Five Minutes With
Five Minutes With Andrew Hacker
Andrew Hacker is the co-author of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It with New York Times reporter Claudia Dreifus. The book takes a critical, if not harsh, look at higher education today and shows how American schools have lost sight of their true goal: educating young people. In “Higher Education?” Hacker and Dreifus cite tenure, the emphasis on research, a focus on vocational training and job placement, and general “pretentiousness” as factors cheating students out of an education, which costs on average a quarter of a million dollars for four years per student.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Hacker and Dreifus call for a complete overhaul of the education system and then suggest less prestigious but more valuable schools that are exceptions to the broken system. Hacker took some time to talk to Campus Progress about his and Dreifus’s analysis.
Campus Progress: You argue in your book that college is currently a $420 billion industry, and young people are now viewed as consumers rather than students. How did we get to this point?
In the past, people called college professors were really quite unpretentious. They were interested in teaching. That’s all changed. Today, we have professional teachers who are more interested in research, in their status, in the academic pecking order. And they’ve put undergraduate teaching very low down on their priority list.
When you talk about research and status, you’re obviously referring to those who are tenure or tenure-track professors, and you question the roughly 300,000 tenured professors, saying that number is outrageous. But the percentage of tenure and tenure-track professors has dropped significantly in the past 30 years, so wouldn’t the real issue be contingent faculty (that is, part-time, adjunct, research or graduate assistant, etc.)?
Both of them are issues. To start with, when we say tenure and tenure-track people are a smaller proportion, they’re a smaller proportion when you add in all the contingents. If we look at the regular faculty, the full-time faculty, the tenure proportion hasn’t changed. It’s still very high. It really leads to stagnation. What we have is now a graying faculty. They can stay on until their seventies if they want. That isn’t good for education.
You and Claudia compiled a list of the top ten schools in America based on your idea of economic and educational value. What are some of the common criteria of your top schools, and why don’t the Ivy Leagues make the cut?
One, for example, is the University of Mississippi, which is an unpretentious state university, which cares about its undergraduates and is very integrated now. We pointed to several others. Evergreen State College out of the state of Washington. No grades—no As, Bs, Cs. No faculty ranks. Everyone is just on the faculty. There is no tenure out there. The faculty members are evaluated every few years by their colleagues. They seem to be perfectly happy, no fears about loss of academic freedom. In fact, the professors are very conscientious. They attend each other’s classes to listen in on each other. That’s the only place we found that. If you do well there, and you get good letters of recommendation, medical schools, law schools, prestige business schools will all take you because they trust Evergreen.
So Evergreen, and schools like it, really breaks away from the humdrum, formulaic curriculum of universities today. In other words, it makes people think critically?
I think you’ve summed it up very well. At the typical college and university today, professors simply teach what they are doing in their own research. For example, at Stanford, the history department offers 229 different courses. 229 different courses for undergraduates? The reason is that each professor teaches his or her own research subject. So there’s a course in the history of tobacco. Now, that’s not a liberal education. At less (here we go again) pretentious universities, students are given subjects they find interesting, that turn them on, and they do engage in thinking because they’re given something to think about.
So what can students do to directly take charge of their education and not be cheated out of it, as you say?
What we say is, first of all, there are a lot of choices out there. There are 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, starting with community colleges. One of the 10 schools we liked was Raritan Valley Community College, which has a very good two-year liberal arts program. Small classes, dedicated teachers, and you discover students (you wouldn’t believe it) who are interesting and interested. After two years at Raritan, you can transfer to any larger university and actually have a better first two years than you would have at, let’s say, Michigan State where you’re in a lecture class listening to a PowerPoint with 500 other students.
The Top 10 Schools in the Country, From the Authors of Higher Education?
- University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
- Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey
- University of Notre Dame
- The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City
- Berea College in Kentucky
- Arizona State University
- University of Maryland, Baltimore County
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Western Oregon University
- Evergreen State College
Jessica Newman is a staff writer for Campus Progress.