On American Higher Education

This is the first in an occasional series of essays on American higher education.

Chapter I: An Introduction

On September 9, 1766, students at Harvard College decided that they had had enough of the “bad and unwholesome” butter they were being served for dinner. So like their righteously indignant counterparts two centuries later, they staged an uprising that would go down the annals of higher education history as one of the earliest examples of student tomfoolery.

Ah, college.

For many Americans, such student shenanigans represent one of the great hallmarks of the collegiate experience. It’s true that when you ask the average Joe on the street what comes to mind when he hears the word “college,” the image automatically conjured is one of expansive quads and ivy-covered buildings—in other words, Harvard. But for every With Honors, there’s an Animal House and an Old School. For every impassioned lecture on bioethics, there’s a steady stream of Thursday night keggers. For every rousing display of collegiate athleticism, there’s a glut of Girls Gone Wild footage from Spring Breakers in Tijuana.

This is perhaps one of the more fascinating dichotomies of American higher education: its role both as a cultural rite of passage for the select few and as a gateway to personal advancement for the masses. In a sense, then, American higher education is decidedly schizophrenic. It’s an intellectual mecca often wrapped in the hedonistic wantonness of camp. But that’s a topic for another post altogether.

Stereotypical images aside, few people are actually familiar with the inner workings of America’s colleges and universities. And while college has become a rite of passage for a select number of Americans (college aspirations of high school seniors are at an all-time high), the rite itself is somewhat shrouded in mystery.

For many, college is simply an expensive black box where you enroll, do the necessary grunt work, and then—poof!—you get a degree in four, five, or six years. It’s not surprising that it took a seminal book by Robert Birnbaum (1988) to articulate exactly How Colleges Work. But for the average American, exposure to higher education is usually limited to two factors. The first is from direct personal experience, if he or she is part of the 25 percent of Americans fortunate enough to have a bachelor’s degree. The second, and more likely source of information is the vicarious thrills of college life transmitted in popular culture.

And the results are highly variable. Some are absolutely enamored with the collegiate experience. I swear, I can name several 30-plus-year olds who relive their glory days every Tuesday afternoon at happy hour. Others pursue higher education as a necessary evil. For example, there are many groups—students included—for whom the sanctity of ivy-covered buildings is considered archaic, even irrelevant in light of the hefty price tag. Still others see going to college as an unattainable pipedream. So the truism rings true: When it comes to higher education, your actual mileage may vary.

Exactly what happens to people when they go to college? What is it that makes students ready for the proverbial “real world” after completing 120 credits? What is this magical process of learning that takes place in cavernous lecture halls and how does it translate into the promise of more dollars? Why do many students—the 18-22 year olds at least—treat college as an extension of high school, complete with acts of sexual and alcoholic hijinks? And how sure are we that the piece of paper that students get at the end of their expensive journey actually means something?

I sat down to reflect on my own experiences in higher education with the hope of finding answers to these questions.

And jaded as I am, I’m genuinely curious to see what I find. And as I write, I do so with many different hats. First, I’m writing as a student actively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. Second, I’m writing as an administrator concerned with implementing policies that make little sense. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’m writing as someone who has fallen madly in love with higher education.

I love higher education. And I love being a higher education administrator. No other professional endeavor is equally satisfying and frustrating, humbling and ingratiating, exhilarating and exhausting. No other industry has had as rich and sordid a history, nor as excitingly unpredictable a future. Indeed, higher education’s past, present, and future are worthy of geeky devotion and study, if only to discover the astonishing secrets of its longevity. As a wise soul once observed, absent prostitution and organized religion, no other institution has demonstrated the staying power as America’s colleges and universities have in the past three hundred and seventy years. Unfunny sitcoms come and go on network television; college is here to stay.

Clearly, this series of essays will not be an exhaustive review of everything about American higher education. It doesn’t intend to be. It is also, by design, not particularly academic. There are plenty of other tell-all publications out there that better document the functions and dysfunctions of the Academy. More, those are probably written by more credentialed thinkers. But my immersion in the field has allowed me unusual access to the inner workings of higher education’s dark underbelly and its dirty little secrets, many of which are enough fodder for a good round or two at the local watering hole.

But at its core, these essays are the culmination of my admittedly limited experiences in higher education. So they are filled with biases and snap judgments. And they are filled with unfair generalizations and over-exaggerations about the enterprise and the people in it. But they are also filled with stories of students, faculty, administrators, advocates, and other individuals I’ve met at all levels of higher education who are fundamentally after the same thing: a better world through education.

And so far in my reflection, I’ve discovered that some things never change. So much of American higher education’s history is steeped in tradition that it often takes a reminder that underneath the masked pretensions of the Academy are students—just like you and me—who are simply unsatisfied with their butter.

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