done by the consulting firm Twentysomething Inc. found that with the unemployment rate for people under 25 as high as 54 percent, nearly 9 out of 10 college graduates were planning to move back in with their parents. A Rutgers study showed that for those who did manage to land a job, the median starting salary for college grads had dipped to $27,000, down from $30,000 as recently as 2008.

“For a long time, colleges said, ‘You want the credential? You want the ticket to the middle-class life? We’re going to give you the piece of paper that says you’re qualified,’” says Naomi Schaefer Riley, a journalist and author of The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For. “But you’re starting to get some pushback now.”

The public, in other words, is increasingly wondering what it is they’re paying for—as they’re paying more and more. They’re losing faith in the system. The disturbing financial implications of the rising cost of college are well documented: The cost of public and private colleges has tripled since 1980; over the past decade, the average cost per year of a public university jumped from 18 percent of a middle-class family’s annual income to 25 percent; the average student loan debt is now $23,000. But the rising skepticism about the value of the college experience itself is unsettling, particularly in Boston, where much of our economy is rooted in the university system.

I went to school here myself—literally buying into the notion that college was a worthwhile investment when I arrived on the Boston College campus. I continue to pay for that investment, and will for the foreseeable future. But in the wake of this educational crisis of confidence, I’ve found myself wondering how much I really got out of the whole thing.

And I’m far from the only one. As a result, universities are being forced to ask, perhaps for the first time, How much are our students really learning? Can our teachers actually teach? And what, exactly, is the point? So I set out for some answers. Because faith isn’t enough anymore. We want proof.


Arriving home early from high school one afternoon in the spring of my senior year, I went through my daily ritual of peering into the mailbox. Please, God, a sign of any kind. Finally, I got one: a big envelope. I collapsed to my knees on the brick walkway leading up to my door, tearing the envelope right down the center. I pulled out a folder and touched the raised seal of the college of my choice like a palm reader seeing the future. Relief and excitement and hope all washed over me. I had gotten in.

College was the golden ticket, the payout for slogging through high school’s tedium and testing. I didn’t have much say in where I went to high school—I was a public school kid with public school teachers for parents—but the college decision was mine, and it would catapult me into a future that I could define. Walking around campus a few months later, as I toured the athletic facilities, dining halls, and libraries with other recently accepted students, I was smitten with the idea of the new life I would have…and with the cute guy on my tour, who was also in my freshman class. We exchanged e-mails: “I can’t wait to party with you in the streets of Boston,” he wrote. (We never actually connected once classes started.)

It’d be easy to blame my hormones for the fact that I didn’t pepper the tour guide with dozens of questions about academic programs and my soon-to-be professors. But the truth is, I simply took it for granted that I was about to get an excellent education. Everyone from my guidance counselors to magazine rankings had told me so.

But as Academically Adrift’s findings prove, learning is something we can no longer assume is simply happening. And that means colleges are now having to defend themselves against a swarm of newfound skeptics.

Wanting to learn more about how the institutions are attempting to fight back, I call up Richard Hersh to arrange an interview. Hersh and his colleague, Richard Keeling, are coauthors of the upcoming book We’re Losing our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, and together they’ve consulted with nearly 400 colleges across the country. Our impromptu chat ends up lasting nearly two and a half hours.

“The secret kept from the public is that lots of people in higher education actually know that we’re much more ineffective than we have a right to be,” Hersh confides. He knows this firsthand because he’s the former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York and Trinity College in Hartford, and he also served as director of the Center for Moral Education at Harvard. For far too long, he tells me, we’ve smiled and nodded while colleges impressed us with data points that have little to do with how much students actually learn. We don’t take hospitals at their word that they’re giving us excellent care, he says; we expect them to prove it with statistics and well-articulated standards. But we don’t ask the same of universities. Instead, we focus on the trivial, like how big the library is, or the spending per student. “Go and look at the variables that U.S. News & World Report uses,” Hersh says of the bible of college rankings. “Not one of them predicts learning.”

Think of your own college experience: Did you take a test measuring your critical-thinking skills, your analytical abilities, or your writing proficiency before you were handed a diploma? If you graduated more than a decade ago, you probably didn’t, because such a test didn’t exist. But it does now. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), which is the basis for a large part of the research in Academically Adrift, requires students to solve the kinds of problems that arise in the actual workplace—for instance, using various documents to make the case for or against purchasing an airplane.

