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Higher Education and the American Dream

Marvin Lazerson

Part IV. Making Things Better

Chapter 7. Why is higher education so hard to reform?

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I can’t get no satisfaction. And I try
(The Rolling Stones)

1Americans’ faith in the power of education to cure everything is all-encompassing. This gospel of education asserts that social, economic, political, and ethical problems can be solved through schooling. Whatever the difficulties and the aspirations—economic development and individual economic success, social instability and social security, global competition and national identity, intolerance and tolerance, religious and secular values, economic productivity and satisfaction at work, the list could go on and on—the Education Gospel assumes that schooling can solve the problem and meet the goals.

2The essential message connected to such terms as ‘knowledge society’, ‘information society’, and high-tech revolution’ is that life in the 21st century will require people with skills associated with knowledge and information, and that these can best be learned in schools, especially the skills that come with college education and beyond. In the face of intense global competition, the need to make decisions about complex problems, to preserve democracy, and to bring ethical behavior and tolerance into a world that often seems to reward the opposite, as well as enhancing each individual’s chances at professional status, economic success, and social security, mass schooling is absolutely necessary. It assures economic growth and democracy.

3In the United States, the gospel of education has produced remarkable results. America has provided more schooling for more people sooner and for longer periods of time than any other country. Millions of immigrants and their families, millions of poor and working class, millions of previously discriminated against can attest to the remarkable openness and opportunities available through education. Faith in the Education Gospel lies at the heart of America’s belief in itself. It is one of the givens of the American Dream.

4The problem with the Gospel is not the faith itself, but rather its exaggeration, its tendency to deny the importance of so many other aspects of global, national, and individual existence. Schools are not always the best places to learn about life, and certainly not the exclusive places to learn about work. And, because the Gospel has in the last decades become so closely attached to economic success for the nation and for individuals, it has become a distorting lens through which education is seen primarily—often exclusively—as a transmission belt. One goes to school in order to get to the next level of schooling. Schooling’s value lies in its payoffs; the more schooling, the larger expected payoffs.

5This exaggerated faith leads to a continuing condition of dissatisfaction, since schools simply cannot accomplish all that Americans expect of it, and certainly not for all the people who spend time in school. At best, the expectations can only be partially realized, leading to an environment in which proposals to change, reform, or punish schools are a way of life, leading to constant tampering with education, with the misguided hope that there is a right recipe that just has to be put in place. The tampering is almost always initiated from outside schools at every level, from kindergarten through graduate education. Constantly badgered by yet another attempt at reform or more accurately, by multiple reforms simultaneously, those within schools—teachers, professors, administrators—more often than not hold the line. They both believe in what they are doing and they understand that in a short period of time yet another set of reforms will be on the agenda. The first step, then, in improving education is to see it as one of many institutions and policy options available for economic growth, social progress, and individual success. Education is important—very important—but there are so many other things that have to be improved if education is to come closer to achieving its aspirations.

7.1 Money matters—if used correctly

6Higher education’s success has been built on its ability to gain a near monopoly on access to the American Dream. The monopoly is not total; the media provides the occasional story about the self-made individual who made it without much schooling, but the occasions are rare. Colleges and universities have taken over the preparation of skilled labor, the provision of expert knowledge, and scientific research. That success has brought with it millions and millions of dollars from public and private sources. Higher education’s success in attracting money stimulates the desire for even more money. The search for gold has become an ever-present phenomenon. It is the dominating characteristic of American higher education. In the words of Harvard’s former president, Derek Bok:

Universities learned that they could sell the right to use their scientific discoveries to industry and find corporations willing to pay a tidy sum to sponsor courses delivered by Internet or cable television. Apparel firms offered money to have colleges place the corporate logo on their athletic uniforms or, conversely, to put the university’s name on caps and sweatshirts sold to the public. Faculty members began to bear such titles as Yahoo Professor of Computer Science or K-Mart Professor of Marketing (Bok, 2003, pp. 1–2).

7This phenomenon of selling one’s self is not new, but the size, the amounts, and the intensity of the last few decades are. The amounts that became and remain available are staggering. What was once a story of survival—we need funds to keep going—or about selected investments—our faculty and students need laboratories—has become a focus on profits. In Bok’s words, the commercialization of higher education refers to efforts “to make a profit from teaching, research, and other campus activities” (Bok, 2003, p.3; see also Kirp, 2003).

