Princeton University campus, Princeton, N.J.

Princeton University campus, Princeton, N.J.

The traditional four-year college experience is in danger of becoming a thing the past. As more students graduate with staggering debt and fewer job prospects, many are questioning the value of a college degree. College is becoming a place where a growing number of students go to gain credentials. It used to be a place where young people discovered their passions and tested ideas with the help of teachers and peers. Andrew Blabanco says that kind of experience remains central to America’s democratic process. He and Diane discuss why he believes a liberal arts education still matters.


  • Andrew Delbanco The Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be” by Andrew Delbanco. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.


  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. W.E.B. Du Bois once said that true college will ever have one goal, not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes. Joining me to talk about the value of college in an era of rising tuition and high unemployment, Andrew Delbanco. He's the author of a new book titled "College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be."

  • 11:07:29

    MS. DIANE REHMHe's a professor of American Studies and Humanities at Columbia University. We invite you to join the conversation. You can call us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir, it's good to have you here.

  • 11:07:54

    PROFESSOR ANDREW DELBANCOGood morning, glad to be here.

  • 11:07:56

    REHMYou tell a story in the preface of the book about a meeting of the college faculty on need-blind education. You were a young professor at the time. How did that affect your outlook on what you were about to enter into?

  • 11:08:23

    DELBANCOWell, it was a wakeup experience for me as a young faculty member who had spent much of his life in institutions of higher education. I went to this faculty meeting and the president of the university said, we've got a budget crisis, which we always have.

  • 11:08:37

    DELBANCOAnd one of the ways we had to address it was to back away from our need- blind admissions policy. And the faculty, we were very proud of ourselves, I think rightly, objected and said, no, it's a cardinal principle of our institution that any qualified student should be able to come here, regardless of his or her ability to pay.

  • 11:09:03

    DELBANCOAnd the faculty said, we're going to give back part of our projected raise to sustain the financial aid budget and the president retreated and we all felt great. And I voted with the crowd, of course. And I think I cast the right vote, but on my way out of that meeting, I realized that basically I had no idea what I had just voted for.

  • 11:09:25

    DELBANCOI didn't know who paid for this policy. I didn't know how we funded these students. I didn't know who invented it, whether other institutions did the same thing. So I became interested in higher education and many years later, this book, I guess, is the result, one purpose of which is to speak to the academic community and suggest that those of us in it need to understand our institutions better.

  • 11:09:49

    REHMWhat do you mean when you say, understand the institutions better?

  • 11:09:55

    DELBANCOWell, you know, faculty and there is a lot of good reason for this, are hired to teach their special interest which in the best of possible worlds would be their special passion because that's what you need to be a good teacher and that requires a lot of focus and concentration. But there's this weird situation that you're working in an institution about which you tend to know very little.

  • 11:10:22

    DELBANCOI think professors know less about their college or university that they work in than, say, doctors know about how the hospital operates or attorneys know about how the law firm in general operates. And I think that's a problem because I think the faculty voice in setting the direction for our institutions for higher education is an important one and needs to be an informed voice.

  • 11:10:43

    REHMAnd at this point, the voice that an applicant hears right now first and foremost is how much does this college or this institution cost. Can I afford it?

  • 11:11:03

    DELBANCOWell, exactly and that's on everybody's mind today, as well it should be. It's a tremendous problem. I don't have a magic bullet solution. But I do think that as we address this problem as a society and as each institution tries to address it, the better we understand it the better off we are.

  • 11:11:21

    DELBANCOAnd the simple explanations, you know, professors are paid too much or colleges are greedy or there are predatory lenders, which there are, none of those explanations is adequate to the complexity of the problem. There are many reasons why college costs a lot.

  • 11:11:39

    DELBANCOI could tick a few off, the cost of providing laboratories for scientists, the, I think, out of control cost applied to athletic facilities, athletic competition, which many universities, I think, invest much too much in.

  • 11:11:56

    REHMAnd rely on for incentives for giving.

  • 11:12:01

    DELBANCORight, the cost of financial aid for needy students, which is something I would hate to see us retreat from. The cost of providing counseling services and career services indeed for students and for coping with greater government regulations than existed, say, 50 years ago. So there are many, many complicated reasons.

