Why We Have College

Louis Menand

Take Aways

  • Americans’ commitment to both meritocratic and democratic theories of higher education can lead to confusion about its purposes and complicate the assessment of how well the system is functioning.
  • The meritocratic theory holds that college primarily serves as a sorting mechanism for society by separating people based on their intelligence and aptitude and funneling them into careers that will maximize their talents. Graduates receive a GPA, recommendation letters, and board scores that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and potential.
  • The democratic theory holds that college is where citizens gain exposure to knowledge that enlightens and empowers them, no matter what career they may choose. College supports and enhances personal and intellectual growth that underpins our civil society. Broad access and inclusion—not selectivity—are fundamental goals of the democratic theory.
  • It is difficult to make a strong case for the liberal arts when 60 percent of American college students are not liberal arts majors, and neither the meritocratic nor the democratic theory of higher education explains well how college works for them. For these students—a preponderance of whom are business majors—college is fundamentally a supplier of vocational preparation and a credentialing service.

Americans have since the end of World War II been committed to both meritocratic and democratic theories of higher education. Louis Menand, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University and staff writer for The New Yorker, explains these sometimes clashing theories. The meritocratic theory holds that college primarily helps our society sort people out based on their intelligence and capabilities, and funnels them into appropriate careers. The democratic theory holds that education is about personal and intellectual growth for the good of the individual and society—and not simply a four-year intelligence test. While our higher education system may indeed be successfully sorting students, Menand asks whether it’s possible, on the other hand, that students aren’t actually learning anything. He discusses the book, Academically Adrift, whose authors conducted an assessment of learning outcomes and maintain that very little learning is occurring at colleges and universities today. Excerpts of Menand’s remarks at the Forum’s 2011 Aspen Symposium are reprinted here.

I’m a professor, not an administrator, and so I’m addressing you from the retail side of our business—the teaching side. I’m going to talk about issues that are of concern to faculty, and refer to a piece for The New Yorker on higher education that I wrote recently. That piece is in part a review of a book called Academically Adrift by two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which has gotten a lot of attention.

I earned my Ph.D. at Columbia in 1980. That time, too, was a tough job market for Ph.D.s. The system had expanded rapidly in the 1960s and then abruptly slowed down after 1970. It had created a lot of doctoral programs that were turning out people like me, but the slots were closing up because they were filled by people who’d been tenured in the previous decade.

I was fortunate to get a job at Princeton, much to my surprise, and also to the surprise of my teachers at Columbia. I very much enjoyed teaching at Princeton. Princeton is, of course, a research university, but it’s very teaching- and undergraduate-focused. The atmosphere there—certainly, for assistant professors—was very much like being at a liberal arts college. And the students were fantastic.

At a certain appointed hour, Princeton decided it would have to make its way in the world without me. And so I left and I got a job at Queens College, in the City University of New York. I spent a big part of my career in the CUNY, first at Queens and then, for ten years, at the Graduate Center. When I started teaching at Queens, after having had this wonderful experience teaching at Princeton, I assigned pretty much the same books that I had assigned in my courses at Princeton. I knew the students had very different backgrounds and different levels of preparation, but that is what I knew how to teach and I felt I could tell them what they needed to know and open up the texts for them.

Very early in my time at Queens, a student raised his hand in class and asked, “Why did we have to buy this book?” That’s a question nobody at Princeton would ever have asked. It completely threw me, because I had never thought about it before. I could see that it was a legitimate question; the student was asking me to justify the return on investment in a college education. And I think that was the moment when I got interested in the philosophy and history of American higher education.

Now, I could have said to that student, “You had to buy this book because you’re in college and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.” If you hold a certain theory of higher education, that answer is not as circular as it sounds. The theory would go like this: In any group of people, it’s easy to pick out the fastest person or the strongest person. It’s usually not that hard to figure out who the best-looking person is. But picking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intelligence involves attributes that can’t readily be measured in a one-time assessment. We say that an intelligent person is open-minded, self-critical, thinks outside the box, is consistent, prudent, and so on. There’s no intellectual equivalent of the 100-yard dash for picking this person out in a group because those are not qualities that are readily subject to measurement.

But society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent members, because society wants to identify intelligent people, wherever they may be, in order to bring them into a system that can funnel them to careers that will maximize their talents. Society wants to make the most out of its human resources. And college is a process that’s sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.

