Five (Very Different) Books on American Higher Education

Higher education is facing many problems: the cost is way too high, students are underserved, dropping out at alarming rates, and have skyrocketing mental health issues. Why are these things happening? How do we fix it? I don’t have the answers, but I certainly have reading recommendations. As I’ve moved professionally in to education research, particularly focused on improving academic outcomes for diverse students, I’ve taken a great interest in reading as much as I can and engaging with varied perspectives on the state of higher education. Below are five very different books on higher education and why you should read them. Enjoy.


The College Dropout Scandal by David Kirp

The take: Higher education’s dirty little secret is that an enormous number of students are not graduating. How many? On average, around 40% at public 4-year state universities – key word being average. Graduation rates are much lower at some universities, and bad at community colleges. (Of course, the highly selective public universities and the Ivy’s don’t have this problem with over 90% of their students graduating.) Why is this happening? Lots of reasons, but mostly because public universities are serving incredibly diverse student populations. Diverse in life experience, diverse in educational background, and diverse in goals. The short answer: our institutions are not ready to serve the diverse student populations they now have as a result of expanding access to higher education.

Why you should read it: The hemorrhaging of college students at our nations public universities may be problem most university administrations fail to tackle with actionable, effective solutions, but there are a few shinning stars that have solved this problem. Yes, it’s possible to actually serve and educate diverse students at a single institution. Georgia State, CUNY, Rutgers University-Newark, University of Texas, Long Beach State, and University of Central Florida are living proof. The College Dropout Scandal shows how administration can make a difference in student outcomes, and serves as an invaluable resource for those working in higher education that are trying to make their institutions better.


The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

The take: What is happening on our college campuses? It’s now normal to hear of students de-platforming politically incorrect, conservative, or controversial speakers. Adult students need emotional safe spaces and coloring books. The use of mental health services is skyrocketing. These social trends are alarming for many reasons, but their cause is unknown. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that what we’re seeing is largely a result of helicopter parenting and a failure of children developing resilience, problem-solving capabilities, and of social-emotional skills. The result is high anxiety, entitled demands, and continued coddling.

Why you should read it: This book is controversial. Disagreements abound, there are very serious changes in child rearing and young adult social trends that all educators should be taking seriously whether they agree with the Coddling’s thesis. Free speech is being challenged at universities, despite free speech, exchange of ideas, and exploration being the foundation of liberal education. Today’s generation Z has been raised under more careful supervision and non-independence than previous generations, which those who study human development know to be a disservice and impediment to children’s social-emotional development. Their take is more of a hypothesis for what’s going wrong socially and culturally on today’s college campuses, but it’s a hypothesis worthy of engagement and discussion.


The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, by Paul Tough

The take: Higher education is said to be the surest path to economic mobility, helping students access higher ranks of American socioeconomic class. But does American education deliver on its promise? Not always. Paul Tough takes an intimate, investigative journey into the how the current educational system is failing too many students. He works through the systems of higher education from college decision making, test prep and admissions, to student belonging and retention. The Years That Matter Most was truly an eye-opener for me to understand where higher education is going wrong. You can read more about my thoughts on this book here.

Why you should read it: The approach Tough takes in this book is personal and intimate. Each stage of the higher education system that he highlights is complemented by real student stories – stories of high-achieving, well-deserving students that are butting up against the flaws in our system. If you want a student perspective on higher education to really get a grasp at the ways in which we’re not fully serving our students, this book will not disappoint.


The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan

The take: We all know higher education is, honestly, an enormous rip off. It is way, way too expensive and everyone knows it. So, why do we keep buying it? Because we have to—employers demand it. Caplan argues that obtaining a university degree is mostly signaling to employers that your IQ is high enough, you’re relatively conscientious, and conformist. How much of your degree is signaling? He says around 80% but there’s room for debate. He shows with enormous amounts of data the continued arms-race that is occurring between employer demands and higher education is leaving students with useless degrees and crippling debt. From the macro perspective, higher education is a waste. From your personal perspective, you should get a degree (in an applied discipline).

Why you should read it: Any data packed book on a relevant topic is deserving of a read, or at least a skim of the tables. But Caplan exposes glaring flaws in the connection between higher education and employment. Why does a bachelor’s degree in art history, psychology, or literature qualify you for a range of basic office jobs if your content knowledge is nearly useless on the job? Why do you only get the college pay-off if you graduate? If your knowledge was truly worth something to employers, you’d think you’d get a pay bump for any college credits, but you don’t. And if you ever wondered whether your major matters, it does. If you’re a parent with children deciding on college or working in higher education, you should read this to better advise students. Also, it was one of my favorite books I read last year.


Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s School Back to Reality, by Charles Murray

The take: Real Education takes a very different approach to higher education than the books mentioned above. Murray’s thesis rests on the idea that human ability varies, and therefore not all students that go to college should necessarily be in college (see The College Dropout Scandal for how many students aren’t finishing!). He highlights a big problem in American education: the devaluing of skilled-labor and vocation training. Note everyone needs to be an engineer or lawyer. Given these realities, he argues that too many students are going to college, and we should redirect training resources and high school courses on vocational careers. Higher education should be primarily reserved for student above average, intellectually speaking.

Why you should read it: Don’t let his name turn you off – it’s a great book that makes very valid arguments. Essentially, Real Education is a different solution the problem outlined in The College Dropout Scandal. We as a society value the college path over the vocational and labor paths, and the result is an enormous proportion of college student dropping out, with lots of debt and no degree. If we can’t graduate students, we’re actually leaving them worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college in many cases (not good!). Unlike Kirp who argues for colleges changing to serve new student populations, Murray’s argument is to only admit high-achieving students (i.e., high SAT scores). This is not an unpopular perspective in the academy—and exactly why you should read it.


So, what is the state of higher education today? How do we fix its problems? There is certainly no straightforward answer to such a complex question, but the answer will certainly involve nuanced discussion and hearing from a variety of perspectives, such as those above. Remember, you can disagree that higher education is only for the IQ elite, but that does not mean you should not engage with the perspective and work to understand it. Each of these authors provides a valid take on higher education today. Each have contributed to my own perspective of higher education, and my views on higher education – its problems and solutions – continue to evolve as I engage with diverse perspectives. I encourage you to engage as well.

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