  • 11:12:20

    DELBANCOThe other thing that I think is not widely understood is that, in fact, most private institutions are very generous in the sense that their -- the price they set is lower than the cost that is -- even those who pay full freight tuition as the phrase goes...

  • 11:12:37

    REHMAnd there are very few of those.

  • 11:12:39

    DELBANCOWell, at the elite, private colleges, probably roughly half the students pay the full price. But even those who pay the full price are not paying the full cost of what they're getting from the institution and the subsidy that they're getting is really very generous. We're giving a very generous subsidy.

  • 11:13:00

    REHMHow do you measure that?

  • 11:13:03

    DELBANCOWell, of course, it's an approximate measure, but if you, you know, take a fraction of the faculty time that is devoted to each student and the cost of sustaining the laboratories and the libraries and heating the buildings and providing the physical fitness services, I mean, if you got all those services, counseling and so on, if you got all those services from a hotel, you'd expect to pay a very high price for it.

  • 11:13:27

    REHMBut aren't those costs built into tuition?

  • 11:13:31

    DELBANCONot fully, no. This is, I think, a generalization that the economists would back me up on, that essentially every non-profit private college that I know about is subsidizing the education that they provide for each student. For-profit colleges, which is the fastest-growing sector in American higher education, that's a different story.

  • 11:13:55

    DELBANCOThey provide their so-called education very cheaply and the cost of course, the price is much lower than at a non-profit but they're making money whereas the non-profits are not.

  • 11:14:06

    REHMConsidering the cost and acknowledging that it does cost a lot, why do you believe college education is so important today?

  • 11:14:20

    DELBANCOWell, I'm a bit of an historian and I think to understand the present, it's a good idea to understand something about the past and how we got here. And one of the points I try to stress in this little book is that we need to recognize that the American college is a very remarkable, unique institution in the landscape of higher education across the world.

  • 11:14:43

    DELBANCOThe concept that young people should have the opportunity to explore their interests, find out what their talents are, where their passions lie, and indeed learn as much in many ways from their fellow students as they learn from their professors, these ideas are quite alien to most other traditions of higher education in the world where students are expected that when they get to the university, they don't really have a college in our sense.

  • 11:15:14

    DELBANCOWhen they get to the university, they're expected to know already who they are and what they're going to specialize in and often they have very little contact with their fellow students except in socializing outside of class. They might live in an apartment in the city somewhere.

  • 11:15:31

    DELBANCOSo this concept of what I call lateral learning, students learning from each other and having the opportunity to explore who they are and to reflect and to contemplate on life before adulthood engulfs them is a very precious tradition. It's getting harder and harder to sustain it and I would hate to see it become a luxury that's affordable only for the upper, upper crust.

  • 11:15:56

    REHMAnd at the same time, we are hearing increasingly that young men and women get to college without the basics so that colleges are spending perhaps as much as the first year or even two on remedial reading, arithmetic rather than complicated factors.

  • 11:16:25

    DELBANCOThat's true and it's true, even at the most selective colleges, that in my experience, students are not arriving with the same writing abilities as they once had. They haven't read as much as they once might have done. This is true and, you know, anyone who denies that we have a serious problem in the K through 12-system is whistling in the dark.

  • 11:16:47

    DELBANCOAt the same time, if our colleges say, well, you know, that's their problem and not our problem, we're at an impasse. I think colleges need to rethink what their obligations are to their students. They need to put greater emphasis on teaching writing, for instance. They need to think hard about how to teach science to students who may not have the basics and some institutions are doing that better than others.

  • 11:17:14

    REHMThere are an awful lot of people, parents included, who feel that college is no longer preparing young people for the workplace and there you have this division between perhaps a liberal arts education which encompasses art, literature, science and mathematics with how to find a job.

  • 11:17:44

    DELBANCORight. And I very much hope that we won't start thinking about this problem in either/or terms, that is, it's a mistake to construe what I'm saying, as saying, look, I think we need more English majors. I think it's a reality that in our global knowledge economy and in a world so much dependent on technology, we need more and more people who are competent in these fields and, you know, maybe the numbers of English majors or philosophy majors will decline and maybe that's okay.

