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American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges.

American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges Editors, Philip G. Altbach, Patricia J. