has a review essay on two recent critiques of American higher education: Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and Professor X's In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.
In the course of the essay, Menand puts forth three different theories on the meaning of college.
Theory 1: College is a means of sorting out the more intelligent members of society from the less intelligent members of society.
Theory 2: College "exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.
If you are a Theory 1 person, you worry that, with so many Americans going to college, the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential. Increasing public investment in higher education with the goal of college for everyone—in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion—is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism. Education is about selection, not inclusion.
If you are friendly toward Theory 2, on the other hand, you worry that the competition for slots in top-tier colleges is warping educational priorities. You see 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, including room and board, is upward of fifty thousand dollars a year. Public colleges are much less expensive—the average tuition is $7,605—and there are also many less selective private colleges where you can get a good education, and a lot more faculty face time, without having to spend every minute of high school sucking up to your teachers and reformatting your résumé. Education is about personal and intellectual growth, not about winning some race to the top.