  • 11:18:19

    DELBANCOBut my point is that we do not want to have engineers, physicians, anyone in any walk of life with a specific knowledge-base who doesn't have some perspective of the society in which they live and on the kind of life that they want to lead.

  • 11:18:37

    REHMAndrew Delbanco, he's professor of American Studies and Humanities at Columbia. His new book is titled "College."

  • 11:20:04

    REHMIf you've just joined us, Andrew Delbanco is with me. He's professor of American Studies and Humanities at Columbia University. His new book -- a little book but so packed with thoughtful guidance and information about the college experience is titled "College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be." I hope you'll join us 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Many people are wondering whether college has become a better place at learning or whether it has become a business to make money?

  • 11:21:13

    DELBANCOWell, I'm very worried about the intrusion of market values, if I could put it that way, into education. I think there are some kinds of human experiences and relationships where measuring success by the principles of the market is not the best idea. You don't want to have a physician who can only spend three minutes with you because his job is to see as many patients as possible that day.

  • 11:21:37

    DELBANCOYou don't want to have a family where you reward or punish your children based on their performance and you don't love them for who they are. And I don't think we want to have educational institutions that operate exclusively on the principles of the marketplace.

  • 11:21:53

    REHMAnd that brings us around to the University of Virginia, UVA, and the whole debacle about the chair of the board moving to oust the president because the university had not moved as quickly economically as she thought it should have and now the reinstatement of the president. What was your reaction to that?

  • 11:22:24

    DELBANCOWell, I try not to talk about things I don't know deeply about. And so I'm not very close to the situation at UVA and I tend by instinct to be sort of a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. My gut feeling is that the president is a person trying to do a good job, takes her job very seriously. Recognizes the complexity of the problems they face. And I see no reason to doubt the good faith of the Board of Visitors, either. I think the process by which their collaboration broke down and the way in which her departure was engineered or attempted to be engineered was appalling and I hope that they've learned something from that.

  • 11:23:08

    REHMBut rather than focus on the particulars the generality is there was pressure to make more money. And that surely is going on around the country.

  • 11:23:23

    DELBANCORight. And we're talking now -- earlier we were speaking mainly about private institutions. We're talking now about a great public university. Now one of the things people need to understand is that, although this is a great public university founded by Mr. Jefferson for the public welfare, I would guess that considerably less than 10% of its annual operating budget is covered by public funds. Other words the state of Virginia is contributing a smaller and smaller portion of the money it needs to be a great university.

  • 11:23:52

    DELBANCOI am not one who points the finger at the governor or the legislators and says, you evil people don't understand the value of higher education. They're under a lot of pressure.

  • 11:24:01

    REHMEverybody is.

  • 11:24:03

    DELBANCOThey've got to keep the police and fire department operating.

  • 11:24:04

    REHMYes, right.

  • 11:24:05

    DELBANCOAnd fund Medicaid and so on. Everybody is under more and more pressure. So the Board of Visitors is right to be concerned to see, you know, how is this going to continue. And one way they're trying to deal with it is to raise a lot of private money. They take more and more out-of-state students who pay a higher tuition than in-state students. And they raise questions which are not illegitimate about can we sustain departments or programs where there's a relatively small demand from our students?

  • 11:24:31

    DELBANCOThe answer to that is we have to find ways to sustain such programs because the greatness of an academic institution is that it puts opportunities out there for students. And as I said earlier, doesn't measure everything in terms of how many customers have we got for this or that? The classics are still important even if only a small percentage of the students major in the classics.

  • 11:24:54

    REHMWhy are the classics still important?

  • 11:24:58

    DELBANCOBecause what one discovers by the study of the humanities -- literature, history is that with all the differences among cultures and all the differences in how we live now and how we lived 100 or 200 years ago there are certain persistent human questions. How do I live an honorable life? How do I choose between conflicting loyalties? What's the best way to come to terms with my mortality? What do I owe to my children, what do they owe to me? These are questions that have been debated and discussed by wise human beings for millennia and we short change our young people by closing them off from that conversation.

  • 11:25:44

    DELBANCOIt doesn't matter whether you're an engineer or an MTA employee or the President of the United States. These questions still apply to everybody.

  • 11:25:55

    REHMAnd yet realistically at a college or university, one might be exposed not only to the beauty of philosophical thinking in ancient times, but also to the ethical violations and human violations that we've seen at a place like Penn State.

  • 11:26:24

    DELBANCOWell, the Penn State story is just completely appalling. And again, I'm not close enough to comment on who did what, but it's quite clear that that's an example of how distorting of all ethical and educational values this mania for major investments in college athletics can be. I mean, it's clearly a place that was virtually driven by the football program and there are other places like that. And that is a very unhealthy situation. It's also a very irrational situation because there's very little evidence that the investment that's made in these programs actually comes back and supports the institution. Most of it gets reinvested in bigger and better athletic facilities.

  • 11:27:08

    REHMBut here you have this story that has gained such traction, with good reason, in this country. Which is going to be more memorable to that student who attended or attends Penn State, the scandal or the learning?

  • 11:27:30

    DELBANCOWell, look I'm a teacher. And a teacher has to be optimistic and has to be hopeful and has to believe that every student who walks into his or her class has the potential for unlimited human development. And I actually do believe those things. And I think that's a very different matter from how sophisticated they are or how skilled they are at this or that or the other thing. So our institutions, our universities and colleges must invest, and not just in financial terms, must support the quality of teaching, the centrality of the teaching/learning experience above and beyond everything else.

  • 11:28:08

    DELBANCONow another thing we haven't talked about is the degree to which that comes into conflict with the research mission. Penn State and UVA are also great research universities. And America's got the best research universities in the world by far. And we don't want that to change, but we have to find a better way to make the balance between the research enterprise and the teaching enterprise.

  • 11:28:32

    REHMAnd what that does, I gather, is to take those wonderful teachers who've become researchers out of the classroom so that then the students are exposed not to the background, the learning, the experience of that researcher but to a teaching assistant.

  • 11:28:56

    DELBANCORight. And we need to find better ways to ensure that the undergraduates get the best possible teaching experience. You know, a friend of mine who was on your show awhile ago, Stu Firestein, who's the chair of our biology department, is both a great researcher and a great teacher. And the truth is that he and his colleagues spend more hours in the lab then they do in the classroom. But here, too, it's more complicated then it first appears. They're teaching in the laboratory, too. They're teaching their research assistants, some of them graduate students some of them also undergraduates.

  • 11:29:30

    DELBANCOIt's not humanly possible for them both to be...

  • 11:29:34

    REHMTo be everywhere.

  • 11:29:35

    DELBANCORight. To push forward the next great medical breakthrough and also be in the undergraduate classroom, there are just not enough hours in the day to do both for everybody so each one tries to find the right balance. But we need to find new models. We need to get away from the idea that we only hire into such a faculty people who are potential Nobel Prize-winners. We should also hire into such a faculty passionate scientists who are great teachers.

  • 11:30:00

    REHMAnd of course part of the problem is that our society has become more technologically driven so once again going into the workplace young students and parents are saying "of what use is that four years spent doing a liberal arts education going to benefit me, my growth, my family, my ability to earn a living if I spend all that time on liberal arts?"

  • 11:30:35

    DELBANCORight, but what we have to expand our conception of what use means. We want to remember it's not a pro and con situation where the liberal arts are useless and the technical fields are useful. If you study philosophy, history or English and that doesn't mean major in those fields, it means take a couple of exciting courses from great teachers. You're going to learn to think more clearly. You're going to be -- your perspective is going to be challenged. You're going to learn to write better. You're going to gain research skills.

  • 11:31:07

    DELBANCOThese are all valuable skills in the marketplace. They should be recognized as such. So we got to get away from this the good guys versus bad guys in terms of the utility of the education. We also, I think, need to -- and this is hard 'cause of course, parents are most concerned about their own children and their children are most concerned about themselves. But we also have to think more broadly about our society.

  • 11:31:31

    DELBANCOI mentioned Mr. Jefferson earlier. He was convinced that you cannot have a democracy without an educated citizenry. Now he had a very narrow conception of who qualified as citizens. Women didn't, African Americans didn't and we've gotten way beyond that. But his basic point is still right. We have to have a citizenship that knows the difference between the demagogue's nonsense and the serious public leader grappling with serious problems. Otherwise we're heading in a very bad direction as a society.

  • 11:32:01

    REHMAnd one would think that with the college population we've had in years past that those going to the polls would be in greater numbers and, in fact, not so good.

  • 11:32:18

    DELBANCOWell, I agree and I think, you know, we can't pin all the blame on our colleges. Colleges can't solve all our problems but they can contribute significantly in this way. They should be teaching American history better than they do. And they should be conveying to their students the importance of participatory democracy. Some institutions do that much better than others. I'd like to see it happen more across the board.

  • 11:32:42

    REHMAndrew Delbanco. His new book is titled "College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. Let's go to the phones. First to Orlando, Fla. Good morning, Vincent. You're on the air.

  • 11:33:06

    VINCENTHow you doing? I'm a history professor at a state college in Orlando, Fla. And to go back to when you were talking about the cost of schools and our students, we also have to look at the salaries of the administration, where those costs are going to. We have to look at -- we just had a 15 percent tuition hike down here in the public schools and so our students are -- it's all so related. So what's happening now our students are saying they can't -- when they clear my history course, they get excited about history, they want to study liberal arts, they can't possibly transfer, conceive of transferring out to a major private university somewhere else in the country.

  • 11:33:45

    VINCENTThere is no way they can afford it. Their parents are telling them only go to school for financial gain if you're going to take out loans and do these things. And then you tie them with government that is pulling tenure or trying to on public professors and you pull it in with tuition hikes you pull it in with learning how to write in formula, standardized testing in high school. It's all related. And so you have -- to go back to multiple points here -- teachers leaving the state of Florida. How can I stay here and write books if you're teaching a high teaching load and be that researcher you explained.

  • 11:34:19

    VINCENTAll of those things are related. But I don't think we can eliminate or remove the political landscape in the state government out of this conversation. It's a significant piece. Thank you.

  • 11:34:31

    DELBANCOI think the caller made a number of very good points in a very short span and conveyed what I've been trying to express which is this is a complex situation. There are a lot of factors. Tenure is not the enemy. I'm not in favor of demonizing administrators, but I do agree that in many cases, the compensation of senior administrators is reaching quite obscene levels. Not as bad as on Wall Street, but still very bad in proportion to the faculty who work with them.

  • 11:34:59

    DELBANCOThese are all real problems. But at the same time unless we can find a way to work together as academic communities in an institution like the caller -- like the one the caller works in. We're not going to get anywhere by pointing the finger at one another and saying you're the cause of the problem, you're the cause of the problem. Now the point about public investment is absolutely central. I said before I don't want to demonize legislators and governors but there's no question that the most direct way to deal with this cost problem is for public reinvestment in education.

  • 11:35:39

    DELBANCOThe 20th century was the American century for a lot of reasons. One of them was that we made tremendous investments in education at all levels. In California, we created the greatest higher education system in the world. From the community colleges all the way up to the great research universities like Berkeley and UCLA, where virtually universal higher education was available to anyone capable of taking advantage of it. We've been retrenching and backing off of that and that's a disaster for the long term future of our society.

  • 11:36:11

    REHMThanks for calling, Vincent. To Mexico, N.Y. Good morning, Ann-Marie.

  • 11:36:17

    ANN-MARIEHi. I just had a comment about some of the differences between when I went to college in 1984 and my children's education. I have a 21-year-old and a 19- year-old. And they're in college now. I graduated and I went right to a four-year state college. And I was able to take just everything, you know, everything that interested me. I had so many more electives I guess. And my children are in two-year colleges and it gears them up to either, you know, get out and get a job or move on to the four-year. And I think their, you know, abilities to take other things and to, you know, expand their education it's just limited.

  • 11:37:13

    DELBANCOWell, I appreciate that you say that as a parent because I think you recognize the value of the experience you had and you want it for your children. And I think that's a very important point. What I tried to say earlier is that the American college -- the glory of the American colleges is it has made those kinds of opportunities available and that should continue to do so.

  • 11:37:36

    REHMAndrew Delbanco. He is professor of American Studies and Humanities at Columbia University. His new book is titled "College."

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. Andrew Delbanco is here. His new book is titled, "College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be." Let's go right back to the phones to Stanton, Va., good morning, Kelly, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:23

    KELLYGood morning. Thank you for taking my call (word?) .

  • 11:40:26

    REHMSurely, thanks.

  • 11:40:28

    KELLYMy question (unintelligible) . I'm a recent graduate in Stanton, Virginia and, of course, received financial aid. My parents have two other children in college. And I am hearing more and more these days -- well every day I'm working then that I need a master's degree. And I do want to have these higher goals for myself. And I'm OK with getting more financial aid for that. But I was wondering what your speaker's comments were for students who have attended a private liberal arts college and hope to pursue a master's degree, but are worried about the debt piling up, you know, with the hope of also starting a family.

  • 11:41:12

    REHMSure. Kelly, what is your field of study?

  • 11:41:16

    KELLYI completed a sociology/psychology split major at Mary Baldwin.

  • 11:41:23

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:41:24

    DELBANCOYeah, Well, I can't give you ironclad good advice on this, but just broaden the perspective a little bit. I mean, you know, if you look at the history of education, until the maybe second, third -- even second half of the 20th Century, the high school diploma was an adequate credential for moving forward into the workforce. Then it became the BA degree, which is by now almost a necessity, though we always know there's some famous college dropouts. And I don't want to be misunderstood in thinking that the only way you get to be an educated interesting person is to go to college. I know a lot of examples of people who didn't do that.

  • 11:42:03

    DELBANCOSo I think it's kind of inevitable that the idea of college being stretched into a fifth year or an MA degree year is now at hand. And part of that is because there's so much more to know, particularly in technical fields. I mean, think about the knowledge explosion in science. I mean, medical students today know more about the genetic basis of disease or how to manage organ transplantation than the dean of the Johns Hopkins medical school did 40 years ago because knowledge is growing in certain fields particularly quickly.

  • 11:42:38

    DELBANCOSo the idea that you need another degree beyond college is not strange or surprising. And, you know, everyone has to wrestle with that themselves and figure out how urgently they need it and how to pay for it.

  • 11:42:51

    REHMBut, you know, it does strike me that going back to the 20th Century, the end of the Second World War the GI Bill, which helped so many people get that step forward.

  • 11:43:07

    DELBANCOYes, the GI Bill -- it's impossible to overstate its importance.

  • 11:43:09


  • 11:43:10

    DELBANCOIt's one of the great moments in our national history. It was a federal commitment to make educational opportunity available to veterans. It not only changed the lives of many individuals who had served their country, but it also changed the tone and character of the colleges and universities that they came into. It wasn't the first time that the federal government made a major intervention in higher education. The Morrill Act which was passed in the middle of the civil war created the land grant colleges that became the great state universities that we have today.

  • 11:43:44

    DELBANCOSo the federal government has a role to play. The GI Bill should also remind us that there is room in our colleges for older students, for adults. And, indeed, we've been talking mostly about young people, but the demography of the college population is changing very rapidly. And there are more and more adults with job experience, with families who are coming into college now. And my own experience with teaching some of them is that they add a great deal to the classroom environment.

  • 11:44:12

    DELBANCOIf I could give one quick anecdote, I mentioned we talked about the classics earlier. If you're discussing Homer's poem, "The Iliad," which is a war poem, with a group of students and you have a student in the class who is an Iraq war veteran, as I once had in one of my classes. That student's perspective on that poem is going to be a lot different from the one...

  • 11:44:35


  • 11:44:35

    DELBANCO...from the suburbs who have seen a couple of war movies.

  • 11:44:36

    REHMYou bet.

  • 11:44:37

    DELBANCOAnd that makes for a pretty interesting discussion.

  • 11:44:39

    REHMAnd here's another example of this from Don who says, "I was required to take a philosophy class which studied the classics as well as different religions in the world. While this was not my favorite subject I learned a lot about myself and the world in relation to different cultures, both past and present."

  • 11:45:10

    DELBANCOWell, I really have nothing to add to that. It's a wonderful statement of exactly what I'm trying to say.

  • 11:45:15

    REHMAll right. And to Cincinnati, Ohio, good morning, Tom.

  • 11:45:21

    TOMHi, I seem to recall that Professor Delbanco's written in this area in the New York Review of Books over the years, but one of the things I wanted to bring up is this uneasy jostling in the same box of elitism and universal education. And the fact that the idea of the later, universal education, is affected by at least two leveling mechanisms. And that is open -- that is -- that would be, I guess you would say, student evaluations of professors and grade inflation. Could he speak to that?

  • 11:46:10

    DELBANCOWell, I'm not a fan of grade inflation. And I think there are a lot of factors behind it. I think I'm a little nostalgic for the days when professors could be really tough on their students. And I think they still are in the hard sciences, but in the humanities and softer social sciences there's a tendency to regard students as consumers. And that you want to please your students. My own experience is that the best teachers I had in college and later were the ones I liked the least. The ones who made me initially feel pretty bad about myself and pointed out my inadequacies and my ignorance. So I think we should get back to that.

  • 11:46:47

    DELBANCOThere was a lot more in that question, but that's the best I can do with it.

  • 11:46:51

    REHMAll right. We also have a question from someone who wants to know about the value of taking a one- or two-year gap between high school and college.

  • 11:47:07

    DELBANCOWell, certain clichés are clichés because they have some truth in them, right. So when you say that youth is wasted on the young there's an element of truth in that. In that I think students who have taken some time off after high school often come to college better prepared to take good advantage of it. And, as I mentioned earlier, the older students I see are there because they really want to be and they really know what they're after rather than being there as, in some cases, is the case because they feel they're expected to be or their parents want them to be.

  • 11:47:37

    DELBANCOSo I'm a fan of the gap year. And I think more people should do it. It's, of course, practically difficult for many people.

  • 11:47:45

    REHMHere's an email from Bill in Dallas who says, "If businesses would themselves recognize the value in a liberal arts education, I guarantee more students would enroll in such degrees. Businesses don't want to invest anything in an employee's on-the-job training even if that employee might, with superior thinking skills, pay off big for them in the future. They want graduates who can hit the ground running and that has led to the imbalance between business and liberal arts majors."

  • 11:48:30

    DELBANCOI think that's a great point. You hear a lot of CEO's saying what I'm saying. We want critical thinkers.

  • 11:48:36

    REHMRight, they say it.

  • 11:48:37

    DELBANCORight, but the HR department when it comes to hiring is looking for somebody who's got the skill to start on day one. And I think this is a very important point. It's an example of the failure to make investments for the long term because it seems costly in the short term. We need cooperation here. The high school college partnership needs to improve and the college employer partnership needs to improve. And the gentleman is exactly right.

  • 11:49:05

    REHMTo Carlyle, Pa., welcome Dieter. You're on the air.

  • 11:49:10

    DIETERThank you for taking my call.

  • 11:49:11


  • 11:49:12

    DIETERThe point I wanted to make -- I'm a retired college professor. And one thing I've noticed recently that I think is a big problem in higher education right now is the increased use of part timers and adjunct professors. The colleges claim that part of the reason for the high costs, you know, are the cost of the faculty.

  • 11:49:30

    DIETERAnd, yet, there's some institutions now that have 70 percent non-tenured tract people whom they're paying peanuts. And they're working many, many hours there. They're, you know, overworked and they can't -- do not have enough time to do advising and everything. And at the same time these people are getting paid almost nothing. And the colleges are profiting from that.

  • 11:49:53

    DELBANCOThe caller makes an absolutely critical point. When I was in college in the '70s I think something like three quarters of the professoriate was tenured or on tenured track. Today it's close to the other way around. It is quite true that the academic teaching profession is becoming really a non-profession. Its teachers are being treated like piece workers, that is P-I-E-C-E. Hired for a particular task and then sent on their way when the task is completed.

  • 11:50:25

    DELBANCOThis is a disaster because you have to have an engaged faculty that feels committed to the institution at which they work. They have a stake in the future of the institution and we must address this problem and reverse this trend.1

  • 11:50:38

    REHMAnd to Tulsa, Okla. good morning, Murray.