On this theory, college is essentially a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a wide range of subject matter. No matter how smart they may be on in an IQ sense, if they’re sloppy or obnoxious or rigid, that will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. And at the end of the process, the graduates get a score—the GPA—along with other kinds of evaluations like recommendation letters, board scores, and so on, that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It’s important that everyone is taking more or less the same test so that the sorting actually means something.

I could have answered that question—“Why do we have to buy this book?”—in a different way. I could have said, “You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself, and if you do not learn those things in college, you are unlikely to learn them anywhere else.”

This reflects a different theory of college. The theory is: In a society like ours in which people are encouraged to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They’ll have no incentive to acquire the kind of knowledge and skills necessary for life as an informed citizen or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College is the place where future citizens get exposure to knowledge that enlightens and empowers them, no matter what career they may choose.

In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people from different backgrounds and with different beliefs and it brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste. We honor independence of mind in college, but we expect students to master the accepted ways of doing things before they can deviate from them. Ideally, we want everybody to go to college because college puts everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of people who can talk to one another about things that matter.

Now, if you like the first theory, then it doesn’t really matter what courses students take or what they learn in them, as long as the courses are rigorous enough for the sorting mechanism to do its work. The only thing that really matters is the grades. If the courses are challenging and the subjects are varied, then the student’s overall record will be a meaningful measure of relative intelligence.

If you prefer the second theory, then you might consider grades a useful instrument of positive or negative reinforcement, but what really matters is what students actually learn. There are certain things you think that every adult ought to know. And college is the best delivery system for getting those things into people’s heads.

Some confusion is caused by the fact that since 1945, American higher education has been committed to both theories. The system is designed to be both meritocratic—that’s theory one—and democratic—theory two. Professional schools and employers still depend on college to sort out each cohort as it passes into the workplace—the meritocratic theory. But elected officials and the rest of us talk about the importance of college for everyone—the democratic theory.

In the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen dramatic evidence of the system’s commitment to both theories. On the one hand, elite schools have become ridiculously selective. The acceptance rate at Harvard in 1945 was 85 percent. By 1970, it was 20 percent. This year, it was 6 percent of over 35,000 applications. The acceptance rate at most of the top schools this year was less than 10 percent. At the same time, the system as a whole has become much more accessible. Currently, just under 70 percent of American high schools graduates go to college. In 1980, that figure was under 50 percent.

If you’re a theory one person, that is, if you believe in college as fundamentally a sorting mechanism, then you worry that, with so many Americans going to college and getting degrees, the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, that it’s not really operating as a reliable marker of productive potential. So from that point of view, an increase in public investment in higher education with the goal of sending everybody to college—in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion—is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism. You think education is about selection, not about inclusion.

If you’re friendly to theory two, on the other hand, then you worry that the competition for slots in the top-tier colleges is creating academic tulip mania. Students and their parents are overvaluing a commodity for which there are cheap and plentiful substitutes. The sticker price at Princeton or Stanford is north of $50,000, including room and board. Public colleges are much less expensive; the average tuition in public colleges in the U.S. is about $7,600. And, of course, there are many less selective private colleges where you can get a good education and a lot more faculty face time. You think education is about personal intellectual growth, not about winning some race to the top.

From one point of view, looking at the health of the system today, we have to say it’s doing very well. Lots of students are accessing it, proportionally more than ever before in American history. Students all over the world want to come here for an American education. And higher education is widely regarded as the route to a better life. But it’s possible that the system only looks like it’s working; that is, it’s possible that colleges are selecting and sorting, employers are rewarding, students are getting access, but nobody’s actually learning anything. And that’s pretty much the brunt of Academically Adrift, which is an effort to do something that is difficult to do and that many people are reluctant to do, which is to actually assess learning outcomes in higher education.

The whole issue tends to make professors anxious. We don’t like having the outcomes of our work assessed. We don’t trust assessment measures generally, and we also have a difficult time with the idea because we’re trained to be autonomous, and in complete charge of our own courses. Think about when you take your car into the shop to be repaired. The difference between the car when you brought it in and the car when you take it out is entirely due to the work done in the shop. The car did not get better on its own. We call that a treatment effect. But education is more complicated because people do change, people do educate themselves, people do develop. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, many people undergo some developmental change.

So how much of the intellectual and moral character of the college graduate is a treatment effect, and how much is just a selection effect? … How does college make a difference?

Those of us who are professional educators think that we can intervene, or participate, in this process in a way that will be productive rather than just redundant or annoying. We believe that there are educational outcomes that are more or less desirable, and that there are methods of achieving these outcomes that are more or less effective. But we have a hard time explaining in specific terms where and how the process of going to college makes a difference.

As I’ve suggested, one of the reasons for this is that a lot of college can be explained as a selection effect. Let’s say a college wants to give its students an education that will make them, at the end of the process, tolerant, open-minded, principled human beings. The college does not select, at the beginning of that process, people who are bigoted, dogmatic and wicked. It selects people who already have, in high measure, the very qualities that the college promises to inculcate. And the people who apply to that college apply because they have those qualities, as well. All along the line of their educational careers, they’ve been selected for having just the kinds of qualities that education is supposed to provide.

So how much of the intellectual and moral character of the college graduate is a treatment effect, and how much is just a selection effect? To put the question the other around, are there things that colleges could actually do that would make people less tolerant, open-minded and principled, than they would otherwise be? How does college make a difference?

Every college wants to make a difference to its students, and every professor wants the academic experience to make a difference. But coming up with a way for that academic experience to make a difference, and even coming up with a definition of what the difference should be—what makes a college graduate different from a high school graduate—has been interestingly difficult throughout the history of American higher education.

You can see this the minute faculty start discussing requirements for a general education program. It’s perfectly obvious when you start these discussions that very few professors have given any thought to the question of what every graduate should know. They’re mostly thinking about what every student in their discipline should know. When you start this conversation, you find that people are coming from wildly different places. They’re on different pages. That lack of consensus, which I think just reflects a lack of training and thinking about the overall goals of higher education, is one of the reasons why it’s difficult to make the case for a liberal education these days. We don’t have an agreed upon story about the whole picture because we have spent our lives focusing on a tiny corner.

There are other reasons why I think it’s difficult to make the case for liberal education. The first is that 60 percent of American college students are not liberal arts and sciences majors. The number one major in America is business. Twenty-two percent of undergraduate degrees are awarded in business, 10 percent are awarded in education, 7 percent in the health professions. There are more than twice as many degrees given every year in parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies than in philosophy and religion. Only 4 percent of college graduates are English majors and only 2 percent are history majors. This represents a trend that has been going on for more than a hundred years: As the higher education system has expanded, the liberal arts sector has shrunk in proportion to the whole. The only exception to this trend was the period between 1955 and 1970, when the system was undergoing a fantastic expansion. In that period, the liberal college sector held its own. But since 1970, it’s been shrinking.

Neither theory one nor theory two really explains how college works for these non-liberal arts students, because for them college is fundamentally a supplier of vocational preparation and a credentialing service. So the theory that would apply to them, call it theory three, is that colleges perform a training function because advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills. Since high school is aimed at the general learner, tertiary education is the place where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in one of these non-liberal fields would signal competence in a particular line of work.

This theory helps to explain the proportionally greater growth of the non-liberal sector in American higher education, because as work becomes more technologically sophisticated, employers increasingly demand people with specialized training. Nevertheless, undergraduates pursuing a degree in a non-liberal arts field are almost always required to take some liberal arts and sciences courses. That’s the way colleges are set up.

To give you an example: Let’s say you want a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts, majoring in beverage management, from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. If you want that degree, which would lead you to a career managing food or beverage service in a hotel or a casino or some other institution, UNLV requires you to take two courses in English, in composition and world literature; one course in philosophy, in critical and analytical reasoning; one course in history or political science; courses in chemistry, mathematics, and economics; and two electives in the arts and humanities.

These courses are thought of by faculties as an important ingredient in a college education. Even if your career goal is running the beverage service at the Bellagio, professors think that you still need to take courses in English, philosophy, chemistry, mathematics, and so on as part of a well-rounded education. But you need a persuasive rationale to explain why you’re requiring students who want to become accountants or go into the health professions to take courses in world literature or philosophy. These rationales are not always completely persuasive, in part because they call upon people to justify the utility of something on non-utilitarian grounds.

One alternative to the American approach to higher education is the one that’s used in Europe, where students are tracked very early in their educational careers, often as early as middle school. Some students are designated to go on to an academically advanced program and others are sent to professional or vocational programs. That’s the way it was done for much of the history of higher education in the West. It’s still the way it’s done in Germany and Britain and France. And until the 20th century, that was effectively the way it was done here. So to understand the place that a liberal education has in our system, which is very different from the way it works in other countries around the world, we have to go back to the second half of the 19th century, when that system was set in place.

