Andrew Delbanco is a humanities professor at Columbia University and head of American Studies there. He is the author of The Puritan Ordeal, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now and, most recently, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. In February Delbanco was awarded the National Humanities Medal.
What was the mission of our first colleges—Harvard, William and Mary, Yale?
They were an extension of the church. The founders of Harvard said they were motivated by dread at the prospect of leaving to posterity an illiterate ministry when their current ministers lay in the dust. But they were not entirely oriented toward religion; they also trained schoolteachers and magistrates, the sort of leaders of the public square.
What was taught?
It wasn’t all theology. They studied the classics, science, rhetoric.
We tend to think only the very wealthy went to college. But in the early years, it was really for the middling sort, as they were called then. In the 19th century, relatively few of the great industrialists or businessmen went to college. In fact, college was regarded for a long time as a place for effete and impractical people who were not equipped to go out there and struggle for a place in the world.
Was the goal character building?
Yes—but of course not every student was pious and self-sacrificing. There were a lot of unserious students in the past as there are in the present. In studying the history of the American college, I was amused, for example, to discover the long history of student rioting over the quality of their food.
How did so many small colleges become so big?
The great driver has been science, where the scope of knowledge is much larger than it once was. They’re also bigger because America opened the doors of college to people who never had the opportunity to go in the past. The land-grant colleges were started in the middle of the Civil War by the Morrill Act. We had the GI Bill. The federal government recognized the need for an educated population if we were going to be competitive on a global scale.
What’s the biggest problem with colleges now?
Cost. We have students carrying insupportable debt burdens. We’ve had tuition rising faster than inflation for a long time. Yet most nonprofit private colleges set their tuition lower than their cost. Think of the faculty time devoted to your child, the counseling, psychological and medical services, the library and physical fitness facilities—it’s all very expensive.
What can be done?
The business model needs to be revisited. There’s duplication of resources. If you have two universities in the same neighborhood, they might agree not to collect the same materials in their libraries and to do more sharing. But the wrong places to cut costs are financial aid and faculty salaries. Hiring part-time faculty without benefits is a bad answer. Most important, we need to renew public investment in our colleges.
Are colleges too corporate?
It’s an increasing problem. At many colleges, senior managers pull down huge salaries in relation to the people who work for them, and they are removed from the daily experiences of teachers, students and staff. Meanwhile, tenure for the faculty is becoming a rarity.
Why is tenure important when so many Americans have no job guarantees?
You want very bright, devoted faculty—who are often people who could be making much more elsewhere. One way to attract such people is by offering them job security once they have proven themselves to be capable and professional. Tenure is also important because the faculty voice should be heard when decisions are made about what the college should value and what it shouldn’t. This is only likely to happen if faculty are free to speak without fear of retribution from the administration.
Have we lost a lot of what college once offered?
The ideal of universal higher education is a distinctive American idea, and it’s been impressively successful. It closely correlated with America’s rise to world dominance in the 20th century. In 1900, only around 2 percent of the college-aged population went to college. By 1990, it was more like 30 percent, much higher than in any other society. But it’s increasingly hard to sustain the collegiate ideal, which involves students learning from each other, learning among other things, that America is made up of people from many religions, races and walks of life.
Are colleges too competitive with each other?
They’re in a prestige war, and the U.S. News and World Report ranking is the most obvious manifestation of that. What’s your ranking? The answer depends heavily on the average SAT scores of your students. But there’s not much correlation between an SAT score and what a student can contribute to and get out of college.
Are too many colleges too elite?
Although our fanciest colleges proclaim that their doors are open to anybody with talent, they’re overwhelmingly oriented to wealthy applicants. At an Ivy League college, the definition of middle income is probably three times the national median family income.
Are students warped by that?
I wish they were told: “You know, you’re very fortunate to be here. Yes, you worked hard; yes, you made some sacrifices, but most of you had a lot of advantages, and let’s keep that in mind and not imagine that the thousands of students whom we turned down are inferior to you.” We should make young people aware that a life that’s all about “me” is not the road to personal happiness or a healthy society.
Is the study of our ancient past still relevant to students?
John Winthrop’s famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” is a good example. One of the questions he asks is: What rule should apply when somebody who owes you money can’t afford to pay you back? So I say to my students: Does that strike you as an antiquarian question after the mortgage meltdown crisis, when the banks started foreclosing on countless homes?
Should everyone go to college?
No. A lot of very gifted people who didn’t have made great lives for themselves. But when you hear the pundits say, well, we have to face the fact that too many people are going to college, they always seem to be talking about somebody else’s children. I would prefer to err in the direction of assuming that every student should have the chance.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.