In writing Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money And Failing Our Kids – And What Can We Do About It, Professor Andrew Hacker, Amherst ’51, apparently decided that the size of his cash bequest to Amherst will be inadequate and that it should be supplemented with an unwarranted trashing of Williams College in his widely-read and influential book. After reading numerous discussions sparked by Hacker and his co-author and domestic partner, Claudia Dreifus (best known for her contributions to the New York Times), Higher Education? proved disappointing — and not only because of its absurd attacks on Williams. Rather than presenting a thoughtful, reasoned analysis of problems at colleges and universities, Hacker and Dreifus have chosen to write what might best be described as a series of extended EphBlog posts written in David’s style — only with greater logical flaws. And like David, Hacker and Dreifus have succeeded in stimulating argument  about the role and value of higher education, even if they’ve failed to persuade.

The authors’ focus is on whether colleges and universities are providing an education commensurate with their costs, their statements, and their privileged role in American society. In the process, they cover many topics discussed frequently at EphBlog – university leadership, faculty quality, the proliferation of higher-education administrators, costs, class, affirmative action, athletics, and more. But can their anecdotes and analysis be trusted? Well, how much faith would you put in a book that equates the quality of teaching and student-faculty interaction at Williams to that of Harvard — because the two schools have similar policies on paid sabbaticals? Or that equates the problems of athletics at Williams to the problems of athletics at the University of Texas — because both schools consider athletics in the admissions process.  Strikingly, although Williams is used as the archetype for liberal arts colleges and is cited, often in depth, as an example in almost every chapter, Amherst scarcely appears in these pages (only six mentions in the index, vs. dozens for Williams), except in the person of Eph Tom Parker ’69, who traded his job as admissions director at Williamsfor the same post at Amherst back in 1999.

To give readers a closer look at the claims Dreifus and Hacker make about Williams, I plan to present the Williams-themed material in a series of posts rather than in my typical “book review” format. Because it’s already been discussed here at EphBlog, I’ll start with the fourth chapter, entitled “The Golden Dozen.” Read on after the jump.

In the comments to a recent post, commenter Collegepro noted that in Higher Education?:

Williams is identified as one of the “golden dozen.” The book offers a generally unflattering portrait of a group of colleges and universities the authors believe are overpriced and over-rated. The book includes a table with “admissions” to Harvard Law School (I think the authors mean matriculation) which demonstrates that Harvard Law School’s enrollment is heavily tilted toward the Golden Dozen.

In a follow-up, David expressed interest in hearing more. In “The Golden Dozen,” Hacker and Dreifus categorize Williams, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, and the Ivy League as their titular twelve — a group of “ultra-desired schools . . . that recur again and again” nationwide on the lists of schools parents want to see their children attend:

[T]hey are not just our personal favorites. We’ve been listening to parents all across the country, and there’s an eerie unanimity. The twelve schools we identify are not just one region’s selection, but one that will be echoed by a successful urologist in Dubuque, the leading banker in Tulsa, and a top tax attorney in either of the Charlestons. Here they are, the eight that make up the Ivy League, plus [] Stanford, Duke, Amherst, Williams…

The Golden Dozen! [Williams!]. For many parents, the stern fact is that there’s a wide chasm between them and whatever might come next. Rice, Northwestern, Wesleyan, and Swarthmore – all truly excellent institutions – simply do not command the recognition that aspiring parents want. . . .

Really? Color me doubtful that this list reflects anything other than a convenient fiction for a clever tag line. I’m from Indiana, and the tax attorneys I’ve talked to there aren’t clamoring for their children to go to Williams.  Beyond the Hoosier state, I’ve spent a lot of time interacting with well-educated professionals and engaged parents in the states between the coasts, and I always make sure to mention Williams. Sadly, it just doesn’t have the name recognition of Swarthmore or Amherst, let alone Northwestern or Duke. There are far more engaged, well-educated parents aspiring to send their kids to MIT, Johns Hopkins, Berkeley and the service academies than to any liberal-arts college, and I suspect we’d lose out to Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Georgetown, and a number of others as well.

Why include Williams, then? The goal of Higher Education? is to critique all the institutions following similar playbooks together – universities and liberal arts colleges alike – and so it’s convenient for Williams and Amherst to be included as part of the authors’ take on every Spokane accountant’s dream. And there’s certainly a narrower category of those in-the-know for whom Williams and Amherst belong grouped with the others (or, at least, the best of the others). But Hacker and Dreifus’s message extends beyond that group of educational elites.

In any case, to evaluate their “Golden Dozen”, Hacker and Dreifus examined Harvard Law School’s admissions from 2002 through 2008, and found that eleven of the Golden Dozen – including Williams but not including Penn – indeed took the top 11 spots in size-adjusted admissions to HLS. Harvard led the way, followed by Yale, with Amherst 5th and Williams 11th. These eleven schools accounted for 1660 of HLS’s 3714 slots. (Interestingly, Amherst exceeded Williams in raw numbers, despite its smaller size). As they point out, “if we agree that Carleton offers just as good an education” as Williams does, “it doesn’t do nearly as well by Harvard Law’s judgment.” Williams sent 4 ½ times as many of its graduates, adjusted for size, as Carleton.

Hacker and Dreifus add – correctly, in my view — that “Harvard Law basically plays both sides of the street. On one side, it reserves close to half its places for students” from the Golden Dozen. But at the same time, “it accepted candidates from fully 310 colleges, many of them quite unassuming, if not obscure,” including Pacific Lutheran, Eastern Kentucky, Valdosta State, Valparaiso, Truman State University, and Wittenberg College. Ultimately, Hacker and Dreifus use this comparison to suggest that Harvard Law School is giving too much credit to undergraduates’ accomplishments at “Golden Dozen” schools when they could be broadening their base and drawing from this much more robust list.

Hacker and Dreifus’s use of a single, narrow metric or other possibly-isolated example (usually, it’s difficult to tell just how “typical” their examples are) to judge a list of dissimilar schools exemplifies their practice throughout Higher Education? In this case, it doesn’t present Williams in too bad a light — although Williams would fare better if they had looked at other law schools? For example, in the Wall Street Journal study of law, medical, and business school admissions, the overall performance of Williams relative to Amherst and to the other schools in the Golden Dozen was even better. But looking beyond HLS would somewhat undercut the “grad schools give too much credit to the Golden Dozen” claim, because in the WSJ study both Penn and Cornell are on the outside looking in (Cornell is way down at 25, in fact), and these two have been replaced in the top 12 by MIT and Swarthmore.

In the second half of the chapter, however, Hacker and Dreifus are much more critical of Williams as they abuse a different metric to assess the performance of the Golden Dozen in what they assert is their core mission: developing leaders. I’ll take a look in my next installment.

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