The system we have today emerged in the 50 years between the Civil War and the First World War. Looking back at that period, one thing that’s striking is the role played by a tiny group of individuals—university presidents. They were titans in their world.

One of those 19th-century titans, one of the first, one of the longest-serving and, for my purposes, the most important, was Charles William Eliot. Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869 and served for forty years. By the time he retired, Eliot had become identified with almost everything that distinguishes the modern research university from the antebellum college: the abandonment of the role of in loco parentis, the abolition of required coursework, the introduction of an elective system for undergraduates, the establishment of graduate schools with doctoral programs in the arts and sciences, and the emergence of research as a principal component of the university’s mission.

Eliot played a prominent part in all of these developments because he was a prominent figure at a prominent school. He was not, however, their originator. Most of these developments and reforms first happened at other institutions, often well before they did at Harvard. Eliot’s role, to some extent, was reactive: he saw changes taking place in the higher education system and he quickly picked out the ones that he wanted to copy. He was a quick student of trends and he was an aggressive implementer of change.

But he did bring one original and revolutionary idea with him when he came into the presidency, and that was to make the bachelor’s degree a prerequisite for admission to professional school. This may seem like a minor reform, but it was possibly the key reform in the transformation of American higher education in the decades after the Civil War. When Eliot became president, students could choose between college and professional school—that is, law school, medical school, or science, which was taught in a separate school from the college. In Eliot’s first year as president, half of the students at Harvard Law School and nearly three-quarters of the students at Harvard Medical School did not have college degrees. And those were respectable numbers. The University of Michigan had 411 medical students—only 19 had gone to college; of 387 law students at Michigan, none had gone to college.

It’s a little bit of a paradox that the most valued kind of college education today is the one that’s least connected to specific career goals. The reason for that is because a liberal education is the gateway to the high-status professions.

There were no admissions requirements at Harvard Law School, beyond evidence of good character and the ability to pay a hundred dollars tuition, which went into the pockets of the law professors. There were no grades or exams. Students often left before the end of the program to take a job; they got their degree anyway. To get an M.D. at Harvard Medical School in 1869, when Eliot became president, students took a ninety-minute oral exam during which they rotated among nine different professors spending ten minutes with each to discuss a field. At the end of the ninety minutes, a bell was rung, and the professors marked the results on a chalkboard. Any student who passed five of the nine fields became a doctor.

Eliot considered the situation scandalous. He published an article about it in The Atlantic Monthly shortly before he was offered the presidency, and that probably was one of the reasons that the overseers appointed him. Harvard wanted a reformer because there was evidence in the 1860s that college enrollments were in decline, and you can see why—because there was an easy professional school option.

Once he was installed, Eliot set about instituting admissions and graduation requirements at Harvard schools of medicine, law, science and divinity, and forcing those schools to develop meaningful curriculum. It took a long time—a bachelor’s degree was not required for admission to Harvard Medical School until 1900.

Eliot’s reform had two effects. One was to raise the value of the professional degree. You now had to pass through an additional layer in the sorting mechanism in order to get access to law school or medical school. The second effect was to save the liberal arts college. Eliot understood that in an expanding nation, social and economic power would pass to people who, regardless of birth or inheritance, possessed specialized expertise. If a college education remained optional for those people, then the college would wither away. By making college the gateway to the professions, Eliot linked college to the rising fortunes of this new professional class.

It’s a little bit of a paradox that the most valued kind of college education today is the one that’s least connected to specific career goals. The reason for that is because a liberal education is the gateway to the high-status professions. But in keeping the professional schools and college linked but separate, Eliot insisted that although utility be the guideline for everything that was taught in professional schools, it should not be emphasized at all in college. He thought that college should be about knowledge for its own sake, not about trying to figure out your next career move.

So effectively, Eliot struck a deal: Professional schools would require a bachelor’s degree for admission, and colleges would not provide pre-professional instruction. That would all be left to the professional schools. The college curriculum would be non-vocational. And that’s the system that we’ve inherited—liberalization and then professionalization. The two types of education are joined but kept distinct.