8Money is not a bad thing. Without funding from external sources, the cost of going to college would rise even more precipitously than it has, and higher education would likely return to a much more limited enterprise, cutting off large numbers of young people and adults from the opportunities it provides. Without external funding, research would revert to industrial and commercial laboratories, where potential income returns and secrecy would dominate every step of the research process. Few of us would think that would be a good thing for society.

9Still the ceaseless desire for money has an obscene quality to it, in part because profit often seems to become an end in itself, rather than a genuine attempt to improve the quality of education. Profit as an end in itself makes higher education look little different than other industries. There are other disturbing aspects. The availability of money has made it difficult to make hard decisions about what is and is not important. The tendency has been to build and to add on without serious consideration of what is no longer working well, what is no longer worth doing, and what can and needs to be changed. Greater income converts into more expenditure without a clear sense of what should no longer be done. In the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008–09, colleges and universities of every shape and form used the funds they received to start new projects, institute new kinds of programs, create more attractive settings for students and professors without taking seriously what needs to disappear, be modified, or dramatically improved. Hard decisions were in short supply, because the goal was often to spend money without eliciting conflict.

10The recent financial crisis appears to have modified that, but appearances can be deceiving. Cutting jobs, freezing new appointments, closing programs, unpaid furloughs, postponing capital investments and delaying needed maintenance are emotionally difficult and, for the people directly affected, painful. But such decisions, taken under intense pressure to balance budgets, do not necessarily lead to rethinking what really matters or where the resources, when they return, should be invested. The sad story of having money over the last decades was the tendency to spend rather than think through what the institution should be about. Whether the latter will occur in the coming decades remains an open question, but unless attitudes fundamentally change, the likelihood is high that higher education will revert back to the same patterns of the last few decades. Maybe it will even get worse, since the panic of not having money remains, further intensify the desire to gather even more than in the past.

11An alternative is for higher education to take note of the mounting research on learning and the financing of elementary and secondary education. Here, the evidence is clear: money matters. Anyone who says it does not when it comes to learning is either an idiot or a liar. Yes, there is excellent teaching and a lot of learning occurring in very poorly-funded schools, colleges, and universities, but the differences in teaching conditions, learning environments, and retention rates are often so dramatic compared to affluent institutions that huge successes, when they occur, are extraordinary occurrences. Without money, instructors are poorly-paid, better facilities are not built and existing ones deteriorate, and the technology and supplies necessary to learning are unavailable. Money is necessary, but it also not sufficient.

12What W. Norton Grubb (2009, p. xii) has written with regard to elementary and secondary schooling applies also to higher education: “leadership, vision, cooperation among teachers, effective instruction, unbiased information about effective versus ineffective practices, stability, consistent district and state policies—are necessary as well.” And, if money is to be used effectively to improve learning, it and the other resources have to be focused on the educational process itself and not on ancillary activities. For higher education, this may be even more difficult than in elementary and secondary schools. The latter have fundamental learning responsibilities, and while these are often supplemented with a variety of extra-curricula activities and social development responsibilities, the fact is, that schools cannot escape the expectation that children and youth will learn in them. The involvement by parents in their children’s educational lives, as well as the political (and scholarly) attention drawn to how well children are (and are not) learning in elementary and secondary schools is one measure that learning is the ‘bottom line’, the way to decide whether a school or classroom is functioning or not.

13For universities and colleges, the question of learning is murkier. With many faculty supposed to be researchers and with many colleges and universities making research productivity the essential requirement of appointment, promotion, and tenure, the question of how much students are actually learning receives less attention. Traditions of disciplinary-based knowledge—one is a historian not a teacher—combined with the strongly held belief by college and university instructors that the classroom is a private domain protected by academic freedom have made it extremely difficult to intervene on behalf of improved instruction, leaving higher education leaders wary of intervening to improve teaching and learning. Added to this, almost no one in higher education takes seriously research findings on students’ learning. If elementary and secondary education has suffered from repeated waves of reforms, with new ones showing up in a continuing fashion, higher education has manifested the opposite condition. Most ideas on how to improve learning are simply ignored; the reigning ideology, even with the various student support systems that have been created, is that the students who enter colleges and universities have a responsibility to learn. If they do not, they suffer the consequences.

