Craig Brandon’s The Five-Year Party makes me think of reheated coffee: sometimes necessary but always bitter, acidic, and thin. A former journalism professor at Keene State, New Hampshire, Brandon has assiduously collected bad new and bad results throughout higher education in order to populate this book. He weaves together the negativity into an extraordinarily bleak portrait of American higher education, one without redeeming qualities or integrity. His focus is the less selective institutions, the “party schools” where binge drinking rules and there is no attempt at education. Brandon calls these colleges “subprime.” The aim of the book is summarized in its subtitle: “How colleges have given up on educating your child and what you can do about it.” The answer, by the way, is recognize the subprime schools and run from them like the plague.
At the heart of Brandon’s screed is a villain akin to Gordon Gekko, the archetypal college administrator. With high salaries, lavish lifestyles and an absence of values, these nameless administrators, Brandon tell us, have shifted the function of college from education to entertaining poorly prepared and indifferent students. They stand in the way of standards, criteria and learning. Administrators misappropriate college money, direct resources to foolish frills, like climbing walls, and have cushy positions as their numbers swell. He notes the increase in non-faculty staff as evidence for this bloat. Similarly, he sees Gordon Gee’s million dollar salary at The Ohio State University as evidence of out of control compensation. Administrators keep poor students in school, he writes, as they deceive students and families about the underlying worth of the college degree.
It is a pretty dark picture. The outcome, or consequence of these administrators, are party schools that take students money and give only the barest pretense at providing an education. They fail students, fail societies, and drive academics who care – like Brandon – out of the profession.
If only the problems were so simple. Brandon is correct: there are major problems with higher education today. He is right to be concerned about rigor and student learning, he is accurate in the danger of competition among institutions for features and non-essential items. There is grade inflation, and the unintended consequences of FERPA privacy legislation on individual students can be an important issue. And above all, binge drinking and out of control partying has a corrosive effect on individuals and college life.
These issues, however, are not presented within anything approaching a reasonable context. Brandon’s higher education is a world without success, without scholarship, and without community. It is higher education stripped of tradition and education. Brandon’s academia is uncaring and indifferent. It is also unrecognizable to me. The vast majority of individuals I have encountered in a lifetime working in and around higher education have been motivated by basic human values: helping, educating, and caring. Not all have been equally effective, but their underlying motivation was never in doubt. It has had to be; no one I know ever chooses a career in higher education for the money.
Brandon’s insistence on simple answers, his certainty of nefarious intent, and his lack of a scholar’s curiosity lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions that border on untruth. He asserts that institutional concern with student retention is a cover for administrators to pressure faculty into cheapening content and promoting socially. He likens student participation in their courses as inappropriate interruptions and Bart Simpson as the role model behavior for the typical college student. Brandon’s chapter on secrecy highlights his thinking.
Brandon claims that at party schools, administrators use “privacy laws as an excuse” so that they do not have to be forthright with parents, who they consider to be “troublemakers who should simply pay the bills and stay out of the way.” It is a bold, unattributed and unsupported assertion. Higher education institutions regularly wrestle with the complexity of FERPA regulations in attempts to provide parents with information and students with the space to become adults. Colleges have misinterpreted the law, Brandon writes, to hide the bad. Brandon’s evidence are the tragedies that have taken place without early warnings or information going to parents. Brandon is not an attorney and his suggestions run counter to the lawyers I have consulted. And as for his comments about administrators and parents, I am again at a loss. In decades of work in higher education, I have never heard of anyone speak of students parents in such dismissive terms. Frustrations with intrusive parents can run high, but I have never heard or seen anyone inside the academic quad act in a way that led me to believe that there was a sentiment that parents had no role in their child’s education.
Brandon’s book, if read as meaningful analysis, may do many institutions a good deal of damage. He asserts non-top tier schools are probably more interested in tuition than student learning. He argues that there should be no trust, for the quality of education at a subprime college is without real value. His evidence is personal experience and a smattering of articles from the popular press. Scaring students away from less selective institutions may also limit the opportunities for students who do not have the high school record to gain admission at more elite institutions.
What makes Brandon’s screed so frustrating is that he has taken a complicated relationship between poorly prepared students, hopeful parents, and institutions with multiple constituents and constituencies, and reduced it to a simple equation with two outcomes: students are fooled or students should leave higher education. There are no meaningful remedies, either for the student or the institution. It is a bleak, bitter message, one that resonates with those that consider higher education to be failing.
As one of the administrative villains, deeply committed to education and student success, I can only be thankful that Craig Brandon is not teaching at my institution.