Higher Education in America

By Derek Bok

Book review by Elizabeth Richardson Viti

Derek Bok's Higher Education in America is a comprehensive study of colleges and universities as they currently exist, and who better to do such a study than the former President of Harvard who is virtually synonymous with higher education itself. In this analysis, Bok examines the entire system, both public and private, from community colleges to small liberal arts colleges as well as research institutions with medical, law, and business schools.  Bok explores both the strengths and weaknesses of today's higher education and determines which criticisms of the system are of little or no merit and where there should be real concern.  Of particular interest to us here at Gettysburg College is Part II, which is devoted to undergraduate education.  It includes chapters entitled "Paying for College:  The Challenge for Policy-Makers and Academic Leaders," "Entering the Right College," "The Expanding Audience for Higher Education," "What to Learn," "How to Teach," and "Prospects for Reform."   Some of the debates he examines have been with us for some time, such as the rising cost of higher education, while others are more recent, such as the role of massive open online courses, MOOCs.  His observations are telling.  Well before the government came upon the notion, as our own President pointed out, to rank colleges and universities based on the percentage of students who have well-paying jobs upon graduation,  Bok observed that the American higher education system is vulnerable "to well-intentioned but misguided regulations that impatient legislatures may impose in an effort to improve the performances of colleges and universities."  Indeed, Bok stresses the fact that the academic enterprise is very hard to evaluate and goes on to say that "the lack of reliable knowledge about the performance of colleges and universities . . . threatens to affect the decisions of government officials in troublesome ways.  In seeking to hold universities accountable, officials may concentrate on measures of accomplishment that are concrete and precise at the expense of behaviors that are less tangible though equally important."  Should this occur, it will only exacerbate a phenomenon that Bok finds questionable, competition among colleges and universities.  Too often schools accommodate the desires of those they serve, but in higher education, "students frequently have preferences that do not serve their own best interests, let alone those of the larger public."  Because Derek Bok draws on the most reliable studies and data, he instills confidence in the reader.  No playful title for him, but rather a highly informed and straightforward examination of what is happening today in Higher Education in America.


Available in the JCCTL library.