Who’s Right About What’s Wrong with Higher Education?


“Education is a waste of time.”

“Students don’t learn anything in college anymore.”

“Education doesn’t get enough government funding.”

“Education should be privatized.”

“Education should be a public good.”

“Colleges are coddling students.”

“It’s students’ fault they don’t succeed in college.”

“Institutions fail our students.”

“Liberals are ruining educations.”

“Conservatives are ruining education.”

Any of these statements sound familiar? Everywhere you read, you’ll find a problem with higher education. This isn’t new, either. As long as educational institutions have existed in our country, there have been endless things to complain about.

Since moving into the higher education space as a professional researcher, I have been trying to read about as many different perspectives on our education system as possible (recommendations are welcome in the comments!) from radical liberal perspectives advocating for free education as a public good, to radical conservative perspectives advocating for a privatized and al la carte system of education.

So, who’s right about what’s wrong with education?

After lots of reading, I’d say, well, everyone is right about what’s wrong with education.

I recently finished reading A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education by David Labaree which provided a rich and comprehensive history of higher education in the United States, from the founding of (now prestigious) colonial colleges like Harvard to modern powerhouse research universities like University of Michigan.

Labaree’s perspective is that the US higher education system is a mess of contradictions (where much of current debate arises from), but this mess has produced the largest and most successful higher education system in the world. American universities have a greater impact on society and humanity than any other higher education system – and none of it was planned (or at the beginning, even promising!).

This organic mashup of qualities allows for endless debate on what is wrong with higher education, and what education should be. As Labaree points out, our higher education system simultaneously affords access to the highest proportion of students anywhere in the world, while preserving social privilege and increasing inequality. Our education system is simultaneously populist by promising social mobility to all, and elitist by maintaining a clear hierarchical tier of selectivity and advantage. And, our education system is best viewed as a public good to society, while being best viewed as a private good to the individual. A mess of contradictions, indeed.

What I admire most about the popular education literature is the diversity of viewpoints in the arena. In a time where viewpoint diversity, especially within the academy, is under threat, I feel it reasonable to argue that we are not suffering from a viewpoint diversity crisis about higher education itself. Books are written from a variety of political perspectives providing reasonable and interesting discussions.

I was curious as to how diverse my own educational reading has been over the past couple of years, so I plotted where I saw each book I’ve read along a multidimensional access with one axis spanning liberal to conservative perspectives of the book’s thesis (from my own vantage point as best I could), and the other axis spanning prescriptive to descriptive book types (based on my own personal assessment). That plot is below, and a full list of books at the end of this post.


It seems that every time I read a new book on higher education (and a couple on K12 as you can see), I come away realizing that there seems to be no single right way for education to be – every angle involves significant trade-offs. Though, I generally lean towards are more liberal public good type version of education, especially at the primary and secondary levels. But every conservative perspective I’ve read makes strong points that should also be considered and come with significant benefits.

In my opinion, A Perfect Mess articulated my constantly mixed feelings on education’s problems. Honestly, I quite like our current messy higher education system, which could reasonably be interpreted as defending the status quo. Though, I’m not saying that as someone who benefited from substantial advantage within the system: I came from a mediocre public school system, and was a first generation college student who enrolled at a regional college while working full time as a waitress, then went on to get a PhD at an newly minted R2 university (mostly because I couldn’t think of much else to do with myself!).

Higher education’s diversity is what generates so much debate, and why I find this space such an interesting place to be professionally. Labaree shows how debates over access and equity play out in our highly stratified system (which in part leads to the variety of institution types we have today), pros and cons of private versus public institutions, and the constant waxing and waning of liberal versus professional education philosophies across our highly stratified system.

I do believe actual education and learning should be the core of all of our educational institutions (and I fear about the impacts of the increasing focus on credentialing), but how that plays out in practice and how incentive structures are set up – what the institutional systems look like – can, and does, vary considerably. Just look at the diversity of institutional types in the higher education space today!

Below are the education books that I’ve read recently. Most are on higher education, but there are a couple on primary and secondary education, too. Pick one out that disagrees with your typical politics. And if you see something missing on here that you think I’d find interesting, comment below.

Education Reading List:

Sustainable. Resilient. Free. by John Warner who argues for a fully publicly-funded higher education system and the cancellation of student debt.

The Cult of Smart, by Fredrik deBoer who argues for socialism as a solution to the inherent inequity of our education system.

A Wolf at the School House Door, by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire who detail the threat of conservative policy on public K12 education.

Paying the Price, by Sarah Goldrick-Rab who argues that the cost of higher education is prohibitive to too many students and is perpetuating inequality.

The College Dropout Scandal, by David Kirp who details successful case studies of various institutions who have closed equity gaps and increased graduation rates.

The Years that Matter Most, (now published under a new title, The Inequality Machine) by Paul Tough who shows the flaws in the higher education system from the perspective of student stories.

Rewiring Education, by John Couch who argues that access to technology can transform education.

Failure to Disrupt, by Justin Reich who argues that access to technology cannot transform education.

The Missing Course by David Gooblar, who outlines the evidence and impact of active and engaged college teaching.

Grasp, by Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto who detail effective examples of innovative teaching approaches based in learning science principles.

A Perfect Mess, by David Labaree who argues that our messy, contradictory education system is the best in the world.

How We Learn, by Stanislas Dehaene who details the core universal pillars of learning.

The Amateur Hour, by Jonathan Zimmerman who details the history of college teaching approaches in America.

The Coddling of The American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt who argue that current cultural trends on college campuses are doing a disservice to students.

Real Education, by Charles Murray who argues against broad access higher education on the basis of individual differences in intelligence.

The Case Against Education, by Bryan Caplan who argues that higher education degrees act as signals to employers, but have little other function or value to society.

The Fifth Wave, by Michael Crow and William Dabars who argue that the future of higher education should look like Arizona State University.

Charter Schools and Their Enemies, by Thomas Sowell who advocates for the increase of privatized charter schools in the K12 system.

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