This fall more than 19 million students will enroll in the 4,000 or so degree-granting colleges and universities now operating in the United States. College enrollments have grown steadily year by year, more than doubling since 1970 and increasing by nearly one-third since the year 2000. More than 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in a community college, four-year residential college, or in one of the new online universities, though only about half of these students graduate within five years. The steady growth in enrollments is fed by the widespread belief (encouraged by college administrators) that a college degree is a requirement for entry into the world of middle-class employment. A college education is now deemed one of those prizes that, if good for a few, must therefore be good for everyone, even if no one in a position of academic authority can define what such an education is or should be. These conceptions are at the heart of the democratic revolution in higher education.

Higher education is thus a “growth” industry in America, one of the few that foreigners (now mostly Asians) are willing to support in large numbers. College tuition and expenses have increased at five times the rate of inflation over the past three decades, forcing parents and students deeply into debt to meet the escalating costs. Fed by a long bull market in stocks, college and university endowments have exploded since the mid-1980s, providing even more resources for salaries, new personnel, financial aid, and new buildings and programs. A handful of prestigious colleges and universities, mainly private, are overwhelmed each year by applications from high school seniors seeking to have their tickets punched for entry into the upper strata of American society. But these elite institutions are far from representative of higher education as a whole. The vast majority of colleges and universities—90 percent of them at least—admit any applicant with a high school diploma and the means to pay. Given the availability of financial aid, any high school graduate who wishes to attend college can do so. 

Many universities, and not a few colleges, have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies.

Many universities, and not a few colleges, have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies with their layers of highly paid executives presiding over complex empires that contain semi-professional athletic programs, medical and business schools, and expensive research programs along with the traditional academic departments charged with providing instruction to undergraduate students. Like other industries, higher education has its own trade magazines and newspapers, influential lobbying groups in Washington, and paid advertising agents reminding the public of how important their enterprise is to the national welfare. In contrast to corporate businesses, whose members generally agree on their overall purpose, colleges and universities have great difficulty defining what their enterprise is for. What is a college education? On just about any campus, at any given time, one can find faculty members in intense debate about what a college education entails and what the mission of their institution should be. Few businesses would dare to offer a highly expensive product that they are incapable of defining for the inquiring consumer. Yet this is what colleges and universities have done at least since the 1960s, and they have done so with surprising success.

The most trenchant criticisms of these developments in higher education have come primarily from the conservative end of the political spectrum. From the time that William F. Buckley, Jr., published God and Man at Yale in 1951, conservatives have been the main critics of the drift of college and universities away from their traditional role as guardians of civilization and into the political-corporate institutions that they have gradually come to resemble. Over the decades conservatives such as Russell Kirk, Allan Bloom, and Roger Kimball have criticized academic institutions for dismembering core curricula, offering trendy but intellectually worthless courses, surrendering to political correctness, and providing comfortable sinecures for faculty at the expense of hard-working students and their parents. Conservatives were always skeptical of the campaign to democratize higher education, arguing that it was bound to lead to lowered standards and loss of purpose. Events have confirmed their predictions, even if their diagnosis has done little to alter the path of the American university.

Liberals have been more reserved in their criticisms of higher education, no doubt because they (in contrast to conservatives) have been in charge of the enterprise over these many decades. To the extent that they have called for reform in higher education, it has usually been to urge colleges and universities to move more rapidly down the path on which they were already traveling—that is, in the direction of more diversity, greater access, more student choice in courses and curricula, more programs for special groups, and so on. Because they have operated inside the walls of academe, liberals (and leftists) have never had much difficulty in translating their proposals into academic policy.

...liberals (and leftists) have never had much difficulty in translating their proposals into academic policy.

Yet a curious thing is now happening in the ever-expanding commentary on higher education: many of the criticisms formerly made by conservatives are now being reprised by liberals, or at least by authors who are in no way associated with conservative ideas or organizations. At least two distinguished academic leaders, Anthony Kronman, the former Dean of the Yale Law School, and Harry Lewis, the former Dean of Students at Harvard, have published stern critiques of colleges and universities for failing to challenge students with the great moral and political questions that were once incorporated into liberal arts curricula. Now several books have appeared, written from a liberal point of view, that take colleges and universities to task on various counts: they are too expensive; the education they offer is sub-par, especially in relation to costs; they are administratively top-heavy; their faculties are too specialized; they do not emphasize teaching; their catalogs are filled with bizarre courses; and, more importantly, they are not providing the liberal arts education that students need and deserve. These are serious charges, especially when one considers who is making them. What lies behind them? And what do the authors propose to do about them?