  • 1 These are drawn from Grubb (2009). Although Grubb’s book is focused on elementary and secondary ed (...)

14Still the evidence that students can learn more than they are currently is there, and if some of it were injected into colleges and universities, financial investments might flow in a better direction than in the past. Here are a few suggestions1:

  • Emphasize instruction. This turns out to be simple to say and hard to do, because it would require breaking ranks with the rhetoric and practice that exalts and rewards everything else—from research through athletics. It requires providing genuine rewards for good teaching and not as add-ons to the reward system, i.e. as in everything stays the same, but we are adding some “outstanding teacher awards” in the form of a gift certificate to the bookstore and a plaque. And, it would provide incentives for cooperative teaching, again not as adjuncts to budgets, but as a fundamental expectation that it is worth funding more than other things.
  • Create more personalized learning environments. Helping students gain a stake in what they are learning, enabling them to cooperate with one another, developing a sense of trust about learning between instructors and students through learning communities, living and learning residential programs, majors within majors that allow small groups of students to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of departmental or programmatic majors.
  • Expand the notion of professional education. Higher education has become dominated by professional education, with the vast number of undergraduates enrolled in pre-professional programs and almost all graduate programs being explicitly professional education. The tendency of pre-professional and professional education to narrow themselves, with more and more focus on the technical aspects of each profession is disheartening. The response, however, is not to tamper, once again, with general education, as a distinct category, a separate and, to many students, irrelevant adjunct to professional education. Rather the response should be to figure out how to bring meaningful intellectual, conceptual, philosophical, and ethical issues into professional education—and I mean genuinely incorporated into the core of what it means to be a professional.

15These proposals seem so obvious that their absence, beyond the frequent rhetorical flights of fancy about the commitment to student learning, poses serious questions about whether higher education really cares about learning, which is at the heart of what needs to be changed. The recommendations also require money, which means that institutions that are financially poor will have more difficulty implementing them than those with access to money. Unfortunately the overriding inequalities in the financing of higher education institutions cannot be overcome without dramatic changes in public policy. Still every institution that genuinely wants its students to learn can take steps to do so, showing a willingness to reallocate money to where it really matters, rather than wait for the new money to come in so that learning can be added to the agenda.

7.2 Stop the loud music

16When I was growing up my father and grandfather worked in a New York City factory. In order to hear themselves over the noise of the machinery, they had to shout. Of course, all the others around them were also shouting, so they learned to shout even more loudly. This shouting as the basic form of conversation continued when they sat down at the dinner table. One consequence of this, was that in order to make myself heard I too shouted, often more loudly than they did. One younger sister joined in the shouting. A second sister, considerably younger than the two of us, responded over the years by leaving the dinner table screaming.

17My reaction to all of this noise, since there was no such thing as a conversation, was to go to my room, and turn on a New York City radio station that was introducing its listeners to rhythm and blues, what soon became known as rock and roll. I turned the music up very loudly, which of course led to more shouting, a sister playing her music more loudly, and my grandfather and father turning the sound up on the family television—and in the paper-thin walls of a Levitt house in the 1950s, every sound could be heard, if not understood.

18Over the years, I began to think about my family in the context of educational reform. What became clear to me is that the advocates of educational reform, from all sides of the political spectrum, behave like my family did—shout and play loud music, with each participant or each supporter of ‘whatever’ turning up the sound. Since at least one group of reformers is always shouting, other reformers have to shout even more loudly to be heard, leading to seemingly unending rounds of loudly played music.

19In these situations, no one can really hear anyone’s music, so everyone simply stops listening and becomes highly effective and efficient at screening out all forms of music except for one’s own. Over the years this has left us with almost no capacity to listen to anyone but ourselves and our friends, and it has utterly demolished our ability to engage in serious conversations about education. In higher education, it essentially means that very little ever really changes and that when change occurs, it often exists in a kind of parallel universe. One group gets what it wants, while the others continue to have what they previously had. A colleague once said to me that he had lived through 6 or 7 provosts at the university, each of them ‘reform-minded’, but as far as he could see, his life as a professor had stayed almost exactly the same—we are talking here about a 30-year stretch. In this context, it makes little difference what educational researchers, public officials, administrators and professors, or students say, since the music is so blaring that people more or less only hear what they already believe to be true. There is little in the way of serious conversations, although there is a lot of shouting.

20Things are not going to get better and reform will not really occur unless the competing players lower the music, limit the shouting, and stop acting as if what they have to say is the only thing that matters. Until that happens, no one really hears anything. For colleges and universities that is a tragedy.

7.3 There are no silver bullets

21Next to The Shadow, which was introduced by Orson Welles, my favorite radio program as a child was The Lone Ranger. In contrast to playing rock and roll loudly, I would keep the Lone Ranger radio program quiet, not wanting my parents to know that I was in bed with my ears glued to the radio for the stirring overture that introduced the program. As I moved from the 1950s into the 1960s, and the Lone Ranger had moved to television, I understood that this white man who wore a mask was politically incorrect. White men just did not have faithful Indian companions named Tonto. But in the 1950s, the Lone Ranger was one of my outlets to a world beyond my family.

22There were always two stirring moments in the program. One came at the very end, when someone who had been helped by the Lone Ranger would ask: “Who is that masked man?” A voice would answer, “that’s the Lone Ranger” and over the music would come a voice, “hi ho Silver”—Silver was the Lone Ranger’s horse. The other stirring moment came early in the show and was much more interesting to me, for it meant that the real action was about to begin. It was when someone would notice the Lone Ranger’s bullets, and would say, “why those are silver bullets, mister.” That meant, that the Lone Ranger was on the case and the action would begin.

23Through years of talking with Patricia A. Graham about education, I became reacquainted with silver bullets, for Graham would hold firmly to the position that as long as educational reformers kept searching and believing in instant cures, like medical researchers looking for the antibiotic, vaccine, or gene that would eliminate the disease, our educational problems would not be solved. The Lone Ranger’s silver bullets were just that, since they never missed their mark and they always landed where the Lone Ranger wanted them to.

24Americans treat educational reform much like the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets, and they have for a long time. What is relatively new has been the application of silver bullets to higher education reform. In the last few decades, the number of simple resolutions to complex problems looks a lot like the Lone Ranger’s approach: eliminate the problem within a half-hour, including commercial breaks. The accountability movement of the 1980s, the increased wave of accreditation efforts, the ‘let’s make teaching a scholarly activity’, the repeated efforts to amend general education, the growth of interdisciplinary studies, a bewildering array of new programs and new technologies—all get presented as if these were the breakthroughs. But unlike medical research, there are few if any breakthroughs in education, which is a slow, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful process that requires constant effort and attention, and whose payoffs are always down the road. We rarely know what we have accomplished until many years later, and even then, we can never be sure how much was education’s doing.

25One of the best things we can do is to bury the belief that any single reform, even one we very much believe in, is going to do all that much. Education is a complex business and many things need to happen to improve it. Silver bullets just don’t make it and the Lone Ranger could not possibly have shot so perfectly. Even when we are on the right track, education takes a long time to have an effect. Learning does not occur overnight. And so, we have a responsibility to say as clearly as we can, that what we want to do may help some if we do it right, but no reform is a silver bullet that will make the educational problem disappear. Sorry, Lone Ranger.

7.4 How about playing within your game

26One of the saddest aspects of U.S. higher education is the “wan-a-be” phenomenon, the desire, wish, and impulse to be like the other place, especially if the other place has a higher reputation, more money, and greater status than you do. One sees this in a variety of circumstances. Local and regional colleges and universities that admit the overwhelming majority of applicants, whose students are overwhelmingly from a relatively circumscribed geographic area, who are overwhelmingly enrolled in professional programs, continue to describe themselves as the ‘Harvard of the region’, make faculty appointments of graduates of the big research universities, declare how important it is that their professors be researchers, and talk incessantly about their international connections. None of this, taken singly, is bad. Why not aspire to emulate Harvard? Why not recruit professors from the best doctoral programs in the U.S.? Why not make research the primary decider of promotion and tenure? Taken together, however, such efforts at emulation miss the possibilities of being powerful teaching institutions and serious contributors to the skilled labor market and social and economic development in the neighborhoods and region within which the institution lives.

27I was reminded of this during the summer of 2004, when I watched the European Soccer Championships. Like soccer’s World Cup, the European championships involve an initial series of qualifying rounds that occur over the course of almost 2 years. The actual championships begin with round robins involving a small group of teams, with the top teams in each group entering the final round. The final games, like the NCAA basketball tournament, are one loss and you are out variety. As the qualifying round robin got underway— indeed in the opening game against highly favored Portugal— the national team from Greece began to win games it was supposed to lose. This was surprising, as every soccer commentator noted, because the Greeks had no superstars. Indeed, the player who emerged as Greece’s best goal scorer during the tournament was not even in the starting line-up for the German soccer club he played for during the regular season. Pretty soon, everybody started to take the Greek team seriously, and attention turned to the team’s German coach, who, it was said, had convinced his players to “play within their game.” Well, playing within their game worked for the Greeks, and in one of the biggest surprises ever in European soccer, the national team of Greece became the European champions.

28For those of you who are not sport fans, the phrase “playing within your game” probably doesn’t mean anything. Others will recognize it as a shorthand phrase that essentially means that a team of not especially great players has learned to draw upon and combine its individual strengths to make for strong team play. Playing within your game says that these players taken together are stronger as a team than the individual parts. Parenthetically, this is now a relatively rare characteristic of professional sports in the U.S., where individual superstars determine the character of teams.

29Many colleges and universities have no idea what it is to play within your game. In fact, most of them have no game plan other than looking like the reputed better, more affluent, higher status institution down the road, around the corner, in a different part of the state, or in some other section of the country. Even community colleges, whose very existence lies in their capacity to aid students in gaining access to skilled labor markets and local four-year colleges or universities, talk about becoming four-year bachelor degree granting institutions. A lot of effort thus gets put into becoming something one is not rather than being really good at what you are. The “wan-a-be” phenomenon means that institutions are constantly looking somewhere else for their models of what they should be. In the end, too many institutions have no real purpose other than to be like something else. This means there is insufficient attention or opportunity to build upon and blend an institution’s strengths to make it a better place to be. The notion of playing within your game in order to make the institution better is almost an oxymoron. It hardly ever exists.

7.5 It is hard to be really good when conditions are so unequal

30It would be a mistake to think that all institutions can achieve high levels of performance simply on their own. The inequalities of wealth make that impossible. The differences are substantial.

31In 2000–2001, research universities in California spent $16,293 per student for instructional purposes. The amount spent per student at the state colleges was $10,787 and at the community colleges, with the greatest variety of students and the greatest challenges, $4,606 was spent per student. The amounts reported undoubtedly underplay the differences, since the research universities spent considerably more on none instructional items than the state colleges and community colleges (Grubb and Lazerson, 2004, p. 73).

32Nationally, for data also covering 2000–01, (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2002, Table 342), spending per full-time equivalent student varied from $32,512 in research universities to $17,780 in public doctoral institutions to $11,345 in public universities granting master’s degrees to $7,665 in community colleges. This more than four-fold difference between the per student expenditures attests to the fact that while almost everybody can go to some college, one is not treated equally, and those with the most difficulty in school are treated less equally than the others.

33The financial differences reveal that higher education bets on winners and losers in the race to the American Dream. It offers itself as the route to the Dream, but it does so in highly stratified ways. Who will have access to which colleges and to which degrees and who will have the kind of support that converts access into achievement remain too closely connected to one’s origins to be brushed under the rug of “everyone in America has the opportunity to go to college.” Higher education does provide access to the American Dream, but it does so in divided ways that will continue to be contested, controversial, and lead to political confrontations over its behavior. The extraordinary successes mean that our expectations for higher education will continue to grow, and with that will come further discontentment.


1 These are drawn from Grubb (2009). Although Grubb’s book is focused on elementary and secondary education, a number of his findings and recommendations directly or indirectly apply to higher education. I have refocused them as appropriate.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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