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Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk

3.8 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1403973160
ISBN-10: 1403973164
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While it would be easy enough to raise an alarm about the declining quality of higher education in America by trotting out horrifying statistics and disturbing anecdotes, this book thankfully spends little time doing so. Instead, Hersh and Merrow have gathered essays focusing on the root causes of the decline as well as on a range of strategies for reversing it. In this, the varied backgrounds of the contributors, from journalists and policy researchers to university professors and administrators, serves the volume well. These pieces include, among other things, a comparison of how the media covers K-12 as opposed to colleges and universities, considerations of how marketplace models have shaped undergraduate education, and a variety of high-level, philosophical approaches to reimagining the place of higher education in our society. And while all the contributors have distinctive viewpoints on the problem, one thing becomes clear throughout: the state of American higher education is a product less of policy decisions, curriculum structure or student demographics than of the values and priorities of American society. To this end, the contributors do an excellent job sketching the larger cultural and economic forces-such as materialism, job specialization, the information explosion and the near-universal adoption of marketplace values-that they see as primarily responsible for the decline of America's colleges and universities. Because of its broad focus, the book will interest a wide range of readers, from educators and policy makers to parents concerned about their children's education.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“I have never heard a single parent speculate about what value might be added by . . . four undergraduate years, other than the bachelor's degree itself . . . an essential punch on the ticket for starting off in any upscale career. The book before you is, to my knowledge, the first to confront the question head-on. All those boys and girls . . . do parents--does anybody--have any idea what happens to them in college?” ―from the foreword by Tom Wolfe

“Anyone who cares deeply about American higher education will read this book and feel enlightened and enraged, delighted and despondent, encouraged and in despair. A 'must read' for those interested in both good news and bad, from higher education's influential insiders and jaded outsiders.” ―Lee S. Shulman, President, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

“The decline of our once-proud colleges and universities--well documented in this book--is the bitter fruit of our ever-more ineffective K-12 education. This book makes it clear that our nation is still at risk.” ―E. D. Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need

“This [is an] outstanding assessment of the current state of the nation's schools...Forecast: Since most children in America attend 'good enough' schools, this book's potential market is enormous, and the author's high profile will help.” ―Publishers Weekly on Choosing Excellence

“No pre-service teacher should consider his or her professional education complete if it does not include regular viewings of The Merrow Report, the documentary series now airing on PBS and National Public Radio.” ―Library Journal on Choosing Excellence

“Merrow aims to create a smarter consumer of schools....He succeeds in that he gives parents a framework for what they should be seeking and very practical hints on evaluating schools.” ―Karin Chenoweth, Washington Post on Choosing Excellence

“This book points out that there's more to a school than its four walls and reputation, and more people need to be aware of all the choices that are out there.” ―Scholastic on Choosing Excellence

“This single volume is an expansive reality check for anyone about to dump $20,000 for their daughter's private education unaware how much of that tuition is siphoned into projects that have zero effect on whether she becomes a first-rate writer, nurse or architect.” ―Northeast Breeze on Choosing Excellence


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (May 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1403973164
  • ISBN-13: 978-1403973160
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #904,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Merrow began his career as an education reporter with National Public Radio nearly 40 years ago with the weekly series, "Options in Education," for which he received the George Polk Award in 1982. He is currently Education Correspondent for PBS NewsHour and President of Learning Matters, an independent production company based in New York City.

Since 1984 he has worked in public television as a NewsHour Correspondent and as host of his own series of documentaries. His work has been recognized with Peabody Awards in 2000 and 2006, Emmy nominations in 1984, 2005, and 2007, four CINE Golden Eagles and other reporting awards. An occasional contributor to USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Education Week, he is the author of The Influence of Teachers (2011), Choosing Excellence (2001) and co-editor of Declining by Degrees (2005).

Merrow earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College, an M.A. in American Studies from Indiana University, and a doctorate in Education and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He received the McGraw Prize in Education in 2012, a Lifetime Achievement Award From the Academy Of Education Arts And Sciences in 2012, the James L. Fisher Award for Distinguished Service to Education in 2000, the HGSE Alumni Council Award for Outstanding Contributions to Education in 2006, The Horace Dutton Taft Medal in 2010, and honorary doctorates from Richard Stockton College (NJ) and Paul Smith's College (NY).

