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.

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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.