The CLA, which is used at more than 500 schools, is just one of the assessment tools that universities are employing these days to determine where learning and teaching are coming up short. Another that’s been dreamed up right here in Massachusetts is the Vision Project, which involves “curriculum-based embedded assessments” to identify areas where colleges can improve teaching, curriculum development, and even the sequence of courses. The man behind the project is Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland, who worked for more than 20 years in the UMass system, is the author of a book on the history of higher education in the Bay State, and is the former president of Northeastern University. Freeland’s effort involves a team that’s working with the faculty and deans at the state’s 29 campuses to come up with a strategy to better measure how much students learn. He got a huge boost this July when Governor Patrick announced a new $2.5 million Performance Incentive Fund that will provide competitive grants to campuses that demonstrate performance-based innovation—kind of a Race to the Top for state colleges.

“I consider this the most important educational work of our generation of educators,” Freeland says. “The strong universities and colleges in the future will be ones who have figured out how to do this.”

On a warm afternoon in July, I join the next generation of educators at Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for the start of a new course called “Developing and Articulating Your Teaching Philosophy.” Associate director Marlon Kuzmick, a young guy with a shaved head, bushy eyebrows, and rolled-up shirtsleeves, sits in the front of the room. Thirteen graduate students from various disciplines are arranged in a rectangle before him. All of them will soon leave the crucible of Harvard and begin looking for teaching jobs at universities across the country.

The Bok Center’s courses are part of an effort at Harvard to improve the teaching skills of its faculty, but they also speak to a problem that’s plagued universities for decades: that the brilliant educators whose classes you pay so much to attend are not often the ones actually teaching students, and, what’s more, the graduate student who’s filling in for Dr. Brilliant hasn’t been taught to teach.

When I bring up the subject to author Richard Hersh, he sighs. “You have to remember, virtually no faculty member in doctoral work has ever been prepared to teach,” he says, noting that most Ph.D. candidates get only a few hours of teacher training before they set out to shape the supple minds of undergrads.

We all know this story. I had an exceptional professor who was so engaging it was like watching literary gymnastics in his class, but when I went to see him during office hours, he curled up like an awkward snail in its shell, unable to actually interact with me.

Professors understand that learning and teaching are important—it’s the reason they were drawn to academia in the first place—but many I spoke with pointed to the university system and its emphasis on tenure and publication instead of working with students. “Even at an education school, the most important priority is writing and research,” says Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “People feel a real conflict between the desire to work on their teaching and the incentive structure that’s in place. It needs to be rebalanced.”

At the Bok Center, Kuzmick switches on the huge flat-screen television at his side, and I immediately wince. I’m watching Harvard students use clips of Dead Poets Society for lessons on teaching methodology. Can he be serious? I wonder. And it’s not just Robin Williams evincing spontaneous poetry from Ethan Hawke that they’re watching; they’re also analyzing the marbles scene from My Fair Lady, and Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi’s wax on/wax off exchange in The Karate Kid. The graduate students titter as Mr. Miyagi inflicts a beat-down, then discuss each of the teaching methods depicted in the films. (“A deeply gendered magisterial response method,” one student says of Henry Higgins’s efforts to turn Eliza into a lady.)

Kuzmick’s aim, as bizarre as it seems, is to help these students think beyond the Hollywood tropes of what good teaching looks like and determine what good teaching means to them. More important, the class is a starting point for a discussion about teaching, something few of them have had the chance to think about until now. At this stage in their careers, Kuzmick says, the students have spent enough time in classrooms to have experienced nearly every technique portrayed in the clips. This is their opportunity to write their own script. He asks them: “Who or what are your models for teaching?” “What’s motivating you?” “To what extent are you trying to make your students better people?” They talk about “aha!” moments—the times when you realize that your students really understand something—and whether planning your instruction around them is a form of narcissism, particularly since research shows that rote learning and repetition help students retain information. And of course, there is discussion among the teachers-to-be about the inevitable challenges they will face when they leave Harvard and begin working with average pupils for whom “aha!” moments are few and far between.

In another Bok Center class, “Designing the Course of the Future,” graduate students reverse-engineer their curricula to determine exactly what they want students to learn, and use classroom-assessment technologies to measure how much students understand as they’re being taught a new concept. “We’re fighting against old ideas of Harvard,” Bok Center executive director Terry Aladjem says in his office, which is crammed floor to ceiling with books on teaching theory, “that it was far too focused on research and didn’t care about teaching.” His challenge is turning theory into practice.


It’s not exactly fair to call Laura Deming a college dropout, since, at 17, she left school before most people start. “Ever since I was eight, the big problem I wanted to sort out was how to solve the cure for aging,” she says when I get her on the phone from California. She set out to do just that, and was accepted to MIT at age 14. But now, saying that she hasn’t been all that challenged at the Institute, she’s pulled out after her sophomore year. “I wanted to learn about physics and science in the coolest place in America,” she explains. “But after I got there, I realized that a lot of the coursework that they teach you can learn on your own. I’m not sure college is such a hard-and-fast requirement that people think it is today.”

