This line of reasoning has several strands. One involves a simple loss of ambition on the part of universities and their leaders. Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education that "colleges and universities are seen principally as providing tickets to financial security and economic status," rather than being involved in any larger public purpose. He noted that through the 1950s and 1960s many university presidents were leading public intellectuals. Agree with them or not, Clark Kerr, of Berkeley; Theodore Hesburgh, of Notre Dame; Kingman Brewster, of Yale; and others of their time played a larger role in public debates than almost any of their modern counterparts.
Many people expressed concern that colleges are not fully serving their own students, who often take on considerable debt or draw heavily on their parents' savings in order to attend. "The amount of attention paid to undergraduates at the larger private and public research institutions is a national scandal," says the admissions consultant Norman Puffett, who is also a dean at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, in Riverdale, New York, in a widely echoed sentiment. Outside the academy, discussion of higher education usually involves what happens before students begin their undergraduate education (that is, during the admissions process) and what happens after it's over (that is, whether their degrees help them get appropriate jobs). What happens in between is largely a mystery. Concern about these very expensive "lost years" has fueled the important "accountability" movement, which hopes to measure how well colleges actually perform when it comes to educating their students. The National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, has been a pioneer in this area, with studies that measure how often students at a given college do the things that have proved to be associated with real learning: writing papers, speaking in class, interacting with professors, and so on. Since 1999 NSSE has been used at more than 850 colleges and universities. Similarly, a group called the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, has produced innovative "Report Cards" every two years since 2000, judging each state's public and private higher education on its affordability, the graduation rate of students, the contribution the graduates make to public life, and other factors. A still more recent effort, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, hopes to measure how well individual colleges teach their students to think. (See "Measure by Measure," by Jay Mathews, page 134.)
Finally, in addition to the question of how well America's colleges and universities are serving their current students is the question of how well they will be able to serve those in the future. Many of our interviewees stressed a concern that few outside academia are aware of. It is that the next five or six years will see a big surge in demand for college enrollment, which will be as rapid and dramatic in some regions as the Baby Boom, and will be overwhelmingly Hispanic. The fastest growth in America's college-age population, in other words, will be in the group that has had the lowest college-attendance rate. One in seven Hispanic-Americans has a college degree, compared with one in two Asian-Americans, one in three white Americans, and one in five black Americans. This "participation gap" will pose an enormous challenge for higher education in the near future. "The stakes for serving this new population are very high," says Peter Osgood, of Harvey Mudd. "If we invest in education as a society, we will produce a better, richer society, a better-educated electorate, and we may help lower costs for health care." Or, if American colleges and universities cannot figure out how to serve this population, it may mean the reverse.
In sum, today's students are competing for places in a college system racked by debate about many of its basic values and practices—but more animated by questions of common good and public purpose than it has been in years.