The most comprehensive indictment is set forth in a new book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, titled Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. 1 The authors cannot be accused of being outsiders to the industry or lacking in understanding of their subject. Hacker is a distinguished political scientist, the author of many academic books, formerly a professor at Cornell University, and now an emeritus professor at Queens College in New York City. Dreifus writes for the Science section of The New York Times and is a faculty member at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It is surprising—refreshing even—to encounter a wide-ranging critique of higher education set forth by authors with such impeccable credentials. Yet one would never call this a balanced or even-handed critique. It is meant to arouse indignation and to bring forth remedies for the ills it diagnoses. And, along the way, the book makes many useful points, generally documented by facts and illustrations.

Hacker and Dreifus begin from the premise that higher education has lost its internal compass and no longer fulfills its basic obligations to the rising generation of Americans. As they write, “A huge—and vital—sector of our society has become a colossus, taking on many roles, and doing none of them well.” The central purpose of higher education is to offer an education that will turn students into “thoughtful and interesting human beings,” the putative goal of an education in the liberal arts. Colleges and universities have weighed themselves down with so many ancillary activities, from technical research to varsity athletics, that they have lost sight of their basic mission.

The authors write from the standpoint of the older—or pre-1960s—liberalism that assumed that democratic education and the liberal arts should operate in tandem. Thus they assert that every student can learn, that a college education should be available to all, and that such an education should revolve around the liberal arts, loosely defined. Yet, in the 1960s, the claims of democracy and equality were perverted into the doctrine of diversity which held that the liberal arts have no truths to teach and that, therefore, colleges have no right to impose any curriculum on their faculty and students. The authors seem to think that this older synthesis can be resurrected on campus if only some institutional encrustations like disciplinary research, administrative bloat, and varsity athletics can be peeled away. Though they are undoubtedly wrong about this (the problems go much deeper), their book contains many valuable observations that demonstrate that something is rotten in the world of higher education.

Higher education incorporates a basic contradiction: students enroll to receive an education, but faculty members are paid and promoted according to disciplinary research that is unrelated to teaching. In the authors’ view, in fact, “there is an inverse correlation between good teaching and academic research.” A heavy emphasis on research obviously causes professors to shortchange teaching responsibilities and to view colleagues at other institutions as a more important audience for their work than their own students. It also encourages faculties to load up college catalogs with narrow and arcane courses as young professors “teach their dissertations” and veteran professors teach their latest research projects. In this way the research agenda in the various disciplines invades the undergraduate curriculum. The tenure system, originally created to protect the freedom of faculty to conduct research, now insulates professors from incentives to perform in the classroom. At the same time, tenure is no longer a necessary protection since there are now judicial and contractual remedies for any serious violations of academic freedom.

Moreover, since research professors must have graduate students, every major department must have its own Ph.D. program whether or not its graduates have any hope of finding jobs. The authors cite a telling statistic: between 2005 and 2007, American universities awarded 101,009 doctoral degrees but in those years created just 15,820 assistant professorships. Few graduate students have any realistic hope of pursuing careers in the fields in which they are being trained. Many of these redundant Ph.D.s wind up driving taxicabs or managing restaurants, but many are also recruited back to campus as adjuncts to teach courses for a fraction of what tenured professors are paid. The authors estimate that 70 percent of all college teaching is performed by adjuncts, graduate assistants, and other non-faculty personnel.

The proliferation of administrators—administrative bloat—is a major factor behind the escalating costs of higher education. The ratio of administrators per student has doubled over the past three decades. Across the country, there are now about 63 administrators per 1,000 students. At many of the prestigious colleges and universities, the ratios are far higher. At Williams College roughly 70 percent of the employees are occupied in other pursuits besides teaching. The additions have not included groundskeepers, janitors, and cafeteria workers, but positions like “babysitting coordinator,” “spouse-partner employment counselor,” and “queer-life coordinator” (a real position). This is a common pattern at highly ranked institutions. The Chronicle of Higher Education routinely runs advertisements for positions like Sustainability Director, Credential Specialist, and Vice President for Student Success. Wouldn’t students be better served if, instead of filling positions like these, colleges and universities hired more philosophers, classicists, and physicists?

