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Higher Education in America

Higher Education in America

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Higher Education in America
    Book Description:

    Higher Education in America is a landmark work--a comprehensive and authoritative analysis of the current condition of our colleges and universities from former Harvard president Derek Bok, one of the nation's most respected education experts. Sweepingly ambitious in scope, this is a deeply informed and balanced assessment of the many strengths as well as the weaknesses of American higher education today. At a time when colleges and universities have never been more important to the lives and opportunities of students or to the progress and prosperity of the nation, Bok provides a thorough examination of the entire system, public and private, from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges to great universities with their research programs and their medical, law, and business schools. Drawing on the most reliable studies and data, he determines which criticisms of higher education are unfounded or exaggerated, which are issues of genuine concern, and what can be done to improve matters.

    Some of the subjects considered are long-standing, such as debates over the undergraduate curriculum and concerns over rising college costs. Others are more recent, such as the rise of for-profit institutions and massive open online courses (MOOCs). Additional topics include the quality of undergraduate education, the stagnating levels of college graduation, the problems of university governance, the strengths and weaknesses of graduate and professional education, the environment for research, and the benefits and drawbacks of the pervasive competition among American colleges and universities.

    Offering a rare survey and evaluation of American higher education as a whole, this book provides a solid basis for a fresh public discussion about what the system is doing right, what it needs to do better, and how the next quarter century could be made a period of progress rather than decline.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4830-0
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XII)
    (pp. 1-4)

    In the modern world, colleges and universities have assumed an importance far beyond their role in earlier times. They are now the country’s chief supplier of three ingredients essential to national progress—new discoveries in science, technology, and other fields of inquiry; expert knowledge of the kind essential to the work of most important institutions; and well-trained adults with the skills required to practice the professions, manage a wide variety of organizations, and perform an increasing proportion of the more demanding jobs in an advanced, technologically sophisticated economy.* In addition, they help to strengthen our democracy by educating its future...

  5. Part I The Context

    • FOREWORD (I)
      (pp. 7-8)

      There is more than one way to organize a study of higher education. One can proceed, as this book does, by discussing each of the most important functions of colleges and universities—undergraduate education, professional training, and research. One can also follow the example of David Riesman and Christopher Jencks in their influential 1960s volume—The Academic Revolution—and arrange the material by types of institution: liberal arts colleges, research universities, religiously affiliated institutions, and the like.¹ There are doubtless other plausible ways to divide the pie.

      Whatever method one chooses, it is helpful to begin with an overview of...

      (pp. 9-27)

      America’s initial venture in the realm of higher learning gave no hint of future accomplishments. Nor could the handful of young men who arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638 to enter the nation’s first college have had the faintest idea of what the future had in store for American universities. Before the year was out, the head of that tiny institution, Nathaniel Eaton, had been charged with assault for beating a tutor almost to death, while his wife stood accused of serving too little beer to the students and adulterating their food. Master Eaton was eventually dismissed and promptly fled,...

      (pp. 28-43)

      In 1996, a Canadian professor, Bill Readings, published a book with the provocative title The University in Ruins.¹ The message of the book was that universities were in serious disarray because they no longer had a single unifying purpose to guide their activities. In earlier times, he explained, they had acted “as producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture.” Now that globalization had spread and nation-states seemed less important, this role had lost much of its meaning. In its absence, he claimed, academic programs proliferated without any underlying goal save the pursuit of “excellence,” which, of course,...

      (pp. 44-71)

      Few critics within or outside the academic world are satisfied with the way universities are governed. Even seasoned observers seem discouraged over existing procedures. According to a commission assembled by the Association of Governing Boards, “the current practice of shared governance leads to gridlock. Whether the problem is with presidents who lack the courage to lead an agenda for change, trustees who ignore institutional goals in favor of the football team, or faculty members who are loath to surrender the status quo, the fact is that each is an obstacle to progress.”¹ In 2000, a distinguished gathering of current and...

      (pp. 72-74)

      In a system as competitive, as decentralized, and as free from hierarchical control as that of American higher education, one may wonder why the entire enterprise does not sink into anarchy and confusion. In fact, as keen an observer of organizations as James March of Stanford University has described the inner workings of American universities in almost precisely these terms.¹ Yet such characterizations are belied by the fact that our academic institutions do manage to function and do so quite effectively. One is driven, therefore, to look for the glue that allows these autonomous institutions, with their legions of highly...

  6. Part II Undergraduate Education

      (pp. 77-80)

      Much has changed in undergraduate education during the last half century. Students have increased in number—from roughly four million in 1960 to more than twenty million in 2012—while becoming far more diverse in age, race, and economic background. Nearly 80 percent of all high school graduates today will enter college at some point, although many fewer will finish. For most colleges, the struggle to attract students—either to raise the academic level of the entering class or simply to fill the seats—has grown more intense as increased financial aid and improvements in transportation have enabled admissions officers...

      (pp. 81-97)

      Americans have long displayed a high regard for education. Already in the nineteenth century, the United States was a leader in requiring young people to attend primary school and, later, high school. Churches of many denominations built affiliated colleges. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, giving away large tracts of land to encourage the growth of public (and some private) universities. By the end of the century, the United States contained no fewer than 977 institutions of higher learning. The number in Massachusetts alone was several times the figure for major European nations such as England or France.


      (pp. 98-121)

      In an era of universal higher education, the financial burdens that weigh so heavily on many students turn a spotlight on the troublesome question of how to pay for the cost of college. State governments, universities, and students are all struggling with this issue. The problem seems destined to grow larger. According to a recent study by McKinsey consultants, in order to reach President Obama’s goal of regaining America’s lead in educational attainment within the next decade, the number of two- and four-year degrees and certificates awarded from 2010 to 2020 would have to rise by roughly 3.5–4 percent...

      (pp. 122-144)

      Many young people are not only interested in going to college; they are keenly concerned with which college they can enter. Such concern is especially likely to become intense in countries like the United States where great differences exist between the resources of richer and poorer colleges.

      In an ideal world, all students would be able to attend the institution of their choice provided they were suitably qualified, and all would be well enough informed to choose the school best equipped to help them acquire the learning, self-knowledge, and other capabilities needed to lead full and rewarding lives. A world...

      (pp. 145-165)

      One of the most profound changes that has occurred in higher education over the past forty years has been the huge increase in the number and variety of people seeking some form of learning from our colleges and universities. For the most part, these new audiences are not made up of students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who attend full-time and leave with a degree on graduation day. Many are over thirty. They may be doctors or lawyers who come to a campus for only a few days to catch up with recent developments in their field. They...

      (pp. 166-182)

      Nothing reveals the educational goals of a faculty as clearly as the curriculum or conveys as much about the means by which these ends are meant to be achieved. Throughout the history of American higher education, the great majority of colleges have adopted a similar curricular structure, although its nature has greatly changed over time. From the colonial era through the Civil War, most colleges embraced a highly prescribed course of study known as the classical curriculum.¹ It emphasized mental discipline attained through a rigorous study of classical subjects and texts coupled with moral discipline achieved with the aid of...

      (pp. 183-200)

      “[O]ne of the most sobering insights I had [was] how little intellectual life seemed to matter in college.”¹ With these words, a young anthropology professor described her impressions from a year spent living in a college dorm masquerading as a student.² One of her dorm-mates expressed the prevailing campus sentiment in even more vivid terms. “Except for those pesky classes, why would I ever leave this life of friends and fun.”³

      Such attitudes are not new. They have reverberated throughout a century or more of accounts of residential college life. One historian of higher education describes a time early in...

      (pp. 201-219)

      One often hears that change comes exceedingly slowly in colleges and universities. According to a former Duke trustee, “If I learn that the end of the world is at hand, I will immediately come to Duke, because everything takes a year longer here.”¹ In the same vein, faculties are often accused of urging reform for every institution save their own. As Francis Cornford put it in his famous satire on British academia, the response of the dons to any proposal to change the traditional practices of their college was “Nothing should ever be tried for the first time.”²

      While comments...

      (pp. 220-224)

      Two problems facing colleges overshadow all the others. The first—our stagnating graduation rates—has become apparent only in the past thirty years. Prior to that time, the United States had long had the highest percentage of citizens with high school diplomas and college degrees of any nation in the world. Now that more and more countries have surpassed us in the share of young people graduating from college, and the implications of this fact for economic growth and competitiveness have become more widely understood, political leaders have grown concerned and set ambitious goals for raising our levels of educational...

      (pp. 225-246)

      The treatment of graduate education occupies an anomalous place in this book, sandwiched between a section on undergraduate education and another on professional schools without being incorporated into either one. The location is not accidental. PhD programs have too close a relationship both to colleges and to professional schools to be lumped together with either one. The faculty members responsible for doctoral training teach undergraduates as well, and graduate students themselves often assist professors in teaching large college courses. At the same time, graduate programs are much like professional schools in that their mission is to prepare college graduates for...

  7. Part III Professional Education

      (pp. 249-255)

      America has long since entered what some commentators describe as “the age of experts.” As knowledge continues to expand in volume and complexity, ordinary citizens have come to depend on competent specialists to guide them through even the most commonplace procedures such as preparing tax returns, selling a home, or applying to college. Familiar ailments that were once borne stoically as the inevitable inconveniences of advancing age are now considered illnesses to be treated by highly trained health professionals.

      At the same time, the work that professionals do has steadily grown more exacting and difficult. Doctors have to know much...

      (pp. 256-270)

      The education of doctors is a remarkable achievement. Medical schools welcome bright young men and women recently graduated from college and transform them over a period of years into specialists capable of performing open-heart surgery, replacing arthritic knees, or using highly sophisticated technology to diagnose illnesses and prescribe appropriate treatments. Acquiring such expertise does not come easily. More than any other form of professional education, medical training forces students to witness death and suffering, dissect cadavers, and perform other acts that would be repellent to most ordinary people. Often, the process demands that students work exceptionally long hours and experience...

      (pp. 271-286)

      Comparing legal education to the training of doctors, one is struck more by differences than by similarities. Law faculties usually number fewer than one hundred members, while most medical school faculties are many times larger. Law professors devote a lot of time and effort to teaching, whereas most faculty members in medical schools do little teaching and spend the bulk of their time on research or patient care. Much of the instruction in law schools takes place in large or medium-sized classes, while more of the teaching in medical schools occurs in small groups. Law students are usually challenged by...

      (pp. 287-305)

      Business schools emerged more recently than their counterparts in law and medicine.¹ The Wharton School, founded in 1881 at the University of Pennsylvania, is generally thought to be the first graduate program in business, although in its early years, it consisted largely of social science classes rather than courses on commerce or management. No other venture of this kind emerged until the end of the century. From 1898 to 1913, however, no fewer than twenty-five universities created business schools, including the Universities of California, Berkeley, Northwestern, Michigan, Harvard, and Chicago.

      From the beginning, controversy arose over the aims of business...

      (pp. 306-318)

      There is much to praise about the condition of the professional schools described in the preceding chapters. Our medical schools came to be widely regarded as the finest in the world as early as the 1930s, and have kept their enviable reputation with the help of generous NIH research support.¹ In recognition of their quality, students come from all over the world to America’s academic health centers for advanced training in research or in one of the medical specialties. American business schools have been the model for a remarkable surge in management education around the world. Half or more of...

  8. Part IV Research

      (pp. 321-327)

      Research has not always been an important part of higher education’s mission. No research to speak of took place in American colleges during the eighteenth century. Although scientists and scholars began to appear on campuses prior to the Civil War, publications were not a prerequisite for a faculty appointment, and science existed on the margins of the college, often confined to affiliated schools that granted their own degrees. Not until 1880 did universities begin to offer graduate programs to train students for careers of scholarship and scientific inquiry. Even then, there was opposition on many campuses from those who feared...

      (pp. 328-341)

      Over the past forty years, many voices have been raised expressing concern over inadequate funding for research. Humanists have complained about the miserly sums that Congress appropriates to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Scientists grumble that the federal government has so little money to offer investigators in many fields of inquiry that creative young researchers have difficulty getting grants, and even senior professors have to spend twice as much time submitting multiple proposals to get the same amount of money as they received in times past. Meanwhile, articles appear periodically warning that declining revenues and diminished university subsidies are...

      (pp. 342-357)

      During the past thirty or forty years, the manner in which scientific research is done in universities has changed in fundamental respects. Not all fields of inquiry have been affected, nor are the changes wholly unprecedented. Nevertheless, the differences have become sufficiently widespread and deep to constitute at least a minor transformation.¹

      In the 1950s and 1960s, much of the writing about academic science made a sharp distinction between “pure” and “applied” research. Pure research took place primarily in universities and was said to be inspired by the desire of investigators to find new knowledge without regard for its practical...

      (pp. 358-376)

      One question that is repeatedly asked of university presidents is what they regard as the hardest part of their job. Fund-raising, some might say. Juggling the endless demands on one’s time, others might reply. To me, however, the ultimate challenge was trying to figure out why some intellectual environments have been so much more successful than others in helping to inspire genuinely creative thought. To put it more concretely, what was it about Athens in the fifth century BC, or Florence in the fifteenth century AD, or, for that matter, Budapest around the turn of the twentieth century that produced...

      (pp. 377-380)

      In order to understand how and why research universities function as they do, it is useful to compare the image of professors as it appears in many critical writings about academe with the picture that emerges from more careful, empirical studies of campus life. The familiar portrait is not a pleasing one. It frequently describes members of the faculty as a set of highly intelligent, driven individuals preoccupied with their reputation in their chosen field of research, endlessly traveling to conferences, and displaying little loyalty to their university or concern for their students.¹ More recently, the picture has sometimes been...

  9. Part V A Final Reckoning

    • FOREWORD (V)
      (pp. 383-386)

      Forming conclusions about American colleges and universities can easily become confusing because of the sheer number of criticisms—some valid and important, some highly exaggerated, and some possessing little or no substance whatsoever. The latter complaints are not merely insubstantial; they divert the reader’s attention from more important problems that need all the attention they can get. Before trying to identify the genuine weaknesses, then, I will try to separate out some of the fallacious, unproven, and highly exaggerated criticisms that frequently appear in discussions of the subject.

      A few complaints crop up repeatedly even though they are contradicted by...

      (pp. 387-407)

      Earlier chapters have touched upon many strengths and accomplishments of our colleges and universities, but they have also identified an ample list of problems and unrealized opportunities. At this point, one could simply list the shortcomings as an agenda for reform and improvement. Such a summary, however, would not have much to say about the underlying causes of our current difficulties or the deeper tendencies at work that could lead to further trouble in the future. Instead, it is more revealing to recall the vulnerabilities in our system of higher education that were described at the end of chapter 1...

      (pp. 408-412)

      The preceding catalog of problems may have left some readers with a gloomy sense that our colleges and universities are in worse condition than is actually the case. Books like this one that try to define an agenda for the future are bound to concentrate on flaws and weaknesses and thus create just such an impression. Yet this is a questionable conclusion to draw about a system widely regarded here and abroad as the best of its kind in the world. To give a fuller, more balanced description of the state of American higher education, one must consider its performance...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 413-452)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 453-479)