The New York Times travels to State U and finds mega-sized classes, disengaged and anonymous students floating through their four (or increasingly four-and-a-half, or five, years of college), and an environment where books and studying have been replaced with beer bongs and "power hours" (a shot of beer every minute for an hour). The Times profiles five students and their experiences at the University of Arizona (one describes passing out on the floor of a vacant fraternity house - although he drinks four nights a week and never attends class, he has still made the dean's list). Professors and students exist in a kind of mutual non-aggression pact: professors offer light material and grade easily, and students don't kick up a fuss. Universities blame a culture of apathy, limited state funding, and poor secondary preparation by high schools. A few states want to stem the astonishingly high dropout rate at big public universities by tying funding to such measures as retention, but this could perversely incentivize colleges to lower standards even further. In the end, the spiraling cost of tuition - even at state schools - might be the only thing that sparks reform. Eventually, parents are going to wonder why a college that costs tens of thousands of dollars per year nets the proud graduate little but overstuffed lecture halls, a degree of questionable value, and a cirrhotic liver.
"Survival of the fittest," by John Merrow, New York Times Education Supplement, April 24, 2005