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Higher education has become dominated by a number of troubling trends over time, and students come to college with little sense of why they are there, Columbia University’s American Studies program director Andrew Delbanco argued in a conversation on Tuesday afternoon.

In the course of the lecture, Delbanco and Wilson School professor Stanley Katz touched on a number of subjects about the state of education in the United States, from pre-kindergarten programs to higher education.

Delbanco said that Americans increasingly see colleges as lavish institutions that fail to teach students effectively.

“They’re wasteful, they’re inefficient, they’re not doing their job, and we have a problem,” he said of ordinary people's view of colleges.

This attitude is reinforced by rising tuition fees, which are caused in turn by the increasing privatization of higher education, Delbanco explained.

“Our public universities have been gutted,” he said, noting that public funds make up only 6 percent of the University of Virginia’s budget.

Katz warned against public universities’ efforts to raise funds in the face of budget shortfalls, either through tuition increases or the admission of more out-of-state students. These strategies undercut the democratic purpose of public education in America, he said.

Higher education has developed a “pernicious and perverse obsession with rankings,” Delbanco said. This trend extends from universities such as Princeton, “which is always jockeying with Harvard and Yale,” to other universities that “are really working hard to get up into the top 200.”

More troublesome, he said, is universities’ focus on SAT scores.

“As far as I know, the one clear correlation between SAT scores and anything else is correlation with family income,” said Delbanco. “If you’re driving your institution to matriculate a class that has very high SAT scores, you’re basically driving it to admit and enroll mainly rich kids.”

Katz also discussed the changing purpose of a university education in America today, arguing that institutions measure their success by how many students they can award degrees. He added that universities are no longer focusing as much on educating students as they once did, concentrating instead on “preparing them to compete with the Chinese.”

Despite all these pressures, Katz said that universities still consider their primary business to be the promotion of student learning. He explained that the purpose of a university education is still to teach students about the world, not simply to prepare them for the job market.

Delbanco said that college is still a worthwhile investment, at least for now. He added that “most people who take the public position that not everybody should go to college are thinking about somebody else’s children.”

The lecture, titled “A Conversation about American Education: Where We Have Been and Where We’re Going,” took place in the Friend Center and was sponsored by the Princeton University Program in Teacher Preparation.

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