During the 20th century, the American college held a vaunted position. It was the mark of a successful upbringing, and the launching pad from a bright childhood to a promising future. In the past few years, however, the idea of college seems to have lost its way. With rising tuition, the need to attain specialized knowledge earlier and earlier, and the massive funding cuts to state institutions, college has become more precarious, isolated and marginal. While undergraduate students will exceed a record 20 million within five years, only a small fraction will experience college in the traditional sense. Most will either attend online or vocational programs, and, at most, only 40 percent will get a degree — and, on average, a college graduate will incur more than $25,000 in student debt. In his new book, “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco acknowledges that the hour is late, but there’s still time to save this valuable institution.
By tracing the history of the American college back to its founding by Protestant congregations looking to fashion constructive members of the community, to its transition to forgotten parts of larger universities, Delbanco illustrates how fundamental college has been to the prosperity of the country. He laments the ways that colleges have ceased to make substantial attempts to offer an education to students of every socioeconomic background, and how more often than not, they just mirror the existing hierarchy. At times a history lesson, an elegy, and a call-to-arms, “College” looks to jump-start a discussion of the importance of a liberal arts education, and why Americans still need the time in life to contemplate a meaningful life.