Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk
August 10, 2005
Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow, editors
Palgrave Macmillan, publishers
This collection of essays hopes to "sound an alert and encourage a national conversation" about the state of higher education today, much as A Nation at Risk did for K-12 education two decades ago. It's unlikely to succeed in that quest, however, because, for the most part, instead of stark data and compelling horror stories it offers gentle musings and suggestions. Some of these are interesting, even thought provoking, but they're not likely to birth a reform movement. For example, one author laments the fact that newspapers devote more coverage to K-12 issues than to higher ed; one urges a separation of teaching and research; another urges a reinvigoration of campus life and better coordination across disciplines. The report does explain how simplified rankings of schools can create the wrong incentives: good schools remain exclusive rather than increase their acceptance rates in order to serve more students. As is typical of such collections, the authors sometimes contradict each other. Do students and professors have a "mutual nonaggression pact," such that the latter can focus on research and leave students alone, or do students "put an emphasis on teaching" and wish their professors would do the same? Of course, there are no simple answers, and a national conversation could certainly help us frame the problem more precisely before moving on to solutions. But we're going to need more ammunition before reformers can be persuaded that the examples offered here are "canaries in the mine," forewarning us that higher education in America is about to slide into mediocrity. You can order the book here and an accompanying PBS television special is planned.