Video by Hersh, Richard H. & Merrow, John
Review by Howard Schein
Assistant Professor & Program Director
University of Illinois

We are a profession by default.  Historically, faculty have assumed academic advising duties.  But, as we watch the focuses of higher education change, new structures appear on our landscape. One shift in focus is how we envision our undergraduates, and one of the symptoms of this shifting focus in higher education is reflected by the introduction of professional advisors to take the place of faculty in guiding college students. Other symptoms of this shift include the introduction of graduate students and adjunct faculty to replace regular faculty as our students’ primary classroom instructors, the increasing reliance on student affairs to deal with students’ problems, the replacement of the collegial/faculty model of university governance with a top-down business model, and an increased emphasis on responding to college rankings in creating admissions and financial aid policy.  This shifting focus in higher education is the centerpiece of most of the essays in this book.   Many of the authors mirror Murray Sperber’s theme in his chapter How Undergraduate Education became College Lite -- and a personal apology:

“How did American undergraduate education, particularly its state university version, go from its halcyon past – higher standards and low tuition – to its present predicament – highly questionable quality at an unquestionably high price?” (p. 131)

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rhodes (2006) discusses 40 years of growth and change in higher education. He notes that

“Collegiality within academe seems to be a vanishing trait.  Instead, ‘the university community’ has become a euphemism for an assemblage of conflicting interests.  Perhaps ‘community,’ like youth, is never what it was, but the practical effects of the loss of meaningful dialogue and collegiality are serious.  In education, the increasing departmentalization and fragmentation of the curriculum represent a growing threat to the quality of the undergraduate experience.”

The academic advising profession has evolved from faculty’s neglect as they have handed over to us their job of mentoring their undergraduate students.  As higher education has evolved over the past century, faculty’s engagement with undergraduates, especially on large campuses, has atrophied in favor of other faculty tasks that both the faculty and their institutions judge to be more central to faculty’s interests and more important to institutions’ missions.  

As an undergraduate student at a small, liberal arts college in 1962, I experienced a collegial setting with both my professors and my classmates where interpersonal interactions permeated my academic life.  Forty years later, I am still in regular contact with my undergraduate advisor who also was my classroom teacher, my research supervisor, a regular attendee at my athletic events, and a frequent evening speaker at my residence hall.

Then came graduate school at a research-1 university where, much to my chagrin and dismay, I experienced the first multiple-choice exam of my college career.  Knowing facts superseded knowing concepts.   Fortunately, in graduate school, I shared an office and a lab with my advisor and my compatriots where we formed our own community, both within and outside of our research setting.  We had weekly seminar meetings at our professor’s home, lunched together, took classes together, and were quite aware of each others’ research projects.  The interpersonal model that I experienced at my small undergraduate college was institutionalized within my university research group in a way that characterizes many graduate school experiences.   This model still permeates graduate education on many campuses, but, alas, undergraduates on most large campuses have been reduced to university identification numbers who are highly likely to find their identities in peer-group structures (e.g., Greek letter societies, student organizations, intramural athletic teams), and not within academic structures that have strong faculty involvement.

Basically, my undergraduate advising was integrated into my academic experience.  It was not a module.   As we redefine higher education into the 21st century, a modular structure is quickly replacing an integrated model in many aspects of college and university life.  Business models of organization, marketing strategies, outcome measures, and loci of accountability are quickly replacing traditional, interpersonally-based, collegial models.  Concurrent with these shifts in how we operate are shifts in what we appear to value.  Money seems to be a major driving force, and satisfying our consumers is a paramount concern.

The authors of Declining by Degrees (the book) tend to offer “traditionalist” analyses of our current state of affairs.  Much like the rebel forces of Star Wars, they hold great value in the old ways.  Even in the area of my primary campus interest, living/learning programs and residential colleges, this shift from the old ways is evident.  Whereas most of the programs established in the ‘60s and ‘70s were dedicated to the ideals of a liberal education, newly introduced programs are more likely to be theme oriented and modularly focused with a strong student-affairs bias and without strong faculty support.

