What's College For?

[Karabell] sensibly concludes that there is no one model for higher education; the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity that has always characterized the United States will inevitably be reflected in its schools.
— Library Journal



"Forget political correctness, historian Karabell urges, for here is the real revolution: "higher education is becoming mass education, and in the process is being radically democratized." As academic "guilds" and grad schools uphold an ideal of scholarship in which students are merely a necessary evil, millions of students enrolled in thousands of state universities and community colleges need kinds of teaching and support that few professors are willing or able to provide. Meanwhile, thousands of underemployed Ph.D.'s race from one poorly paid, nontenured adjunct appointment to another. Karabell talked with college students, graduate students, and professors around the country and sat in on many of their classes, and he researched recent tenure, funding, and standards battles. His prescription for the future is flexibility and experimentation, based on recognition that "no one model of academic employment and no one definition of academic work" can serve the needs of all students, all scholars, and all colleges and universities.."
— Publisher's Weekly

"Why is the Left so strong on campus, and yet so weak nationally? An excellent answer is provided by Zachary Karabell in What’s College For? Mr. Karabell, a former college professor, is a man of the Left who is disappointed by the Left’s inability to change most Americans’ minds on political or cultural issues. But he is a fine writer whose book should be read by anyone interested in the culture wars."
— American Enterprise Institute | read full review >

"[Karabell] documents significant changes that have occurred, suggests possible directions for the future, and adds something significant to the ongoing discussion about the future of college and university life. Anyone interested in the evolution of American higher education over the past 50 years will find much of interest here."
— Reason.com | read full review >

"Karabell believes that there is a widening schism between the focus of academia and the needs of society. He argues that faculty are more concerned with their research interests than their teaching responsibilities...and that at today's colleges older students, outside employment, athletic scholarships, and the desire to get the credential rather than acquire a base of knowledge are the main issues. He also sees the humanities as underrepresented in quality higher education. He sensibly concludes that there is no one model for higher education; the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity that has always characterized the United States will inevitably be reflected in its schools."
— Library Journal




President Clinton declares that a two-year education should be the right of all Americans. Congress passes a $40 billion package of tax breaks and scholarships aimed at making a degree accessible to everyone. Almost two–thirds of high school graduates now go on to some form of higher education, and yet at the same time, those colleges and universities, inundated with a new kind of student, have been slow to respond to this revolutionary change.Zachary Karabell spent over a year traveling the country interviewing students, graduate students, faculty, and adjunct teachers, and the result is a portrait of American higher education that is neither conservative nor liberal and that needs to be taken seriously.

There is a quiet revolution occurring that will—that is—changing the nature of education in this country.”Higher education is becoming mass education,” writes Karabell. The crucial clash on today’s campuses is not between traditionalists, multiculturalists, and tenured radicals, but between the competing needs and desires of students, professors, administrators, and the larger society.The overwhelming majority of today’s students are working-class people seeking education to get a job; they are not seeking a liberal education, nor planning to go on to graduate school. Most faculty members, products of the elite graduate schools that have insulated them from the needs of real-world people, are often profoundly ill-equipped to handle this changing student body.

By exploring the myriad perspectives of these conflicting expectations Karabell concludes that a radical democratization of higher education is not only inevitable, it is desirable, and it will require dramatic changes in the structure and presumptions about education beyond the high school level.Topping $175 billion a year, spending for American higher education will join health care and welfare as one of the top national issues, yet there is precious little real or broad-based understanding of the issues and social forces at work. Eschewing any political agenda, yet unafraid to ask as many questions as he answers, Zachary Karabell has provided the first reasoned examination of what has become a national concern. Sure to spark intense debate, What’s College For? is a clarion call for reform.