Book Review: The End of College, Part 1: Defining the Problem

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For anyone interested in the future of higher education, Kevin Cary’s book, The End of College, is a well written and thought provoking story.  For a family with college-bound children it is a must read.

Cary makes a compelling case that higher education is currently in the process of undergoing a radical transformation that most of us will see unfold over the next 10 to 20 years.

Some commentators have suggested that this transformation will come at us “like a tsunami,” upending the current higher education model with something entirely new.  Many think it could even offer hope to millions of middle-income families within the next decade.

Cary calls this new model “The University of Everywhere.”

Too good to be true?

While that was my initial impression, I must admit that Cary makes a compelling case.

The Current Model Is Failing Our Students

In the early chapters of his book, Carey reviews the history of higher education pointing out that it has not really changed much over the last 800 years:

The image of a college professor standing in front of a lectern while students make notes is actually rooted in the pre-Gutenberg era. The advent of books simply reinforced the image of the university as a scarce, expensive, rarified place open only to the elite.

Like the universities of today, the universities of 800 years ago focused on liberal arts, research, with some degree of practical training. Cary calls this pre-Gutenberg model the “hybrid university”.  It is the model that is still in place today.

The university of today, however, is based on a model that no longer is working. It is not much different from what Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, described back in 1935: 

The degree it (the university) offers seems to certify that the student has passed an uneventful period without violating any local, state, or federal law, and that he has a fair, if temporary, recollection of what his teachers have said to him.  The intellectual progress of the young is determined by the time they have been in attendance, the number of hours they have sat in classes, and the proportion of what they have been told that they can repeat in their examinations.

Changing such a broken model according to Cary is not only necessary, it is inevitable.

How Is Higher Education Failing Our Students?

Despite the fact that college graduates earn almost a million dollars more over their lifetime than those with only a high school education, higher education can still do a whole lot better for a lot less money.

At our workshop, Stephanie Kennedy talks about the regular meetings held between our nation’s business leaders and college presidents.  These meetings give employers an opportunity to tell our nation’s college presidents what they are seeking in the students they hire. At the very top of their wish list every year are critical thinking and communication skills. 

New York University sociologist Richard Arum decided to see how our colleges were doing in meeting these two important objectives.

In his recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Arum reported that 45% of college students made no gains in either critical thinking or communication skills during their first two years of college. The results didn’t get that much better over the last two years.  A full 36% of students, according to the study, still made no statistically significant gains over their entire four years in college.

The study was made using the best assessment tools available and involved a statistically meaningful sample of students.  Though it’s business as usual at our nation’s universities, the study has gotten a lot of attention and will certainly give impetus to the coming transformation.

 Higher Education Has Become More About Status Than Substance

As our nations universities try to attract the best students they can with their luxury dormitories and multi-million-dollar facilities. Cary says “they are really competing for something much more valuable to them than money”.   It’s really all about status.

Parents are also getting sucked into the quest for status—even when they cannot afford it.  Cary uses this analogy:

 They are paying to get their kids into the best colleges for the same reason they buy a Gucci bag—it makes them feel good and gives them something to brag about. 

When a college raises its prices, the demand for that “Gucci” education only increases. Unfortunately, more and more families are finding they cannot afford the status.  What’s more, as universities continue to climb the status ladder, college graduates are gradually losing their economic advantage.

This is another reason to believe that the model cannot last much longer.

It’s simply unsustainable.

The Unraveling of the Current Model

According to Cary, over time the American university has become even more about the needs and desires of researchers and, in turn, has put an increasingly lower value on teaching.  As I was midway through Cary’s book, it became difficult for me to argue against his basic thesis—that the current model will finally unravel and will soon come to an end.  According to Cary:

 It will be the end of college as we know it.

Some of Cary’s critics have called his vision utopian–intriguing but unrealistic.  Donald Carbreath says in The New York Journal of Books that though Cary’s ideas may seem wild and impractical they are still what is needed to change our education system for the better.

Cary also makes this interesting observation:

The only thing that sustains our universities, despite their deep indifference to student learning, is that they only enroll those students who are most likely to succeed anyway.  

I would suggest that is great food for thought!