Declining by Degrees has 15 chapters, each addressing a particular problem area (e.g., admissions, liberal education, market forces, measuring quality, declining standards of quality, sports, student life, diversity, etc.).  Although the authors present their cases from their unique vantage points, several themes run through most of their arguments.  Primary amongst these themes is the declining emphasis on liberal education as a basic foundation of today’s college students’ educations.  “Critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and human understanding so essential for dealing with the problems in our world today” (Johnson, p. 195) have been pushed aside in favor of a credentialing process that serves to give students access to the middle class and the $1 million over-one’s-lifetime-added-value of a college education over a high school education.

College, then, has become an economic investment in students’ futures; students are treated as consumers of education and not as interactive partners in the educational venture; and the higher education experience does not necessarily involve a process by which students are encouraged to grow intellectually.  In this scenario we see a decreasing role that faculty play in students’ lives in favor of faculty’s involvement in those activities, headlined by research, that take faculty out of students’ lives.  This removal of faculty from the lives of their students is most frequently in favor of faculty activities that serve other institutional missions and which increase institutional visibility in college rankings.

This shift in purpose, for instance, is even reflected in how the government sees financial aid.  When constructed, Pell Grants were meant to enable financially disadvantaged students to get equal footings in society via college educations.  When college educations were subsequently equated with increased life-time earnings, Pell Grant aid significantly decreased on the assumption that students should front their college costs since they were reaping the benefits in the future.  Benefits to society gained from a college-educated population took second chair.  This altered philosophy of funding needy students, of course, leads to keeping lower income students from attending college, and the social consequences are many.
The public’s major concerns are cost and admission.  Although the media play to the competitive nature of college admissions, this is really only an issue for the minority of schools that have very selective admissions policies.  Jaschik (2006b) cites
 “James C. Blackburn, associate director of enrollment management services for the California State University System, who says that no one is aware that ‘we don’t have a shortage of spaces,’ just ’a distribution issue’ in which so many students are convinced that there are only a dozen or so institutions worth attending.”  
And, yet, the public image of admissions is driven by these media descriptions.  In his forward to this book, Tom Wolfe describes the rankings:

 “The matter of how this third-rate news magazine (U.S. News & World Report), forever swallowing the dust from the feet of Time and Newsweek, managed to jack itself up to the eminence of ring master of American college education, forcing both parents and college administrators to jump through their hoops and rings of fire, is a long and perfectly ludicrous story that would inevitably reduce one to helpless laughter and distract us from the matter at hand.  In any event, the result was that parents caught up in the madness of it all – and, as I say, it had become, and remains, a pandemic - were utterly consumed by a single passion:  getting in…getting their children into a college whose name would go bingo! in every listener’s head…preferably Harvard, or, if not Harvard, Yale; or, if not Yale, Princeton; or, if not Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, then…..  .(p. x –xi)

Ironically, popular perceptions of the value-added to students who go to these highly selective universities are not always accurate.  Hymowitz (2006), for instance, reports that the Ivy’s are not where most of America’s CEOs are educated.  Rather, they tend to come from state universities, and many come from schools that are not top tier in the U.S. News rankings.    She contends, “Getting to the corner office has more to do with leadership talent and a drive for success than it does with having an undergraduate degree from a prestigious university.”

Although a place in college is available to most applicants as long as they can front the costs, the price tag for a college education appears to be a major issue for students of all socio-economic strata.   “Family income significantly influences access to college, and rising tuition levels are increasing the chances that Americans will not be able to go” (Levine, p. 156).   College attendance significantly correlates with family income, and, “adding academic ability into the equations, a student from the highest income quartile and the lowest aptitude quartile is as likely to attend college as a student from the lowest income quartile and the highest aptitude quartile.”  (Levine, p. 156) Consequently, the least able rich kids have as good a chance to attend college as the most able poor kids.  If we then acknowledge that a college education is an entry level prerequisite to membership in the middle class, we can immediately see how economics and financial aid direct social policy in our country.

One major issue that many authors address is higher educations’ luxury of not being held accountable for what actually happens to students in college.  Most of the authors agree that the general public sees higher education as doing a good job educating our nation’s youth (and, now, a large number of non-traditional aged students).  However, how this is happening, how we actually are held accountable for doing so, and definitions of “doing well” and of “educating” are not public issues.  

