What’s clear to everyone on both sides is that American higher education rests on shaky economic foundations. Since the campaign for Proposition 13 in California in the late 1970s, governors, regents, and voters in state after state have abandoned the old idea that higher education is a public good for which all should pay. Private universities flew high in the prosperity of the 1990s and 2000s—but the crash of 2008 has cut deeply into many endowments. Many trustees and administrators have lost their former confidence that future economic expansion would finance present expenses and the borrowing that sustained them. Large gifts are hard to find, though some universities continue to receive them. Big grants are becoming rare too, as government support for scientific research declines.
Delbanco’s overview, though brief, is lucid and well informed. He reviews the different stages through which higher education has passed, from the tiny colleges of the colonies and the early republic to the great knowledge factories—research universities—that came into being in the Reform Era and after. He follows the student body from its all-male and all-white beginnings to its multigendered, multiethnic, and multicultural present. He shows the curriculum evolving from the study of the classics, mathematics, and morality required for all students in the early days to the immense buffet table of electives that students sample nowadays. And he argues, reasonably and cogently, that the college has been both improved and damaged by this long and complex history.