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The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System, 2nd Edition, By Arthur M. Cohen & Carrie B. Kisker, 2010

Reviewed by Lee Maltby, with thanks to Lynne S.

I have over thirty-three years of experience in education—twenty-two as a student and eleven working in a small private college. Despite the challenges encountered as a newly minted department chair and now evil administrator, I have truly enjoyed my work; and over the past eleven years I have learned much about higher education. Yet I will be the first to admit that my knowledge and experience are limited. After reading Cohen and Kisker’s The Shaping of American Higher Education, I realized how little I know.

First published in 1998, the second edition reprises much of the first edition, yet with some significant changes. Both editions are presented in a systematic manner, following the historical development of American higher education from colonial times up to the present. Acknowledging the European roots of our first institutions, the authors describe how those roots developed in typical American fashion (in other words, with few common characteristics and yet great enthusiasm and creativity), and continued to develop in great variation. The texts then follow a similar order of development, with major attention in the second edition devoted to the periods designated “Mass Higher Education in the Era of American Hegemony: 1945-1975,” and “Maintaining the Diverse System in an Era of Consolidation: 1976-1993.” By this time the reader is impressed with the book’s organization, discussion of major areas in higher education, trends, tables, and statistics. The chapters also refer to numerous authorities, research, and data. The attentive reader will find much to digest and reflect upon; in other words, the text is impressive in its depth and breadth. Word of warning: the book approaches six hundred pages, yet it is most readable, lacking the jargon and insider language sometimes emanating from the ivory tower.

In the introduction the authors explain the organization of the text and the reasons for the addition of the new and concluding chapter, “Privatization, Corporatization, and Accountability in the Contemporary Era: 1994-2009.” The first four chapters comprise almost one-half of the text. The sixth and final chapter, which covers fifteen years, is approximately one-fourth of the book. This chapter alone justifies the cost of the text. Here the authors demonstrate their mastery of the material and their awareness of the challenges facing higher education in America today.

Throughout the text the authors demonstrate how various social forces, terrorism, financial developments, politics, demographics, globalization, technology, and the evolution of faculty and the various institutions of higher education and education in general are inter-connected. These factors, and there are many, are shown to be under great stress in contemporary times. While many of the issues are not new to sentient faculty, the authors provide multiple reference points to understand the issues under discussion. On occasion the authors provide a macro perspective that includes international facts and reference points in order to better understand topics such as student debt, the cost of tuition, students from abroad, etc.

There is of course much to bemoan in higher education today. Faculty are losing many of the gains they made in the ’60’s and ‘70’s. The loss of full-time tenure track faculty and the rise of part-time faculty are leading to the “de-professionalization” of the faculty. Yet as the authors note, there is no need to “mount a frontal assault on the tenure system.” Presidents and deans can just simply refuse to replace those who quit or retire.

One of the most significant issues in higher education is the loss of government support for higher education coupled with the growing movement of applying business models to colleges and universities. More and more presidents are hired for the business and fundraising acumen, not their academic credentials and work. While academic credentials are a plus, they are not needed in the competitive climate of fundraising that comprises much of a president’s job description, even as the funding sources shrink due to the great financial collapse of 2007-09.

Efficiency, productivity, outcomes, and market forces influence not only an increasing number of decisions facing higher education today (remember the MAP Grant rallies in Illinois?), but the types of decisions that are being made. Why hire a professor who costs $60,000 a year when a few adjuncts can “deliver the knowledge” for one-fifth the cost? Good for the bottom line! “Remember, the students are consumers, and we have to satisfy them! And oh yes, nice dorms, good food, recreational facilities, sports teams, etc., etc.”
The authors do not limit their material to numbers and policies however. They include intelligent discussions on issues such as faculty productivity, the costs and benefits of technology, academic freedom, governance, and the still evolving question of “what does it mean to get an education?”

One of the benefits of the text is the even-handed and at times skeptical treatment the authors provide with the occasional flash of humor. Under the heading “Academic Ethos” in Chapter Six, the authors discuss higher education under the umbrella of the values of “Reason, Culture, and Excellence.” In other words, what do these mean today? The authors write, “College publications claiming ‘Good Teaching’ and ‘Caring Environment’ are meaningless attempts at branding… These sayings differ little from the words, ‘New! Improved!’ that appear frequently on tubes of toothpaste and boxes of laundry detergent.” In discussing the hiring of one president primarily for fundraising purposes (the new president had a bachelor’s degree!), the authors write, “The temblor that was felt soon after these appointments was not an earthquake, it was Veblen, an early twentieth-century antagonist to businessmen in university governance, rolling over in his grave.”

While the text presents a picture of higher education today that is “bad and ugly,” there is still much good today. For example, the premier research universities in the world are in the United States. There is much benefit to community and society if a person has a bachelor’s degree. While difficult to quantify, a college education has value that goes beyond utilitarian purposes, it’s not just about getting a good-paying job. While higher education seems expensive and market solutions have the ear of politicians and taxpayers, the truth is that all benefit when a person is educated (remember the “common good”?). Yet the market theorists believe that the individual student alone should shoulder the growing debt that becomes billable upon graduation. (Let’s not even approach the problem of so many Ph.D’s looking for work while saddled with sometimes incredible levels of debt.)
Cohen and Kisker wisely offer no solutions to the problems in higher education. The text should be required reading for all state and federal politicians, the majority of who I believe have a college degree, but often legislate as if they do not.