Although quality of education does not seem to be a public issue, it is for most of this book’s authors.   Quality of education has very recently become a national issue, with Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling’s leading the pack with requests for accountability in higher education.  “In higher education, we’ve invested tens of billions of taxpayer dollars over the years and basically just hoped for the best.” (Jaschik, 2006a)

In the video, Lee Schulman talks about measuring quality in higher education:

“With regard to the quality of research, we tend to evaluate faculty the way the Michelin guide evaluates restaurants.  We ask, ‘How high is the quality of this cuisine relative to the genre of food?  How excellent is it?’  With regard to teaching, the evaluation is done more in the style of the Board of Health.  The question is, ‘Is it safe to eat here?’ “  (from the website:  http://www.decliningbydegrees.org/meet-experts-5.html)

George Kuh (who is featured in the video but who does not author a book chapter)  et al (2005) contend that “What students do during college counts more for what they learn and whether they will persist in college than who they are or even where they go to college.” (p. 8).  Engaged students are likely to be successful students, and engagement has two key components that contribute to this success:

 “The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other activities that lead to the experiences and outcomes that constitute student success.  The second is the ways the institution allocates resources and organizes learning opportunities and services to induce students to participate in and benefit from such activities.” (p.9)  

Most of the authors of Declining by Degrees contend, in some way or other, that our institutions are not engaging our students in meaningful academic and cocurricular ways of the sort that contribute to student learning.  When we look for significant and meaningful institutionally encouraged engagement we are most likely to find it at small, liberal arts colleges that, unfortunately, serve a low per cent of our nation’s college-going students.  

These are amongst the many issues that this book’s authors discuss in their highly charged critique of higher education.  Since I strongly agree with their general viewpoint, I very much liked how this book put my workplace into a critical perspective.  On the other hand, I frequently wonder whether I’m just a crusty old curmudgeon who can’t go along with modern change.  I coach high school girls’ swimming, and one of my seniors remarked, “Howie is always telling us how things were in the old days.  Get a clue, Howie, this is a new age.”  However, the implications and impact of new technologies in the learning environment is not what concerns me.  Rather, I am very much concerned with the shift in values regarding what is important in higher education.  Despite the age-related differences that my swimmers and I experience, my swimmers and I all agree that swimming fast is our goal.  I’m not sure that my classroom students and I agree on the appropriate educational outcomes of our academic interaction.

I place great value on the intimate role of the faculty/student relationship in undergraduate education, on the necessity of intellectual engagement in and out of the classroom, on holding our students accountable for subscribing to high standards of excellence and achievement in their academic lives, and on the basic tenets of a liberal education as the cornerstone of a viable college education.  As these values change, I ponder the impact, and I am not optimistic about my values’ viability.

The video version of this book gave me an opportunity to engage in discussion about these issues and very much helped me to clarify my ideas.

The video, Declining by Degrees, premiered on Public Television several years ago.  Although it covers many of the same issues as the book version, the presentation is different, and it flows more evenly. As I watched this video, I took stock of the issues it addressed:

•    college as a necessary prerequisite to entry to the middle class
•    sports
•    tenure and promotion
•    graduation rates
•    public perceptions, public satisfaction (except with college costs)
•    do students really learn
•    the role of the university in driving the economy
•    grade inflation
•    preparedness for college
•    the instructional role of teaching assistants
•    the educational rewards students get from working with faculty
•    the 20% of students who are drifting through college
•    professors’ complaints of student laziness
•    adjunct faculty
•    learning communities
•    conflict between school and working
•    decline in financial assistance and increase in students’ debt load
•    the conflict between merit and need-based financial aid
•    working student/parents
•    how schools market themselves

One of the strengths of the video is that it places faces along side of the concepts that both the video and the book address.  In the video we are introduced to an assistant professor facing tenure review, to an adjunct professor who concurrently holds part-time positions at several schools, to a highly effective teacher who has negotiated out of the tenure track and into a teaching-only position, to a professor who is stymied by her students’ apathy, to a student whose education has been enhanced by a positive relationship with a professor, to honors students who are “making money” from their merit scholarships, to students who are drinking their way through college while maintaining mid-range grade-points, to students at highly selective liberal arts college and to students at large state universities, to working students who can barely make ends meet, to nationally well-known critics of undergraduate education, to a successful Division I coach, and to university presidents.  All of these faces have strong, articulate voices, and their many different viewpoints are presented in a very well edited presentation.  These many talking heads are presented very crisply, and, to my surprise, they held my interest very closely.  In fact, several have been NCADAD national conference keynote speakers.  