These superfluous administrators not only cost money (they have generous salaries), but they also invent work requiring still more of their kind, thus diverting institutional attention from learning and instruction to second and third order activities. A portion of administrative “bloat” is a function of the growing complexity of academic institutions, and some of it flows from governmental requirements. But in many cases the new administrators serve as advocates for special causes, demanding the hiring of more faculty and administrators in fields like feminism, environmentalism, and queer studies. In this sense, the expansion is an outgrowth of the politicization of the modern campus.

The most obvious expression of the administrative takeover of higher education is the emergence of “hired gun” presidents who move from institution to institution, generating higher salaries for themselves and their peers as they do so. The president of Ohio State University, who previously held top positions at Brown University, the University of Colorado, and West Virginia University, has a pay package exceeding $2 million. It is not uncommon today for college presidents to receive salary packages exceeding $1 million, courtesy of student tuition payments and taxpayer subsidies, while the average faculty member receives one-tenth of that. Are these men and women academic and intellectual leaders on their campuses, as college and university presidents (like Robert Maynard Hutchins and Charles William Eliot) were at one time? The answer in almost all cases is “no.” They are hired mainly to raise money, manage complex bureaucracies, and keep their faculties happy. The emergence of this new kind of administrator reflects the overall loss of intellectual purpose in higher education.

Hacker and Dreifus reserve their strongest criticisms for a handful of elite institutions—the “Golden Dozen” as they call them—that set the tone (unjustifiably in their opinion) for higher education as a whole. The list is familiar: the eight Ivy League institutions, plus Duke, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst. They are the prestigious schools that all ambitious students hope to attend, even though only a small fraction of them can hope to win admission. The existence of this elite stratum of institutions seems to violate the authors’ sense of democratic fairness. In their view, these schools are overrated and do not merit the hallowed reputations they have been assigned. They dutifully recognize several institutions of lesser rank (The University of Mississippi and Arizona State University, for example) that they believe do a better job of educating their students.

While all this may be true, the authors offer scant evidence for their conclusions. They do not try to assess the quality of education on offer (which would be a revealing exercise), but, in seeming contradiction with a major premise of their book, they try to assess how successful alumni bodies have been compared to the graduates of other institutions. They conclude on the basis of Who’s Who entries that the alumni of the “Golden Dozen” do not fare any better in life than any other group of college graduates. Unfortunately, in using success as a measure, the authors buy into the idea that that what matters in an institution is not the quality of education it offers but, rather, the financial, social, and political achievements of its graduates. Using this criterion, they are unlikely to persuade ambitious students that they will be better off attending their local state university than matriculating to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.

In the intellectual vacuum that has developed on campus, students understandably express vocational aspirations in their selection of courses and majors. Hacker and Dreifus are disappointed that so many students choose vocational majors, like business, engineering, and communications, over fields in the liberal arts like history, philosophy, and literature. Business is by far the leading major among undergraduates today, far surpassing the popularity of traditional fields in the humanities or social sciences. But who can blame the students for these choices, especially since they are no longer likely to hear anyone on campus making a good case for the liberal arts? If they are going to spend vast sums on a degree, then at least they want to be able to get a job when they graduate.

The authors set forth several controversial remedies to lower the costs of higher education and to return it to its central purposes. They would end tenure and sabbaticals for professors, emphasize teaching over research in all aspects of undergraduate education, curb the exploitation of adjunct professors, spin off university medical schools and research programs, eliminate varsity athletics, spread resources around to more institutions beyond the “Golden Dozen,” reduce the costs of administration (especially presidential salaries), and exploit new technologies to improve classroom instruction. These are generally good ideas, though perhaps also utopian in current circumstances. Getting rid of varsity athletics, especially football, has long been a goal of academic reformers, and they are no nearer their goal today than they were fifty or one hundred years ago. Even so, some of these reforms, such as the elimination of tenure and the scaling back of varsity athletics, may come about in the coming years due to mounting financial pressures on colleges and universities. The fact that universities exploit adjunct teachers is a clear sign that they cannot afford to spread the costs associated with the tenure system across all instructional programs. As costs mount and available resources dwindle, all institutions will be forced to confront basic questions about which programs they can afford to maintain. What advocacy and criticism cannot accomplish the laws of economics may eventually bring about.

