Tag Archives: college

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.

An Intimate Look at What’s Not Working in American Higher Education

I’ve spent my entire adult life thus far at university. I began my undergraduate degree at 17 years old and just graduated with my doctorate at 28. And, I now work at a non-profit education innovation hub affiliated with the largest university in the United States. I have devoted so much time to my education personally, and now professionally, because I love learning and, quite honestly, I am not sure what else I could do or would want to do.

Maturing personally and professionally within the American higher education system has left me with seemingly conflicting views of our institutions that I’m sure many other higher education professionals and professors share. On the one hand I view education as one of the most, if not the most, important thing in one’s life; education and learning enable everything else within my life. On the other hand, there are very real problems with our higher education institutions today, problems that are leaving students behind and underserving too many students once they get to campus.

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough is the most compelling account of the myriad problems plaguing higher education that I have read. Aside from what I think is an utterly uncompelling title (one that really undersells the importance of the book in my opinion), the data and stories contained within its pages give broad, yet intimate insights into the lives of the students that our education system is failing in mass numbers.

What makes this book special and enormously moving are that the problems with our higher education system Tough details are not only backed by data, but demonstrated by real stories with real college students that Tough interviewed and followed over many years. Connecting abstract institutional problems with the lives of real students makes the problems in higher education tangible and salient.

Tough organizes his reporting somewhat chronologically, starting with the decision to go to college and how it differs across income level. For students in higher income levels, the general rule and decision-making process of which college to attend is to go to the most selective college that will accept you. For lower income students, many of whom have parents without college degrees, figuring out which college to attend typically isn’t based on selectivity, but rather location or unambitious recommendations from high school guidance counselors. In what Tough calls “income-typical behavior” high-achieving students from low income neighborhoods miss out on the advantages that going to a selective university can offer for their economic mobility.

Tough then dives into the big business of test prep, and the importance of the SAT/ACT scores in higher education. The decision to heavily weigh SAT/ACT test scores, or use them at all, in the college admissions process is a hotly debated topic. On the one hand, the test scores are the most predictive piece of information admissions offices have for whether a student will be successful (i.e., GPA and graduation likelihood). On the other hand, the use of test scores appears to be leaving a non-trivial minority of students behind. And much of the time, these students are from below-average high schools that tend to be in low-income and/or minority neighborhoods.

College admissions and its focus on test scores works against many high performing students. There is a group of students, which Tough refers to as “deflated-SAT” students that have test scores much lower than their high school GPA would predict. These students account for about 1/6th of those that take the SAT/ACT. For the remaining students that take the SAT/ACT, 2/3rd of them score consistent with their GPA and the other 1/6th score higher than what their GPA would predict, who Tough calls “inflated-SAT” students. The students in the deflated-SAT group compared to the inflated-SAT group, however, are three times more likely to be low-income, three times more likely to be first generation college students, twice as likely to be female, and at least twice as likely to be black or Hispanic. With the exception of women, then, test scores work against already underserved populations in our institutions.

Tough describes research by DePaul university, which is a test-optional institution meaning that students with deflated SAT scores are not required to submit them if they choose not to, shows that students who do not submit their test scores do, in fact, have ACT scores about five points lower, on average, than students that do choose submit them (the university requests that they submit their scores for research purposes). Importantly, however, these students with deflated scores are no different than the students who submit their scores: they have equivalent freshman GPAs, are just as likely to enroll in their sophomore year, and their six-year graduation rates are within two percentage points of the test-submitting students.

After getting in, students need to stay in. Tough’s chapter, Staying In, describes many big problems facing public universities today. How to best help an increasingly diverse student body, and how to get students to graduate. At most public state universities, only around two thirds of students actually graduate, with rates being far higher at more homogeneous Ivy league universities and other prestigious institutions, but much lower for non-selective institutions and community colleges. Thus, even at our best state institutions, too many students are unsuccessful. And, these problems disproportionately plague minorities (but not Asians), first generation students, and low income students.

Why this happens is due to many reasons. For example, primary and secondary educational institutions are not equal across neighborhoods, and the prior knowledge and education of incoming students varies dramatically. In many ways, problems in higher education are rooted in many of the problems plaguing our primary and secondary schools. Moreover, underserved students are often the minority on campus, and their sense of belonging and community can suffer. These big problems are difficult to address at scale, though Tough describes inspirational cases of programs, such as those within the University of Texas university system that are making strides to combat these problems.

The Years That Matter Most is truly eye opening to higher education’s problems; but isn’t ideologically driven. The stories he shares about real students facing real challenges at their university offer something for many to resonate with. And, Tough made me reflect on the ways in which these problems have personally impacted me during my decade-long educational journey. Although higher education does, indeed, work just fine for most students, our higher education institutions need to work for more. We need to find ways to build up underserved students – minorities, low income, first generation, and deflated-SAT – and we need to do so at scale.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash