Guest Host: Steve Roberts

Main Quadrangle of the University of Sydney.

Main Quadrangle of the University of Sydney.

President Barack Obama said, “A higher education is the single most important investment students can make in their own future.” For generations, American colleges and universities enrolled and graduated more young people than any other country in the world. But in the past 30 years, we have begun to fall behind and costs have surged. Last week the president proposed a new rating system for the nation’s schools to hold them accountable and help bring tuition under control. Former president of Harvard University Derek Bok describes what he sees as the biggest problems in higher education and how to fix them.


  • Derek Bok President Emeritus and research professor, Harvard University and author of "Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look At How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More"

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Higher Education In America” by Derek Bok. Copyright 2013 by Derek Bok. Reprinted here by permission of Princeton University Press 2013. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:54

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's having a voice treatment then she'll be on vacation until mid-September. President Obama last week outlined the plan to measure college performance through a new rating system. The former president of his alma mater, at least one of his alma maters, Harvard University, joins me in the studio to discuss what he sees as the biggest challenges facing higher education in America.

  • 11:07:22

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSDerek Bok is the author of "Higher Education in America" is the name of the book. He served as president of Harvard for 20 years, from 1971 to 1991 then he came back as interim president for a year. He's the author of six previous books on education and Derek Bok, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:42

    MR. DEREK BOKA pleasure to be here.

  • 11:07:44

    ROBERTS1-800-433-8850 is our number. Please give us a call or send us an email at, Facebook, Twitter. This is a topic many of you are interested in so please join our conversation with Derek Bok. And in this new book of yours you actually focus on undergraduate education. You kind of say, graduate education, pretty good shape...

  • 11:08:09


  • 11:08:09

    ROBERTS...but the real crisis is undergraduate. Why do you say that?

  • 11:08:14

    BOKWell, in terms of the impact on large numbers of people and on the national welfare, the problems of undergraduate education are really, I think, considerably more serious. They are -- the quality of our research is, I think, unsurpassed in the world and will remain so for a generation.

  • 11:08:37

    BOKOur professional schools are, by and large, as good or better as anything you find abroad, although they have their problems, but overall they're in strong shape. It's really in the college where we have substantial problems that affect a lot of people and the welfare of the country.

  • 11:08:56

    ROBERTSIn fact, as you point out, with graduate education, there are people coming from all over the world still, particularly in technologies. In fact, one of our biggest problems is keeping them here after they graduate.

  • 11:09:07

    BOKThat's right, although a great number of them want to stay and apparently more want to stay now than was true 10, 20 years ago so we're in pretty good shape still.

  • 11:09:17

    ROBERTSBut as the president, and your book comes out fortuitously just as the president has focused attention on at least one dimension of the problems of undergraduate education that you write about in the book and that's cost. Costs have skyrocketed. Tuitions, I guess, are up 250 percent over 30 years.

  • 11:09:41

    ROBERTSAnd as you -- not only your experience at Harvard, but in other places, what's the result of that? Why should we worry about that?

  • 11:09:49

    BOKWell, I think for a long time we didn't have to worry about it because the economy was growing in a way that everybody's income was growing and tuitions have been going up faster than the cost of living for as long as we've collected statistics over 100 years.

  • 11:10:06

    BOKBut about 1980, the growth in people's incomes took on a new cast. The top 20 percent did very well. The incomes of at least two-thirds of the population have stagnated. And so as tuitions continue to rise, they're taking a larger and larger share of people's income and eventually that really starts to hurt and people are upset about it.

  • 11:10:32

    ROBERTSAnd of course, at a place like Harvard and almost every university is eager for diversity, you know, and you could fill your ranks easily at Harvard with people who can afford to pay, but that's not what you want. That's not the kind of class you want. That's not the class...

  • 11:10:42


  • 11:10:42

    ROBERTS...any university wants. So what you're saying is that the crunch really is impacting the ability of colleges to broaden their student base beyond the obvious folks who are doing well and can afford to pay.

  • 11:10:59

    BOKYes, certainly there are colleges like my own where you need to make a fairly dramatic effort to find talented people who are in the bottom half of the income scale and make it possible for them to come. And we've done that by, really basically doing away with any cost for students in more than half of America's families. They don't have to pay anything. They don't have to take on debt.

  • 11:11:28

    BOKBut we still don't have as many as we would like and the reason is they can't conceive of coming to Harvard. And they're scattered all across the country so that the big challenge we have now is to reach out to those colleges, to find a way to work with other universities and let these students know that they can come to Harvard now more cheaply than they can go to their neighborhood community college.

  • 11:11:53

    ROBERTSBut the kids who do go to the community colleges or do go to George Washington where I teach, which is also a very expensive school, one of the things the president has been talking about is even when you do get those kids and even when you do make a big effort as Harvard does to ameliorate the impact of tuition, student debt is just staggering.

  • 11:12:14

    ROBERTSThe average student graduates with $26,000 worth of debt and this is of great concern to the president because, among other things, it severely restricts career choices when kids get out.

  • 11:12:26

    BOKWell, I would take mild issue there. I mean, $26,000 is not a great deal when you consider the income benefits that you're going to get from going to college and they have been going up along with tuition. So the interesting thing is that the return on the investment of going to college is as great now as it was 20 or 25 years ago because the cost has gone up, but so have the returns.

  • 11:13:00

    BOKBut the problem is that the moment you're in college, the debt looks very steep and I don't think if two-thirds of the students of America have accumulated debts of less than $25,000, I don't regard that as a serious problem. I think they can easily take care of that.

  • 11:13:22

    BOKThere are a substantial number, though, who have much larger debts and at that point, it does become a serious worry.

  • 11:13:27

    ROBERTSMy guest this hour is Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. His new book is "Higher Education in America." We have some lines open so give us a call, 1-800-433-8850, is our email address.

  • 11:13:40

    ROBERTSAnd Derek Bok, the president came out just a few weeks ago with this proposal, a controversial proposal to create a new rating system. So that schools where tuitions are perhaps going up in excess, as he would think, he's trying to give consumers a better sense of what they're getting for their money. What was your reaction to the president's proposal?

  • 11:14:05

    BOKWell, first of all, I would say I think his motives and his aims and aspirations are all very good. Everybody would like students to be more informed when they make choices. Everyone would like to channel financial aid to students who are actually going to complete the course and go to college where they're actually going to get a good education.

  • 11:14:27

    BOKNo one can quarrel with that. And we can't really judge his proposal until the details come out because that's where the devil resides and the details aren't there yet. I would say given that, however, that I am something of a skeptic for several reasons.

  • 11:14:47

    BOKOne is that we don't really have all of the data we need to rate colleges in a way that will really be helpful for students. The most obvious example is we have no reliable, comprehensive way of evaluating or rating how much students learn at one college as opposed to another.

  • 11:15:10

    ROBERTSLearning how to -- yeah.

  • 11:15:11

    BOKAnd the trouble is that as the saying goes, we treasure what we measure, and you can easily tell how much you're spending and you can easily tell what the graduation rates are but if you can't tell how much students are learning the easy way out of trying to do all these three things simultaneously, keep costs down, get more students to graduate and give them as good or better quality, is you let the quality slip because nobody will know it's happened and no one can be held accountable.

  • 11:15:48

    BOKSo that is a big danger. The other danger is that ratings are inherently difficult because colleges are very different. They have different aims. Students are very different. So the idea that we can have one ratings system that will tell you which college is best for everybody is a loser from the beginning.

  • 11:16:10

    BOKAnd then finally, of course, when you try to change behavior by financial incentives, you're into a very tricky business. And I don't mean we shouldn't try and we do in many areas of policy, but we should recognize that the risk of unforeseen consequences is very great and colleges are going to work very hard to gage the system and on the basis of their success and gaming systems like the US News & World Report rankings, they're probably going to succeed.

  • 11:16:43

    BOKSo making it all work is going to be a very formidable undertaking. I hope he succeeds, but I am skeptical.

  • 11:16:51

    ROBERTSIt's maybe the college version of teaching to the test, right?

  • 11:16:55

    BOKThat's right.

  • 11:16:55

    ROBERTSThere is all those examples in lower educational levels where you set up an incentive system, as you say, you treasure what you measure and so people respond to those incentives.

  • 11:17:06

    BOKThat's right.

  • 11:17:07

    ROBERTSOne of the themes in your book, Derek Bok, is some of the wastefulness in higher education where you think costs have gotten out of control. One of your targets is athletics, talk about that.

  • 11:17:21

    BOKYes, well, I think athletics is, at one time, one and the same time a great triumph in the sense that it's really taken root in the popular culture. People absolutely love it and colleges that have big-time programs could hardly do away with them without an uproar and eventually the president would have to resign.

  • 11:17:44

    BOKBut the cost is tremendous. In the first place, it's expensive and it has nothing to do with teaching students and doing research, which is our real business, and in the second place, it leads to all kinds of compromises with academic values.

  • 11:18:03

    BOKYou take in students without regard to your normal admissions standards. There's a lot of under-the-table cheating to get the best athletes and so it goes. And so it is sort of a black eye, but it doesn't -- it's so popular, it doesn't seem popular to get out of it if you have a big-time successful program.

  • 11:18:22

    ROBERTSI guess some people would argue that some of these big programs also bring in revenue, say, you know, from football tickets, but...

  • 11:18:29

    BOKThat is true, which is one reason why with all their problems, another reason why some institutions will keep them. But actually if you do the mathematics, the percentage of colleges with big-time programs that make money off them is really quite small.

  • 11:18:45

    ROBERTSDerek Bok, former president of Harvard. His new book "High Education in America," we'll be back with your calls, stay with us.

  • 11:20:03

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane today. And my guest this hour, Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University and his new book is "Higher Education in America." 1-800-433-8850 is our number,, our email address. And, Derek Bok, before we were broke, we were talking about some of the ways in which, in your view, colleges can spend in excess.

  • 11:20:30

    ROBERTSWe were talking about athletics which is a common target. But one of the things you mentioned in your book, which is a little surprised that is teaching hospitals. Talk about that. Harvard of course has many of them.

  • 11:20:44

    BOKWell, of course, teaching hospitals are a wonderful thing and they rank, many of them, among the best hospitals in America and the world. And you have to have teaching hospitals in order to educate doctors. You don't have to own the hospital. And owning the hospital, it does create a financial risk, sometimes it's a financial bonanza, depending on the state of health care delivery.

  • 11:21:16

    BOKBut I think what it does do is to add a new dimension of administrative difficulty for the top leadership of the university on top of a job that is already very, very complicated. And so, I'm very happy at Harvard that we have working relationships with about nine hospitals, but we don't own them.

  • 11:21:40

    ROBERTSAnd you also talk in the book about sort of the projects that are geared more for prestige than their pedagogical value, whether they're result of big donations or their favorite professors get a chance to create institutes and that, in your view, that can be a distortion of priorities here.

  • 11:22:01

    BOKI think that's a much bigger problem in athletics. Although athletics is a kind of a glaring example. But the problem is that there is a sort of conventional sense of what makes a great university, which doesn't fit for everybody. It's very expensive and it leads a lot of universities that instead of really trying to do a better job at what they do and know how to do, they begin to say, well, we're going to try to develop a research profile.

  • 11:22:35

    BOKSo we're going to build labs and we're going to try to hire research professors and we're going to give lower teaching loads so people can publish more, all of that drives up expenses. And then, of course, another thing adds to prestige is having students with higher test scores and academic credentials when they enter. So then you end up with a rather strange result that people are putting more money to merit scholarships into trying to get better, more able students when they enter than they put into trying to make sure those students learn something after they arrive.

  • 11:23:17

    BOKSo all in all, it does distort efforts. It causes, I think, more research than the nation needs and less attention to the things that, as I say, that don't show up, like the quality of teaching. How many lives are you really improving because of what you were able to teach them in four years?

  • 11:23:39

    ROBERTSWell, I'm a college teacher myself. I teach at George Washington. I taught last night, I'm going to teach tonight. It's the first week of classes.

  • 11:23:45


  • 11:23:46

    ROBERTSAnd this is something that struck me over the years, too, that we build into the tenure process, a series of incentives where the reward primarily research which is a good thing, but it can be pretty obscure, it can be pretty abstract and don't build into the process, rewards for teaching. In fact, sometimes there are disincentives because young professors who are trying for tenure, the time they spent with undergraduates, advising them, mentoring them is time away from their research.

  • 11:24:19

    ROBERTSAnd so, my observation agrees with yours that there's not enough emphasis, in many cases, on the relationship with undergraduates and the teaching process.

  • 11:24:32

    BOKYou know, I have a slightly different take. I agree with the incentives all in favor of research over teaching. And yet interestingly enough, professors, even in research universities, spend much more time teaching when classes are in session than they do on their research. I think the students charm them into...

  • 11:24:53

    ROBERTSWell, they're all rewards. They're all rewards.

  • 11:24:56

    BOKI think the biggest problem with improving quality is that neither universities nor their faculties have really worked at the question of the quality of education. The way they go about their research. That is in research you figure out a problem, you develop hypotheses about how to solve it. You test the hypotheses. You use all the available evidence and you come to a decision that either something works and makes things better or not.

  • 11:25:29

    BOKTeaching isn't like that. People just go on teaching the way have. They may change a bit through personal experience but they don't make a systematic effort. They don't try to collect evidence about how much their students are learning. They don't try to have what I would call a kind of disciplined process of trial and error in which they try new things, see whether they work and gradually, incrementally improve their teaching along the way.

  • 11:26:00

    BOKAnd I think over time, that does more to hold back the quality of education than the incentive structure.

  • 11:26:08

    ROBERTSWell, that's a very good point because one of the things we talk a lot about in my department is two related elements. One is peer reviews that all of us as teachers are subject, should be subject to peer reviews by our colleagues regularly and also student evaluations.

  • 11:26:25


  • 11:26:25

    ROBERTSI mean, I'm all for a process where we get graded by our students. I think this has a very salutary effect. A lot of my colleagues are not thrilled with the process. But if we're going to grade students, they have a right to grade us.

  • 11:26:38

    BOKYes, I think -- well, I'd rather have student evaluations than not have them, let's put it that way. On the other hand, there are some real questions about how valid the student evaluations are. There are some worry that good evidence to the fact that student evaluations tend to be easier for easy graders. And that contributes a great inflation. So I don't want to do away with them unless we get something better.

  • 11:27:06

    BOKBut there are, I think, much more reliable ways to measure student learning, which ought to be used more widely.

  • 11:27:15

    ROBERTSLet me ask you one other question, we'd get to our callers. One subject is getting a lot of attention last couple of years, MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, Harvard has been a pioneer in this.

  • 11:27:28


  • 11:27:28

    ROBERTSAnd this has often been promoted as one answer to rising costs, allowing people to take these online courses, but also the critics are worried that it can degrade the student-teacher relationship and that we've just been talking about. Given the fact that Harvard has been involved almost from the beginning in this, what's your take on this new dimension of higher education? Pluses and minuses.

  • 11:27:56

    BOKWell, MOOCs turned out to be spectacular at getting attention from the media and there are wonderful stories to be told. Eleven-year-old Pakistani girls learning physics and passing the course from a great Stanford professor. And that's definitely a plus. I mean, people -- it's extended the reach of higher education to every corner of the world. It is not an answer to the most important problems of American higher education for several reasons, although it might become so.

  • 11:28:29

    BOKTechnology solves many problems, though it seems insurmountable. But at the present, all these courses sometimes attract enrollments of over 100,000. If you read to the end of the newspaper article, you find that only 10,000 actually finished them. It just takes a lot of self-discipline, more than most people have. So that it certainly is not a good way of getting graduation rates up, which is one thing.

  • 11:28:56

    BOKBut President Obama wants it -- that would be pouring water through a sieve. I mean, too many people drop out to make it work. As to whether it'll reduce cost, I think technology will almost certainly improve the quality of education. We're less sure about costs because despite the fact it's been around for a long time, we have very few reliable studies of what the cost effects are.

  • 11:29:25

    BOKSo I think the impact on cost is less certain. And I don't think technology in itself is going to do a great deal about graduation rates, which is the third problem.

  • 11:29:39

    ROBERTSWhen you talk about graduation rates, one of the things you talk about in your new book, I'm talking to Derek Bok. His book is called "Higher Education in America," published by Princeton University Press. The graduation rates in America were traditionally outpaced other countries have fallen related to other countries. And there must be best practices. There must be lessons to be learned from countries that have been able to maintain or even upgrade their graduation rates compared to the United States. What are some of the lesson you discern in here?

  • 11:30:12

    BOKWell, I think there are even easier lessons to be learned even within the United States. Because one of the things you find is if you look at any group of colleges that has -- have very similar types of students, same ability, same kind of family income, backgrounds and so forth, you find that some institutions do really surprisingly better at graduation rates. And so I think by studying the practices of the most successful peer institutions that have significantly higher graduation rates, you could do a lot in many, many colleges to lift the...

  • 11:30:52

    ROBERTSAnd what would be a good example of something you'd been able to discern that really distinguishes some of these schools that have particularly good retention and graduation rates. What are some of the best practices?

  • 11:31:04

    BOKWell, if we look at the kinds of institutions that are going to bear the brunt of educating a million more Americans, which is what Obama wants, I think you find that the ones that do better have simpler programs. They don't have so many courses of such confusing requirements. They put more money into counseling to make sure that students make wise choices about what courses to take.

  • 11:31:30

    BOKAnd they put more time and effort into job placement and job counseling, which also motivates students because the more they see that there's going to be a job at the end of this tunnel, the more motivated they are to finish and get out the other side.

  • 11:31:47

    ROBERTSAll interesting points. I would add a fourth, related, and that is remedial courses that help kids who come into college but are not fully prepared to do the work. You talk a lot about writing and the essential value of writing. And I must say, as a teacher, we try very hard to increase diversity and we bring in kids sometimes from high schools where they simple don't have adequate preparation.

  • 11:32:15

    ROBERTSAnd if you're going to keep them in school, one thing, get them through the door. If you're going to keep them, you have to make a special effort to keep your eye on them to help them through the difficulties that kids who come from the fancy New England prep schools don't need the same help that these other kids do.

  • 11:32:29

    BOKYes, that's clearly one of the areas, other areas that we need to look at. Remedial education by and large has been the kind of abandoned stepchild of, you know, it's something no one wants to do and doesn't get much attention. That has to change because too many people are coming and never developing the skills they need. And we have to salvage more of them in order to get our graduation rates up.

  • 11:32:57

    BOKThe third and last thing that we can do to improve graduation rates is to do a better job at integrating people into the life of the campus. Intervening at an earlier stage when we see a student is becoming isolated, getting into some trouble, having emotional difficulties because, like everything else in life, if you intervene early, your chances of success are much greater.

  • 11:33:18

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Very interesting point because just last year I had exactly the situation with a student of mine who was getting a lot of emotional problems and I discovered that the university had put in a warning system where I could go to a particular person in the counseling office. I could formally register and alert that person and follow the student.

  • 11:33:46

    ROBERTSAnd she did finish and might not have, absent this structure in the system.

  • 11:33:51

    BOKAnd this is a good example of where technology can make a kind of difference that you don't read about much in the paper. And that is, the computer can analyze masses of data about individual students and pick up at an earlier date when a student is beginning to veer off the track. Another thing it can do is it can pick up when students are taking courses they don't need to take. I mean, average student, undergraduate in America, takes at least one semester more of courses than they need to graduate because they're unclear about what the requirements are.

  • 11:34:27

    BOKThat's very expensive. It's half a year out of a job and it's the additional tuition and room and board. And there's no reason why they have to take that extra time. And computers can give you an advising system that keeps you on track and helps you graduate faster and cheaper.

  • 11:34:46

    ROBERTSDerek Bok, let's turn to some of our callers.

  • 11:34:49


  • 11:34:51

    ROBERTSAnd Katie in Cincinnati, OH, we're delighted to have you with us on "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead, Katie.

  • 11:34:56

    KATIEHi. Thank you. I'm a first-time caller and I'm officially heading into my senior as undergraduate at Miami University. And what I kind of discovered within the past year and a half is not so much people telling me, oh, you're not going to get a job out of college, you know, you're not going to make a lot of money. It's more like my undergraduate diploma will completely dictate where I get to go to graduate school.

  • 11:35:22

    KATIEAnd what I've encountered is that there's just kind of a disconnect between -- because I went to Miami and Ohio, there's no way I could get into Harvard. There's no way I can get into Berkeley. There's no way I can get into Stanford. So given that kind of, I guess, wall that I'm confronting, it's like, well, how do I compete with getting in to a good graduate program if I want to, like, have a competent job.

  • 11:35:46

    KATIEIt just kind of seems like there's this disconnect between not -- there's this secret message, you know, where you go to undergrad will dictate what you get to do with graduate school. And I just wonder, well, what does a person like me do if I can't compete because my diploma speaks so negatively about where I went?

  • 11:36:05

    ROBERTSThank you, Katie.

  • 11:36:06

    KATIEThank you.

  • 11:36:07

    BOKWell, I just would happen to dispute the facts. I mean, I had a lot to do with admissions. I've been admissions committees of law schools and so forth and I have not detected any kind of rigid rule that you can only get in if you go to certain colleges. So I would revisit that question if I were you and look more closely, maybe make some inquiries with some schools you want to go to. And I think you're going to find that if you have the intellectual qualities that are required, wherever you went to school you're going to have a shot at getting in.

  • 11:36:50

    ROBERTSAnd the other factor here, Derek Bok, is that a student like Katie can strengthen her application by going to work for a couple of years. Growing up, refining her mission. All test scores are not the same. And a more mature applicant to Harvard Law School or anywhere else is going to be better off if they can make that case. So that's another way of even-ing out the playing field.

  • 11:37:11


  • 11:37:12

    ROBERTSDerek Bok is the former president of Harvard University. Spent 20 years in that job. He's now written -- this is your seventh book.

  • 11:37:22

    BOKI guess. I lost track.

  • 11:37:25

    ROBERTSYou are the math professor then. He is a law professor. Derek Bok's book is "Higher Education in America." It's been published by Princeton University Press. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. We'll be back with more of your calls with Derek Bok. So stay with us.

  • 11:40:03

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, Derek Bok, long time president of Harvard University and authority on higher education in America, which just happens to be the title of his new book, "Higher Education in America." And, Derek Bok, let me read you some emails from some of our listeners.

  • 11:40:21


  • 11:40:22

    ROBERTSThis is Peter who writes to us, "I graduated from a community college, 1963, with an associate's degree in electronics. My tuition was a hundred dollars a year plus books and I lived at home and I commuted. I was hired before graduation and I have a productive, satisfying career. Most technical fields aren't sexy in today's society. Today people that work with their hands are not viewed the same way." Is there a lesson from Peter's experience? A hundred dollars a year is that -- that's a long time ago.

  • 11:40:56

    BOKWell, there's a lesson that things aren't as cheap as they used to be. That certainly came true. Well, actually I think he makes a point that too few people are getting educated in those technical fields because employers everywhere say they can't find enough people to fill these skilled jobs. The wage premiums now are very favorable, but I think there are too many young people who feel technology, math, technical things that's just not me. And actually probably it could be them. They could do well at them if we were better able to make the subjects less frightening and formidable than it is for many students.

  • 11:41:45

    ROBERTSYou know and one ancillary point here, Derek Bok, is the President has talked about this occasionally and that's the role of community colleges.

  • 11:41:52


  • 11:41:52

    ROBERTSAnd I've noticed over the years in my writing that some very smart community colleges partner with local industries, partner with local businesses and then produce programs that will train people for the jobs that exist in those communities.

  • 11:42:07


  • 11:42:07

    ROBERTSThese are very fruitful partnerships.

  • 11:42:10

    BOKYes, yes, yes. No, that's right. I mean there's some wonderful, inventive community colleges that have done exactly what you say and graduate large numbers of students into good jobs because they're pretty well guaranteed jobs before they even enter the program because of this working relationship with local employers. No, I've talked to community college presidents and come away with the feeling -- this isn't uniformly true, but I've talked to some and I've come away feeling this person is really doing more to improve human lives that I was able to do at Harvard. And I was really awed at what they had managed to accomplish.

  • 11:42:53

    ROBERTSI couldn't agree more. And I think another dimension that I've noticed is the role community colleges play in integrating immigrants into American society.

  • 11:43:03


  • 11:43:04

    ROBERTSWe have a community college here in Washington, Montgomery College out in Maryland. Seventy-five percent of their students are foreign born.

  • 11:43:13


  • 11:43:13

    ROBERTSAnd they do a magnificent job as that bridge to American society.

  • 11:43:18

    BOKSure. No, that's exactly one of the roles that they don't get enough credit for.

  • 11:43:25

    ROBERTSIrene from South Bend, Ind. writes, "People used to go to college to get an education. Now they go to get a job. What does your guest think about that trend, about its effect on education in our culture? Also, what does he think about the fact that student evaluations are anonymous?" So there's two related questions here from Irene.

  • 11:43:41

    BOKWell, the first is easier to answer. I'll be very blunt. I think -- I think some day we are going to look back on this present period and feel that people's attitudes toward education put far too much emphasis on getting jobs and making money. The students do, the institution does, the government does.

  • 11:44:08

    ROBERTSThe parents do.

  • 11:44:09

    BOKThe parents do. Not that getting jobs and making a good living aren't important, but we leave out all the other things that colleges could do. In fact, President Obama's own proposal does that. He's going to look at how much people earn and whether they earn enough to pay back their debts, but I didn't hear very much about are they preparing people to be enlightened citizens? Are they preparing people to be better parents, to live healthier lives, to do a lot of the other things that colleges actually do do and that experts who've studied the subject say contribute as much, even in dollars and cents, to the country as the additional earnings they make because they can hold better jobs.

  • 11:45:00

    ROBERTSDerek Bok, here's a note about law school and, of course, you were the dean of the Harvard Law School before you were president.

  • 11:45:06

    BOKI was, yes. At a time when tuitions were far lower.

  • 11:45:10

    ROBERTSWas Barack Obama one of your students?

  • 11:45:13

    BOKNo, he was while I was president, but he went to law school after I'd gone on to other things.

  • 11:45:21

    ROBERTSWell, Guarina (sp?) writes to us, "I'm interested to know your speaker's perspective on attending law school after all of the bad press that the three-year curriculum has gotten." Of course, President Obama's talked about limiting it to two years. "After all of the bad press the high cost and low job numbers post graduation also a big story recently. What do you see as the current and future needs of professionals in the legal system?"

  • 11:45:45

    BOKWell, if I were considering going to law school I would -- I would be very cautious in today's -- under today's conditions. If I could get into one of the ten leading law schools I would think my chances are very good for getting out, even with the tuitions and the debt loads, and make enough money for it to be a successful enterprise. If I couldn't -- if I found I could only get into a third or fourth year law school, I think there's a very serious danger that, particularly if you can't pay all -- the family -- your family won't pay all the bills, that you're going to end up with larger debts than you can repay and you may not even be able to find a job in the legal profession at all.

  • 11:46:35

    BOKSo they're going through a major, kind of, shake up in law schools where they've got to adjust to the fact that many fewer people are going to go to law school than have done so in the past. And that the jobs that many of them get are simply not going to be as remunerative as the need in order to make the venture economically viable.

  • 11:47:01

    ROBERTSGeorge writes to us from Chesapeake, Ohio. "I teach at a state institution in a state facing the second year of budget cuts." Very important dimension of this.

  • 11:47:12


  • 11:47:13

    ROBERTS"The state protects public K-12 education from those cuts for obvious reasons, however, the state's stated policy on higher ed is we can cut the budget of state institutions because they can offset those cuts with tuition increases. If the state's policy is to force us to raise tuition and the federal government's policy is to tie aid to schools who hold tuition down we are in a no win situation. The President's plan seems to take little account of what has been happening in the state funded higher education for a number of years now."

  • 11:47:42

    BOKI certainly agree with the first half of your statement, but perhaps not with the end of it. The biggest reason why community colleges and, kind of, public comprehensive colleges have been raising their tuition so fast is that they felt forced to do it by the disinvestment of many states in higher education. And that's particularly unfortunate at a time when, as Mr. Obama's pointed out, we really need to get the graduation rates up. And if we're going to do that we're really going to have to make community colleges and comprehensive colleges more accessible not less. So that's a big problem.

  • 11:48:30

    BOKI disagree that the President is paying no attention to this and part of his plan is, and, again, the details aren't there so it's hard to evaluate it. But part of his plan is to use something like a billion dollars as an incentive for states to stop the process of disinvestment and thereby stop creating the problem that the questioner had in mind. And I hope that succeeds.

  • 11:49:02

    ROBERTSLet's talk to several callers here, Derek Bok, and we'll start with Sally in Pensacola, Fla. Welcome, Sally, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:49:10

    SALLYHi, thank you. I just wanted to refer back to your comment about $26,000 not being a lot of debt for people leaving, you know, college. I graduated from a well known SEC university with a masters degree in early childhood education in 1998. Upon graduation, I got a job in public education and was -- I had very little debt. I had a car payment, you know, your typical car payment, small credit card payment as well as just an apartment, so very little debt. And I was not able to pay off my student loan debt of $20,000 until 2010 when I got married. And as a single person, I was unable to pay off my student loan debt because of the amount of money I made as teacher and so I have to disagree with your comment there.

  • 11:50:14

    SALLYAnd I also have to disagree with the last comment about how K-12 teachers are protected under law. I've been in teaching situations in various school districts throughout the country where, well, mainly in Alabama where two years in a row we were affected by budget cuts. Eighteen hundred teachers in the K-12 schools or actually K-6 schools in our district lost their jobs. The next year 1,500 teachers lost their jobs. So there's really not any protection...

  • 11:50:52

    ROBERTSOkay, Sally.

  • 11:50:53

    SALLY...for K-12 teachers, as well.

  • 11:50:55

    ROBERTSThank you, Sally, very much for your comment. Derek Bok, Sally's point about paying off debt.

  • 11:51:01

    BOKWell, I agree that for some students almost any debt may turn out to be a burden. I think my statement was, kind of, a general one that given the fact that if you graduate from college you're going to make about a million dollars more over your lifetime than if you'd only gone -- this is on average, of course -- than if you had not gone to college. Taking care of $25,000 or $26,000 should not be an insurmountable problem.

  • 11:51:37

    BOKOn the other hand, the problem you mentioned there are some very worthy occupations that don't pay very much where even a, what seems like a modest student debt can be real burden. The way around that, I think, is something that's already in place, but President Obama wants to expand, and that's a, kind of, what we call, an income contingent repayment system...

  • 11:52:02


  • 11:52:02

    BOK...whereby students who take out debts can undertake to pay a certain percentage, a rather small percentage, of their income to retire their debt. And what that means in the end is that people who end up doing worthy jobs that pay very little are going to have to repay less. And students who end up making a lot of money they're still paying the same small percentage, but that yields a good deal more money. So what it means is that debts will be much less of a deterrent to students going into jobs that very much need to be done whether they're in the clergy or teaching or social work, very important jobs, but don't pay very much. So maybe that will offer some relief to future students who have your problem.

  • 11:52:58

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Derek Box, let's turn to Mike in Crown Point, Ind. Mike, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:53:08

    MIKEGood morning. I just had, you know, the conversation's been leaning this way. I think the universities can do a better job advising incoming undergrads in regards to selection of their field of study. I think it'd be very wise to point out to prospective student if he wants to major in a subject's that not as marketable to show him, you know, on a spreadsheet or wherever what the financial impact of the decision may be. Here's your likelihood of landing a job. If you do here's the income level to expect. Do you really want to go $100,000 in debt to maybe get a job that pays $30,000 a year.

  • 11:53:45


  • 11:53:45

    MIKEThat's a very valid question.

  • 11:53:47

    ROBERTSMike, thanks for your call.

  • 11:53:48

    BOKWell, I think some colleges try to do that and probably the majority don't do enough. That happens to be one of the places where I think you're going to see improvement in the future due, once again, to technology because I think technology will increasingly be able to show you what the average incomes are for every possible occupation you may be considering and a lot of other relevant data that -- at least from an economic point of view -- will help you decide what field really makes sense for you to enter.

  • 11:54:24

    ROBERTSTom in Gainesville, Va. welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Tom.

  • 11:54:27

    TOMGood morning, gentleman, this is like old home week for me because I happen to be an alumni of a community college. I have an advanced degree from GW, Columbian College, graduate school of arts and sciences, an MS degree and I also am an alumni of GW where your brother, Steve, Mark was one of my professors.

  • 11:54:49

    ROBERTSExcellent, you mean the Harvard School of Public Health is what you mean.

  • 11:54:51

    TOMNo, no, no. I was at the Kennedy School.

  • 11:54:56

    ROBERTSRight, he also taught there, as well. But what's on your mind, Tom, we're glad to have you.

  • 11:54:59

    TOMWell, the thing that...

  • 11:55:00

    BOKYou must have run up some really impressive educational debts.

  • 11:55:04

    TOMAnyhow the -- and I also have a PhD candidate son in the GW School of Business, but anyhow that's another issue. The thing -- the previous caller stole my thunder a bit, but when I called in I said, you know, nobody is focusing on majors and, you know, when you get some young undergraduate with a degree in, you know, political science or, you know, some B.A. degree they aren't marketable. So to graduate with $25,000 or $30,000 in debt, you know, that's a death sentence.

  • 11:55:36


  • 11:55:37

    TOMIn my view.

  • 11:55:39

    ROBERTSWell, Tom, thank you for your call. Derek, we've had a lot of callers focusing on this question. There's a tradeoff certain majors' marketability and you say that's an important concern, but it's not the only one that education still does something else besides simply train people for specific jobs. Both are true at the same time.

  • 11:55:57

    BOKWell, I think so and that's why I come back to this system of contingent repayment of debts because what it does is to greatly reduce the disincentive to enter fields that you would really like to go into and that may be extremely worthwhile in terms of helping people, but don't happen to pay much or pay enough to make it easy for you to repay your debts. The contingent plan will help and that's why I would applaud President Obama's desire to expand that because he remarked that it's there already, but very students take advantage of it. He's going to try to increase that number.

  • 11:56:40

    ROBERTSI had a student just recently who had a lot of law school debt and had a job in the Obama Administration, but had to return to a big New York City law firm because his debts were -- he couldn't pay them off while he was working for the government. So it's a...

  • 11:56:54

    BOKOh, sure. Well, I think that the debt problem is most serious in law graduates now, more so than college, actually. The debt loads are averaging something around $100,000 which, if you can't get a law job, is a really serious problem.

  • 11:57:13

    ROBERTSAnd that's going to have to be the last word. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University and his new book, "Higher Education in America," published by Princeton University Press. Derek Bok, thanks so much...

  • 11:57:24

    BOKThank you.

  • 11:57:24

    ROBERTS...for being here on "The Diane Rehm Show." I’m Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. She's on vacation, will be back in mid-September and I'm delighted that you spent an hour of your morning with us. Thanks a lot.

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