I found that this video so closely mirrored the syllabus of my First Year Discovery Seminar course (Schein, 2006) that I now show this video as the introduction to the course.  This semester, I asked my students to critique this video.  The entire class (19 students) thought the video was interesting.  This surprised me because students don’t usually respond that positively to documentaries. But, the disconnect between their preconceptions of college and the realities presented in the video apparently jolted them.  One student even got right to the core message of the video:  “I’m actually worried about the future of colleges and how they need to be fixed.”  

The main theme that startled them was the concept of tenure at research schools.  Most undergraduates do not have any idea of the professorial reward system….that research credentials are central to getting tenure, promotions, and raises….and the implications this has for professors’ relationships with students, both in and out of the classroom.  Clearly, the video’s assistant professor’s comments put professors’ priorities into a new perspective for them.  He clearly states that he asks less of his students and gives multiple choice exams instead of more time-intensive essay exams in order to reduce his teaching workload.  He clearly needs to spend his time completing the published papers he needs to present to his tenure committee.  My experience is that college seniors are just as naïve as are first year students about the implications of tenure in higher education.

Other issues that were new to these students included the role of sports (especially coach salaries and other financial aspects), the high per cent of students who do not finish college, the absence of teaching methodology in the Ph.D. training process, the differences between small and large schools, the similarities between colleges and companies, and how easy it is for students to adopt a passive role on large campuses.  This film set a good base line for immediate discussion of my students’ current interpretations of their own university experiences, and, throughout the course, the video’s material was a constant source of helping these students interpret their first semester of college.

The material presented by both the book and by the video is disturbing.  If you accept the authors’ viewpoints, you will then come to envision yourself in an educational setting that has lots of problems.  If you can work through these concepts, however, you may see some openings for you to act in order to work toward helping to create a more equitable, educationally sound workplace.  Or, maybe, you’ll feel helpless in the face of modern historical forces.

I watched the video before I read the book, mainly because it came out first.  But, I’d recommend this order of viewing/reading.  The video is well paced and well edited, and it personalizes the issues.  If the viewer is hooked, the book will then fill in many of the gaps.  I also predict that many of the issues will be new to and surprising to many readers.  From my experience, for instance, many faculty at my institution believe that our intercollegiate athletic program generates funds for our university.  On the contrary, we tend to run in the red (as do many other Big Ten schools), despite our abilities to consistently fill very large stadiums.  Who pays this shortfall, a parallel discussion of why the coach gets paid more than the university president, and other interesting snippets, are available in this book/video combination.

I also recommend that orientation instructors consider the video for viewing with undergraduates.  First year orientation classes usually focus on student success and how to negotiate the institution, but a critical interpretation of the institution may also serve an educational purpose and help students navigate their environments.


Hymowitz, C.  (September 18, 2006).  Any College Will Do:  Nation’s Top chief Executives find Path to the Corner Office Usually Starts at State University.  Wall Street Journal,  p. B1.  (This article can be found at:  http://www.una.edu/international/pdf%20files/Any%20College%20Will%20Do.pdf)
Jaschik, S.  (November 3, 2006a).  Does Value Added Add Value?  Inside Higher Education.  http://insidehighered.com/news/2006/11/03/asses/
Jaschik, S.  (November 14, 2006b).  Angst Over Admissions.  Inside Higher Education.  http://insidehighered.com/news/2006/11/14/collegeboard/

Khu, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, W. J., and associates. (2005).  Student Success in College:  Creating Conditions That Matter.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Rhodes, F. H.T. (November 24, 2006).  After 40 Years of Growth and Change, Higher Education Faces New Challenges.  Chronicle of Higher Education.  V. 53, Issue 14, p. A18.  (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i14/14a01801.htm).

Schein, H. K. (2006).  The College Experience:  A First Year Discovery Seminar.  https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/hschein/www/

Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (2005) Video by Hersh, Richard H. & Merrow, John.  Review by Howard Schein. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  244 pp., $24.95.  ISBN # 1-4039-6921-3
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