College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students
by Jeffrey J. Selingo
New Harvest, 256 pp.
American universities are the envy of the world, but a few hundred very prestigious schools hide the fact that most colleges perform no ground-breaking research, offer mostly large and impersonal lecture classes, and provide students with few extras. Almost half of students--42 percent--who start a bachelor's degree drop out of college. Student loan debt is crippling, surpassing $1 trillion in 2012. The average student borrower leaves school $27,000 in the red. Adding insult to injury, almost half of all college students make little or no learning gains in their first two years of college, according to a 2010 book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift.
Nearly 80 percent of American college students attend state colleges and universities, but per student state support for state colleges and universities has plummeted. In 1987 tuition accounted for about a quarter of college revenue. Today's students pay just over half of all operating funds for state colleges and universities through tuition. Annual state funding per enrolled student dropped from $10,195 in 2002 to $5,900 in 2012.
It was not always thus: From the 1950s through the '70s, states generously funded public higher education. During the '80s and '90s, states were anxious to avoid tax hikes but were forced to devote more and more public money to fund state programs, particularly employee pensions and Medicaid. Colleges also cost more to run. Every year, despite changes in public funding, American institutions of higher learning spent more on science labs, administrative staff and student services, and employee and student health care. One of the solutions to these fiscal problems was to raise tuition at public colleges.
And then the spending problem got worse. Jeffrey d. Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle for Higher Education, calls the early 2000s the "lost decade" of college financing in his new book College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. At least part of the reason college got more expensive is that Americans were willing to pay more in tuition; parents rich from equity on their overvalued houses demanded more and more amenities at their children's universities. As a result, Selingo writes, "college leaders spent the last decade chasing high achieving...