  • 11:50:42

    MURRAYGood morning. My comment is that I've got my -- I got my degree 30 years ago in business. And I've worked in a number of corporate jobs throughout my career. And there's been a number of times that I've looked back and regretted it. That is a number of my friends are still technical people and I see where they're employment history has paid them more and they've had a more stable life. Yet, here I am highly educated and yet I didn't seem to get the same rewards financial that they did.

  • 11:51:29

    DELBANCOWell, I'm -- I'm sorry to hear that you feel those regrets. I hope you also feel some rewards from the education you got and the kind of person that turned you into. And I'm also reluctant to make a big generalization based on your own personal experience. But it's a tough road to hoe and I just hope that we don't give up as a society on the value of the kind of education that's not immediately convertible into monetary rewards.

  • 11:51:58

    REHMAnd here's another email from Adele in Earlysville, Va. She says I'm the parent of a recent graduate who earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and is still under employed. I certainly believe a college education should include the liberal arts, humanities and social sciences. But when it comes to choosing a major I'm convinced no student should be allowed to choose a major without receiving practical career advice as well as purely academic advice.

  • 11:52:43

    DELBANCOI think that's a very fair statement. I think a good college has a responsibility to work with the student on all aspects of their life.

  • 11:52:51

    REHMAt what point? I mean, would you say after two years that college student should sit down with a counselor and really think through where that course of study is taking them?

  • 11:53:08

    DELBANCOI think it should begin at the beginning, if I can still be -- sound self serving. I mean I hope that there will be some first-year students and maybe even high school seniors who will read my little book because I think it's an effort to contribute to their thinking about what they want to get out of college. And I think every college needs to help their incoming students to do that.

  • 11:53:31

    DELBANCOI'm not a great fan of segregating the general education experience in the first two years and then you've got the major and you forget about. I think we want to move toward a model where students pursue what they're interested in, but they have continual opportunities to explore other things along the way for the whole four years.

  • 11:53:49

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What about the British system that sends people on different paths early on?

  • 11:54:00

    DELBANCOWell, look, not everybody is going to want to go to college and we need to understand that working with your hands in agriculture or in some technological field is a very dignified way of living. And some of the smartest, most interesting, brightest people I know didn't go to college and pursued a vocation that they figured out when they were in seventh or eighth grade.

  • 11:54:30

    DELBANCOAt the same time, I really don't think we want to become a tracking society. It's been a cardinal principle of America that we don't tell our young people who they are at an early age based on their opportunities, their circumstances at birth. We give them a chance to explore their own talents and aptitudes into young adulthood. And so I'm not in favor of our emulating the European system whereby you find out based on the results of a standardized exam at an early age whether you're going to be a university person or a vocational person.

  • 11:55:08

    REHMBut on the other hand, have we gone too far in promoting the idea that college is the only way you can achieve success?

  • 11:55:21

    DELBANCOMaybe, but, you know, my experience is that people who say most vociferously not everybody should go to college almost always have somebody else's children in mind. I think we want that opportunity to be there for everyone. And we want to remember that we use this word college as a singular term. But we have a huge variety of institutions, colleges that do have a vocational emphasis or an arts emphasis or a broad liberal arts emphasis. So there are lots of different kinds of institutions out there that suit different kids and they should make these decisions not based entirely on cost and not based, certainly, on prestige or a rank list.

  • 11:56:03

    REHMAt the same time, how are people ten years from now going to afford to pay for college?

  • 11:56:11

    DELBANCOWell, we have to constrain these costs. There's no question about it. And, you know, I'm not an economist, but there are obvious things to be done. That we should avoid duplication when there are multiple colleges in the same area. One might teach this language and another might teach that language. We need to constrain these investments in athletic programs. We need to experiment with internet and distance learning to see where it can be effective and cost saving. So there are a lot of things that should be done to constrain costs. It cannot continue to go up at the present rate -- no question about it.

  • 11:56:42

    REHMAndrew Delbanco, he's chair of the American studies and the humanities at Columbia University. His new book is titled, "College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be." I hope there are lots of folks who read your book. Thanks for being here.

  • 11:57:03

    DELBANCOThank you so much.

  • 11:57:04

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:57:08

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows