Review: Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be

Adam McMahon, a graduate student in political science who worked for us this summer, had a chance to read Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, which is available in the office’s library (yes, a library of printed books).  Here’s what he thought:

You frequently hear about there being a crisis in higher education. Colleges are growing and enrollment is up. But although many people want to go to college, not many can afford it. Everyone wants smaller classes. This helps schools move up in the rankings and students seek out colleges where they can get hands-on attention. But this has inevitably meant the rise of tuition. Why? Because smaller classes mean more teachers. This will either be in the form of more, and expensive, tenure-track faculty—many of whom would rather focus on research than teaching or, the cheaper alternative that many at the GC are all too familiar with, is the hiring of more and more adjuncts to keep the size of classes small. This is, in a nutshell, the problem. How do we continue to allow higher education to grow while keeping costs down so that students can actually afford to attend?

In Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, he traces the history of higher education from its roots in the New World with religious affiliation to that crisis that we do face today. This book is just one among a growing genre that explores these problems facing higher education (such as Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors, Jeffrey J. Selingo’s College (Un)bound, and McCluskey & Winter’s The Idea of a Digital University, just to name a few). As a humanities professor at Columbia, Delbanco offers a perspective that many of the Graduate Center’s students could relate too. Like us, he too is based in New York City and is looking at the issues from within academia.

After reading the entire book and taking a step back, it appears to me that the key takeaway from Delbanco is the problem of funding for higher education. Colleges and universities are engaged in a sick cycle where they need money to recruit the best students, to finance needy students, and to maintain services, all while trying to move up in the rankings. This means that colleges must forever grow and grow, even if there are no jobs for graduates at the end of their undergraduate and/or graduate career(s). How can we change this? Sadly, he buys into the neoliberal worldview that says we can’t afford all the things we’ve come to expect government to provide (as an example, he presents a false dichotomy of legislatures being forced to choose between paying for Medicaid or higher education at the end of chapter 4). Ultimately, Delbanco can’t be called a radical, because he doesn’t really offer any solutions of his own. Instead, he remains an idealistic humanities professor. That isn’t a bad thing, but it does assure that the crisis endures: higher education is changing. Is that a good thing? And, if not, can anything be done to reverse course?

Although short on solutions, I would recommend College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be to anyone who is interested in the history of higher education or for someone who needs a crash course about the context in which the conflicts about higher education are currently taking place. Delbanco’s book will definitely get you up to speed.