He lives in New York City with his wife, Joan Lonergan, the Head of the Hewitt School. John Merrow blogs regularly at Taking Note: Thoughts on Education.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This appears to be another book by educators to educators; a lot of preaching to the choir. It is long on analysis and commentary, but short on real solutions. Few would argue against the value of a liberal arts education, but who can afford upwards of $100,000 and four years' lost wages for a degree that does not provide a clear path toward a career? How will you attract the best and brightest to a campus bungalow, a stipend and a key to the faculty lounge? Most will agree that the ranking and selection process is broken, but what can college and university presidents do to fix it? We feel the stranglehold that college sports have on campuses, but it simply mirrors the revered place sports hold in the larger society.

For anyone familiar with higher education, there is much to agree with in this book, but little new information. All in all it is well written and a good read, especially the latter chapters.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book raises a number of issues, but one is paramount: we know all about `admissions', particularly with regard to highly selective institutions; we also know about graduation rates (chilling, in some cases). What we don't know about is what happens in between. Are students learning more now than a generation ago? Less? Decidedly less?

These questions are hard to answer with any rigor because we do not have common exit exams and common curricula. The answers are usually couched in very general terms, e.g., "All is fine. Our students have a high graduation rate; they tell our alumni pollsters that they had a good experience and they have jobs that pay well."

The authors approach this key (and other) issue(s) from differing perspectives. The contributors include journalists, administrators, faculty, association and foundation executives and even the redoubtable Tom Wolfe, who provides a foreword.

As with all such books, the collection is uneven. Some of the pieces are exceptional (Frank Deford's, Julie Johnson Kidd's, Vartan Gregorian's, e.g.); some are predictable and add comparatively little to the discussion (Murray Sperber's, Heather D. Wathington's, e.g.) and one is excellent but already appeared elsewhere (David L. Kirp's). Some are wise and insightful; some are a bit provincial. In other words, this is like nearly every other edited collection.

On balance, however, the book is worthy of attention. There are many thoughtful essays and a number of interesting statistics and facts (along with some amusing factoids). There is also a kind of internal dialogue, with contributors markedly disagreeing with one another. Leon Botstein, e.g.
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Having seen parts of the PBS presentation by the same name, I read Declining by Degrees with a clear idea of its content. This indictment of academia definitely resonated with me because I have been teaching college since the late 70's. The criticisms of current academic practice in this text were credible, clear and well written. I hope Declining by Degrees will be a wake up call for post-secondary education. Time will tell.
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This book is full of so much significant information that it's overwhelming (in a good way) at times. Highly informative, and deeply insightful, it's packed with statistical data; longitudinal surveys; historical analysis; the advantages of private colleges versus state colleges and universities; the role of community colleges and career colleges; the increasing use of part-time faculty and adjunct professors; marketing tactics of competing universities; myths and facts about collegiate sports programs; commentary by educators and administrators; and potential solutions to many of the problems which plague our institutions of higher learning.

If you are considering a career as a college professor, this book offers a very accurate depiction of what your life and challenges will be, as well as your requirements for success. If you are a student, you will inevitably find educational anecdotes which resonate with you. Both educators and students will appreciate the enlightening information on the influential factors which are causing the financial costs of a college education to skyrocket.

While most who read this book (and the reviews on it) will be intrigued by the accompanying video, the book is far more comprehensive.
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Format: Paperback
This book does a nice job of highlighting many of the problems present in higher education - e.g., too little focus on basic skills (I'm consistently amazed at how many college graduates have sub-par writing skills), treating teaching as secondary to research, and graduate students as cheap labor. I'd recommend this over many of the so-called college guides for high students and parents so they can learn the real questions to ask admissions staffs.

My one quibble would be that not enough attention was given to issues of economics and class - no real discussion on escalating tuitions costs, draconian financial aid systems, or how the real issue for many schools is less about race but rather about socioeconomic status. These are huge issues that are slowly rippling into the classroom - and something the public should be debating rather than infringing too much on syllabi and course requirements (at least at this point in time). That said, it's a good book that many outside the academic world should read.
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