Around the same time, the end of the 19th century, the modern academic disciplines began to emerge. Universities underwent a rapid period of department formation, so that by 1900 the departmental system of administration was in place in most of the leading schools—the system, of course, that all professors are produced by today. The professoriate was professionalized.

Professions have two essential characteristics. The first is self-governance. Professions are largely self-regulating; practitioners set the standards for entrance in their fields. They do so by light of what’s good for the field and what’s good for our profession, not by worrying about what people outside the profession think about it. The second feature is specialization. Specialization is just part of the history of the division of labor. It makes work more productive by dividing the field up. That’s why we have the different academic disciplines, because we think we can produce deeper knowledge if we segment the field.

The idea behind specialization is the idea that knowledge for a particular endeavor is transmissible—it can be taught to students who will then carry on the work—but it is not transferable. My authority as an English professor is useless in the sociology department. Professors reproduce themselves by passing professional requirements along from one generation to the next. Professionals are trained by other professionals; people with Ph.Ds in English train future English Ph.Ds.

What this means is that from the point of view of the professor, the most important thing about the system is the reproduction of the system. The most important thing we do as professors is to train future professors: we reproduce ourselves in doctoral programs. We also believe in the relative autonomy of our fields. And we work within a system that rewards professionalism and specialization.

Those values are deeply engrained. That’s why I couldn’t find a good answer for the student who asked me why he had to buy this book. We read this book because it’s part of the field; I’m teaching the field. That’s what I’m trained to do. I didn’t think about what value the book would have for somebody who was only going to take one course in English. I should have thought about that, but I had never had occasion to.

This history helps partly explain why the case for liberal education can be hard to make. For one thing, it shows that the professors and the students are in the game for quite different reasons. The primary goal of the student is some enhancement of individual life opportunities, however the student wants to define those. The primary goal of the professoriate is to reproduce itself. In talking about the importance of rethinking the way in which we’re teaching and training people and disseminating knowledge, it’s also important to keep in mind that the institutions are set up to produce knowledge. That’s what’s the professoriate’s supposed to be doing, and that’s what doctoral education is about.

What about the students at my old school, Queens College, back in the 1980s? Are those students motivated to the same degree as they were when I started teaching then? Academically Adrift tries to make the case, based on fairly limited but very suggestive data, that students are no longer committed to the academic piece of the college experience. They’re much more engaged with the social part of college, with things other than academics. Therefore, they’re not as motivated as they might have been in an earlier day to make the academic experience transformative. If that’s the case—and I think it’s premature to say that it is the case—it may be because the American higher-education system is coming to an end of a very exceptional period, which began in 1945 and lasted for about fifty years.

During that period, large new populations kept entering the system. First it was the veterans who entered on the GI Bill—not an insignificant number: 2.2 million between 1944 and 1956. This is a time when total college enrollment was only about 2.5 million. Then came the great expansion of the 1960s, when the baby boomers entered and college enrollments doubled in the space of a single decade. More faculty were hired between 1960 and 1970 than had been hired in the entire 325-year history of American higher education to that point. Then came coeducation, after 1970, when virtually all all-male colleges, apart from the military academies, began admitting women. And finally, in the 1980s and ’90s, there was a period of remarkable racial and ethnic diversification.

These new populations coming into the system after 1945 did not regard college as just a ticket punch. They had much more at stake. College was a gate through which once only the privileged could pass. Suddenly, the door was open to veterans; to children of Depression-era parents who could not have afforded college for themselves; to women, who had been excluded from many of the top schools; to non-whites, who had been segregated or underrepresented; and to the children of immigrants, of people who came to the United States precisely so that their children would have the chance to go to college.

For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it, not just financially, but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be difficult; the difficulty was a token of its transformative powers. That’s why, “Why do we have to buy this book?” was such a great question. The student wasn’t complaining. He was trying to understand how the magic was supposed to work. I wonder whether students at that college are still asking it today.

1 Much of Menand’s June 2011 talk at Aspen also appeared in a review he wrote for The New Yorker published June 6, 2011 entitled, “Why we have college.”


Louis Menand is Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard and has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2001. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. Menand is the author of several books, including The Metaphysical Club (2001), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for History. His most recent book is The Marketplace of Ideas (2010), on American higher education. Menand has been literary editor of The New Yorker (1993-1994) and contributing editor of The New York Review of Books (1994-2001). Menand can be reached at menand@fas.harvard.edu.