College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be: Beyond the Ivy Islands

Steven Brint in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

1343512555It is odd to think that we live in a time when the college model may be in the process of breaking apart. So much suggests that college has never been more successful. Record numbers of students graduate every year. Every graduating class is more diverse than the one that preceded it. Foreign students flock to American quads. Harvard economists tell us that the college degree has never been worth more, relative to the high school degree, than it is today. Bill Gates and President Obama call for a doubling of the proportion of young adults with college degrees over the next decade. We seem to be heading for the day when we won’t have enough commencement speakers to go around.

And yet other indicators suggest that the college experience has never been more imperiled. Tuition has been increasing faster than inflation for more than 30 years. Some economists have begun to argue that college costs more than it is worth. Studies like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift suggest that the bottom third of students are not developing their analytical skills or thought processes in college, largely because not much is required of them. The fastest-growing parts of college budgets have nothing directly to do with teaching, but instead go to administrators and student affairs staff. In their efforts to shift enrollments to two-year community colleges, politicians like Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal have stated flatly that “most future jobs [in America] will require more training than a high school diploma but less than the traditional 4-year college degree.” More radical still are plans to break up degree programs into distinct, definable skills and to award badges for successful acquisition of each skill. Even institutions like Harvard and Stanford are hedging their bets on the future of site-specific four-year baccalaureates by sponsoring ambitious online projects.

More here.