The central weakness of Hacker and Dreifus’s otherwise useful critique is that they never tell us what kind of education is most likely to produce “thoughtful and interesting human beings.” What is an education in the liberal arts? What should students learn during their undergraduate years? Should every college have a core curriculum in the liberal arts, as most did a generation or two ago? The authors make a case for the liberal arts but fail to tell us what they entail or how they might be revived from their present condition.

The sad fact is that the liberal arts are dying on college campuses today due to the combined influences of specialization, diversity, and vocational goals. The century-long attempt to apply the scientific model to the humanities has at length produced the consequences that Hacker and Dreifus document so well. The various academic travesties that the authors cite are symptoms of a deeper problem. Many of these (such as the proliferation of pointless courses) take place in humanities departments and not in the sciences where a ladder of learning still exists and where research is linked to an ongoing search for knowledge. The fundamental problems of higher education, especially as they relate to its overall loss of purpose, can be traced back to the collapse of the liberal arts. In the process, there has opened up a large gulf between the sciences, where undergraduate teaching programs are generally very good (where resources are available) and the humanities, where teaching and research have lost their purpose and, with it, their value. Conservatives have known this for a long time. In reading Higher Education, one senses that there are now liberals who are beginning to feel their way toward the same conclusion.

In elementary and secondary education, costs have risen exponentially over recent decades even as student learning (as measured by achievement tests) has steadily declined. College costs have similarly risen several-fold since the 1970s, as Hacker and Dreifus demonstrate in great detail. Do we find a similar pattern in higher education, with escalating costs associated with losses in learning and academic rigor?

The answer to this question is “yes” according to two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, who have set forth their case in a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. 2 Arum, a professor at New York University, and Roksa, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, claim on the basis of empirical data that college students are studying and writing less and learning far less than their peers of a generation ago, while our competitors abroad are passing us by in measures of achievement and rates of college graduation. America’s competitiveness in the global economy is thus at risk thanks to declining standards in our colleges and universities.

The current movement to measure student learning was set in motion in 2006 by a report from the Spellings Commission (named for Margaret Spellings, then the U.S. Secretary of Education) which called for greater “transparency and accountability” in colleges and universities that receive federal aid. The report called for “better data about real performance” to allow students, parents, and policy-makers to compare institutions according to measurable outcomes. According to the Commission, such measures are needed in order to determine if “the national investment in higher education is paying off.” The report was a signal that “outcomes testing,” long used in elementary and secondary education, was about to be introduced into higher education as well.

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa take up the challenge to measure student learning by drawing upon results from the College Learning Assessment (CIA), a standardized test given to more than 3,000 students at different institutions upon entry into college and then later at the end of their second and fourth years of undergraduate work. The cla asks students to examine a complex problem, such as an argument about crime reduction used in a political campaign, and then to write up their assessments of different approaches with their own recommendations. The test purports to measure critical thinking, complex reasoning, and ability to write both when students enter college and after two and four years of course work. Though burdened by the social science excesses of data and methodology, Academically Adrift is a serious effort to find out if colleges and universities are delivering on their promise to educate all students. By its roundabout route, the book also yields several constructive recommendations as to how colleges and universities might be improved.

The authors report (predictably) that, during their college years, large numbers of students show little improvement in their abilities to reason, analyze, and write. According to their study, 45 percent of the sample showed little evidence of improvement after two years of college and 36 percent after four years. The performance gap between blacks and whites, already significant upon entry into college, widened further during the undergraduate years. As the authors conclude, “An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills.” Even so, nine in ten students say upon graduation that they are satisfied with their college experience.

“An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills.”

The authors locate the sources of these disappointing outcomes in the culture of student life and in the lack of rigor in college curricula. Students spend the bulk of their time socializing with peers rather than studying. The culture of student life does not assign great value to learning and achievement. According to their study, students spend on average only about thirteen hours per week studying, far less time than students allocated to study in the 1960s. The reason that they can get away with it is that they encounter few courses that require much writing or significant amounts of reading, which does not come as a surprise given what we know about the current state of undergraduate courses.

Arum and Roksa agree with other authors about the basic problems of higher education. Colleges are bloated with administrators with impressive sounding titles, but none has a mandate to improve student learning. Adjunct and part-time faculty teach too many courses. Professors do not spend enough time in the classroom or meeting individually with students. College trustees and presidents are preoccupied with national rankings and reputations. Students are viewed as “consumers” and given too much choice in the selection of courses. Colleges devote too many resources to luxurious dormitories, student centers, and expensive athletic facilities in a misguided effort to entertain students and keep them happy. Interestingly enough, the authors call upon academic leaders to strengthen the general education requirements—that is, their core curricula—at their institutions to ensure that all students receive an education in the fundamentals.

The one conclusion that they do not reach is that too many students are attending college who are either not motivated or lack the skills to do college-level work. The Council for Aid to Higher Education reports that, “40 percent of students entering college do not read, write, or perform math at a college-ready level,” a figure that closely approximates the numbers reported by Arum and Roksa that do not learn very much during their undergraduate years. Is it possible that we are sending 40 percent of our students to college unprepared for the experience and are unable to benefit from it? Are faculty and administrators “dumbing down” their curricula to make it possible for these students to pass the requirements? Reasonable observers have answered both questions in the affirmative, even if such answers seem to violate a national commitment to guarantee a college education to every student who wants one.

Academically Adrift has been widely criticized in academic circles because (it is said) the College Learning Assessments do not really measure learning but rather aptitude or something else unrelated to classroom instruction. While this is possibly so (the makers of the test dispute it), results from the CIA are undoubtedly closely correlated with those of the SAT and ACT examinations upon which administrators rely for admissions and which they claim are measures of learning rather than innate aptitude. If the cla does not do the job, then critics have an obligation to come up with a better test.

Of course, it is possible that no conceivable test can accurately measure what students should really learn during their college years. The purpose of higher education, after all, is not to train students in the basic skills of reasoning and writing but to take students who already have them and supplement their education with something more important—namely, knowledge and understanding. The campaign to turn colleges into glorified high schools has been as misguided as the effort to turn the humanities into a science. It is not possible to educate students in something called “critical thinking” in the absence of a foundation of knowledge. Students who have taken the trouble to fortify themselves with knowledge will naturally develop the capacities both to criticize and to affirm, and to understand the difference between the two. An education in the liberal arts, rightly understood, is one means by which educators in the past sought to engage students in the search for knowledge and understanding. Whatever the weaknesses of that approach, academic leaders have yet to find an effective substitute for it.

Mark C. Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities is an enlarged version of a 2009 op-ed article he published in The New York Times, in which he called for the abolition of the tenure system and the elimination of permanent academic departments that he sees as the obsolete equivalents of assembly lines and the small family farm. 3 The title of that article, “End the University as We Know It,” provides a sense of the ambitious—and inflated—aims of his proposals. In his view, the financial collapse has created a crisis on campus that will force academic leaders to re-organize their institutions if they are to survive in a time of dwindling resources.

Taylor, who is now the chair of the Religion department at Columbia University and previously was a longtime professor in the humanities at Williams College, decided to enlarge the essay into a book because of the popular response it provoked. He writes, “My analysis of the current state of higher education and proposals for change set off a firestorm of discussion and controversy.” Well, perhaps—but he would have served the debate better by letting matters stand with the short statement of his position.

Taylor’s book, unfortunately, reads like an extended opinion piece, long on assertions and proposals but short on analysis and supporting information. He sets forth many proposals, but few of them are new or bold. Like Hacker and Dreifus and many before them, he wants to end tenure, primarily to open up opportunities for young scholars who have worked for years to earn Ph.D.s only to find that there are no jobs when they are finished (though this was not exactly a secret when they began). Like other critics, he thinks that colleges and universities encourage disciplinary research at the expense of teaching. He urges a national collaboration between elite and non-elite institutions to train and reward good teachers, which is a good idea. He thinks that computers and video games should be used widely to improve the quality of teaching and break down barriers between disciplines, and goes so far as to suggest that colleges and universities should be restructured to reflect the open and adaptable characteristics of computer networks.

Taylor is especially keen to promote more cross-disciplinary activities that bring scholars from different fields—like art and physics or religion and international affairs—together to address new problems. There are many professors who resist such collaborations, preferring to focus on the subject matter in their disciplines. At the same time, this kind of inter- and cross-disciplinary work has been going on for a long time on major campuses where new combinations of fields are continually evolving into new disciplines like regional science, biochemistry, the history of science, social psychology, and neuroscience. But these fields evolve out of existing disciplines and do not emerge de novo, as Taylor would like them to do.

Taylor does have some ideas that are new and bold, but they are not necessarily constructive or practical. He advances a bizarre proposal to eliminate permanent departments and to reconstitute fields on the run to study particular subjects like water, time, money, law, and networks. After a few years when these fields have been adequately mined, they would be dissolved and new ones developed out of the passing interests of students and faculty. Graduate students could earn advanced degrees in any of these temporary fields, perhaps by producing films, video games, or new websites in place of the traditional written dissertation. A college or university could never organize its affairs in this manner without turning its professors into dilettantes and its students into reflections of the passing fashions of the hour. Taylor expresses little appreciation for the ways in which scientists conduct their affairs or how they establish new knowledge on the basis of painstaking and time-consuming research. It is good that some professors are given to flights of imagination, but it is also good that some have their feet planted firmly on the ground.

Nor is Taylor particularly sympathetic to the liberal arts as a discipline through which the lessons and achievements of the past are transmitted from generation to generation. He is an enthusiast for the new: new technologies, new ways of learning, and new and untested patterns academic organization. It is unusual to encounter a humanist and philosopher so thoroughly enthralled with the possibilities of computers and online networks, undoubtedly a sign that he does not know enough about them. Taylor’s proposals would indeed “end the university as we know it.” Would that be a good thing? The university is in real need of reform but not necessarily of upheaval—at least not yet.

Many of the current excesses of higher education that developed out of affluence will unwind in the new era of austerity.

Taylor is undoubtedly correct on one point: the financial crash and the long recession will undoubtedly put new pressures on colleges and universities to cut costs and eliminate superfluous programs and personnel. The “higher education bubble,” as he calls it, is in the process of bursting, like the other “bubbles” of our era. The contemporary university is, to a great extent, the product of a postwar American affluence that is gradually coming to an end. Rising tuition, escalating salaries, administrative overload, and doubling and redoubling endowments are all reflections in one way or another of a steadily growing economy and an historic bull market in stocks (and the nation’s ability to borrow unlimited sums). As resources become harder to find, as families can no longer afford current tuition prices, and as federal resources are withdrawn, college and university leaders will be hard pressed to maintain the gains of the past few decades. Many of the current excesses of higher education that developed out of affluence will unwind in the new era of austerity.

Yet were I asked to set forth a short list of preferred reforms in higher education based upon the information contained in these books, then I would emphasize the following:

(1) Shelve the utopian idea that every young person should attend college and also the notion that the nation’s prosperity depends upon universal college attendance. Many youngsters are not prepared or motivated for college. Let them prepare for a vocation. The attempt to push them through college is weakening the enterprise for everyone else.

(2) Terminate most Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences. There is little point in training able people in research programs when they have no prospect of gaining employment afterwards. The research enterprise has also corrupted all of these fields, particularly in the humanities.

(3) Develop programs in these fields that will allow students to earn graduate degrees based upon teaching rather than research. Such programs will be intellectually broad rather than specialized and will equip graduates to teach in several fields in the humanities. This will strengthen teaching in the liberal arts and perhaps even revive the field from its current condition.

(4) Reverse the expansion of administrative layers, especially those offices and programs created to satisfy campus pressure groups. If campus groups want their own administrative offices, they should pay for them themselves, rather than asking other students (and their parents) to do so. Colleges and universities should make it a practice to hire at least three new faculty members for every new administrator hired.

(5) Bring back general education requirements and core curricula to ensure that every student is exposed to the important ideas in the sciences and humanities that have shaped our civilization. There are many ways of doing this. Columbia University has always done it through a “great books” approach; other institutions do it through a series of survey courses in the sciences and liberal arts. How it is done matters less than that it is done.

Despite the liberal outlook of most professors, higher education is one of the most conservative of enterprises. Its patterns of organization have evolved gradually over the generations, and it is highly resistant to reform, particularly wholesale reform and reorganization. In recent decades, it has been marked more by dissolution than reform. One ought not to think that any of the recommendations advanced above or set forth in the books discussed here will be implemented any time soon. They represent just the start of a long-running conversation. Colleges and universities of the future are likely to look much as they do today, except that they will operate with fewer resources and much narrower margins for excess.

1 Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, by Andrew Hacker & Claudia Dreifus; Henry Holt & Company, 271 pages, $26.

2 Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa; University of Chicago Press, 259 pages, $70.

3 Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, by Mark C. Taylor; Knopf, 256 pages, $24.