Two books about how money, status drive college decisions

What is a degree from an American college worth? Two very different writers raise troubling questions about higher education in the US.

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni Grand Central Publishing 224 pp. The End of College By Kevin Carey Penguin 288 pp.

’Tis the season for college acceptance letters and with it two books that intensify the debates about higher education’s direction and value.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni addresses students opening the proverbial thin envelope with Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, while Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, argues for dismantling the traditional university system in The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. The two have vastly different visions of what a meaningful college experience looks like.

Bruni argues that elite colleges are overvalued, and consequently state universities and lesser-known colleges go underappreciated. He supports this claim with anecdotes and statistics on what graduates of these other colleges have achieved. Condoleezza Rice, an alumna of the University of Denver, makes appearances, as does Arizona State University, which graduates a large number of Fulbright scholarship recipients despite its party school image.
Ivy League degrees don’t give their holders any discernible advantage in earning potential or “workplace engagement,” according to one study Bruni quotes. It’s graduate schools that matter and are more meritocratic in their acceptances. Lists of Pulitzer winners, Fulbright scholars, and corporate and nonprofit chief executive officers bear this out.

Geography has a bigger effect, especially if you’re a politician from Alabama who appeals to constituents by choosing Auburn over Amherst – or if you’re New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a graduate of the University of Delaware, just across the river from the Garden State.

When students attend state universities, they may also find more genuinely diverse communities. Novelist Junot Díaz refers to his students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as “fragile thoroughbreds,” contrasting their rarefied experience with his and the more robust mix of students he encountered as a first-generation immigrant student at Rutgers University.

There’s a great story about the mentoring young adult novelist John Green received at Kenyon College – rated highly in “Colleges That Change Lives,” a more holistic alternative to U.S. News & World Report. But is Kenyon, with a yearly price tag of $47,000, really not elite? Maybe not to someone whose sights are set on Harvard.

And that’s my caveat: Bruni generally addresses an affluent audience aiming for the Ivies, not college hopefuls for whom a public university would be a big step educationally and financially. Shaking his head at students’ desire to “make more money” over “developing a meaningful life philosophy,” he doesn’t always acknowledge how dramatically the economic landscape has changed in the past 50 years.

For Bruni, the true villain is U.S. News & World Report, which ranks schools by the students they reject – the larger the percentage, the more “competitive” the school. Both Bruni and Carey express frustration at the way colleges capitulate to this inane system, funneling resources into inflating their “brands” to raise their ratings.

Carey’s “The End of College” positions itself as an exposé on the American university system, tracing how it evolved through many accidents of history. Recent studies have shown that many graduates lack fundamental skills, scoring at only a “basic” literacy level. Soaring tuition cripples students with debt. Faculty are rewarded for publishing rather than teaching. These are real problems that need addressing.

Carey’s antidote is a kind of techno-utopian structure called “The University of Everywhere,” in which students learn through online courses taught by a talented few – his model is MIT’s edX courses – and here his vision falters in its Silicon Valley-esque reflexive faith in technology.

Focusing almost exclusively on research universities and the sciences, Carey makes sweeping claims about professors caring only for esoteric research at the expense of teaching or collegiality. To him, a lack of uniformity among disciplines signals an absence of accountability and a paucity of learning. In one lonely reference to the humanities, Carey disparages a philosophy department’s rejection of an MIT edX course, accusing the decisionmakers of acting to save their jobs, and neglecting to tell readers what their pedagogical concerns actually were.

Grading thousands of distance-learners may be simple with problem sets, but less so with disciplines that center on writing. But to Carey, digitization is a panacea for everything from grade inflation to inequitable access to education. This uncritical view leads to a hero worship of tech guys who’ve made billions – he mentions Michael Saylor’s yacht three times in three pages. More perplexingly, he uses Uber to illustrate the wonders of technological and free market innovation.

The American college is a weird organism, true, and the legacy of dull lecturers lingers, but there are also colleges (community colleges, especially) that care deeply about innovative and effective teaching.

Carey’s investigation of tuition inflation and country club-like building projects is more convincing and engaging. Like Bruni, who criticizes college admissions as bound up in class, Carey exposes how money and status drive the current system. The two writers agree – as does this reader – that it’s a system desperately in need of fixing.

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College and a regular Monitor contributor.

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