Perhaps that’s so, but there was another, even more powerful motivation for Deming to leave. This spring she was named one of 24 Thiel Fellows, a cadre of young geniuses from across the U.S. who were each offered $100,000 to skip out on college.

The Thiel fellowships are the brainchild of billionaire PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, who set off a firestorm this spring when he declared that the latest bubble is not housing or the Internet, but higher education. Thiel argues that the growing cost of college has so far outpaced its return on investment that certain very smart people should ditch the time, effort, and debt it takes to get a degree. Not, as he told the influential website TechCrunch, that he expects his message to be embraced. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States,” he said. “To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.” Still, Thiel believes young innovators can learn more from the real world than they can in a classroom, and he’s provided two dozen of them with the cash to prove it.

Thiel himself has two degrees from Stanford, but he insists that little thought went into the decision to pursue them. “It was just this default activity,” he said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It seems to me that Thiel’s fellowships are doing little more than providing a new, and potentially temporary (the Einsteins are allowed to return to college if they want after two years), detour for a bunch of self-motivated kids who were already moving through the educational system with impressive speed. But there’s evidence that it’s not just the genius contingent that’s reconsidering college. In July, the education think tank Public Agenda released a report showing that an increasing number of young people who’ve earned only high school degrees now view college as merely one option for a successful life. “Most fully accept that college is a good thing and can be very beneficial in terms of getting a good job and building a future,” the report found. “But many don’t seem to see it as an outright necessity.”

“That’s total nonsense,” Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, says when I bring up the subject of bypassing college. Greenstone recently published a paper arguing that if students were offered the choice between taking $102,000 and paying for college, or investing it—in the stock market, bonds, home ownership, even gold—those who chose to go to college would earn $570,000 more over the course of their lifetime. College, he concludes, returns two to five times more than any investment. “People with more education make more money, whether they’re white- or blue-collar,” Greenstone says. “The data are screaming out that the returns on getting a college degree are very high. Anything we can do to help people to get advanced degrees is a good policy path.”

Okay, fair enough. College graduates earn more than those without a degree. But does that necessarily mean they got the education they paid for?


One afternoon this summer, I return to my alma mater, Boston College, and am greeted by a banner welcoming the class of 2015, which hangs over the dining hall on Lower Campus—a dining hall now flanked by two buildings that didn’t exist when I was at school more than a decade ago.

I’ve come back to BC to meet with Patrick Rombalski, the vice president of student affairs, because I keep hearing about BC’s assessment efforts from the experts I’ve been interviewing. But I want to ask a more basic question: Was it worth it?

In the course of reporting this story, I’ve thought more than once about my monthly student loan payments, wondering if, as Matt Damon’s character Will Hunting once posited, I could have saved all that money and paid late charges at the public library instead. (BC’s total cost has only gone up since I left; now $54,528 a year, it’s the most expensive in Boston.) Coincidentally, the issue of the Chronicle with the “Crisis of Confidence” cover story is sitting on a coffee table in the lounge outside Rombalski’s office.

Dressed in a button-down and khakis, Rombalski is slim, with close-cropped hair and an eager smile. He begins telling me how BC is working to create a 24-hour learning environment. From its residence halls to academic advising, the school is developing new ways to engage students, asking them how they’re doing, what they want from school, what their goals are. The school is encouraging students to reflect on their academic experiences, and training the faculty to better understand how people learn.

This all sounds lovely, but it also frustrates me. It makes me want to go back to school and do it over, perhaps even do it better. So I air all of my concerns: I tell Rombalski about my experience sorting out my major, my trials with student advising, how I worry I’ll still be paying my student loans when my own kids go to college—everything all the way back to the missed opportunity to learn more about professors during my original campus tour. On that last point, he pauses. “I don’t get a lot of questions about that,” he admits, perhaps making a mental note for another area of improvement.

I tell Rombalski that when I finished college, I felt like I’d read a lot of really great books and that my writing had gotten stronger, but I didn’t feel like I had certifiable proof of what I’d learned.

“You didn’t know what you didn’t know,” he says, nodding. “And if you’re going to spend four years in a place, you want to make sure that you’re covered.”

He’s right. We don’t know what we don’t know. But if we’re not thinking about learning, if we’re not making dramatic strides in improving it and testing it and proving that it’s still worthwhile, should we be surprised that more and more of us are losing faith in higher education?

College isn’t a fairy tale. Many of us no longer believe in the magical tower on the hill, which is probably a good thing. If we can see college for what it really is—an investment that has the potential not to pay off—we’ll start asking the tough questions…and demanding answers. And that may be the closest we can get to guaranteeing a happy ending.

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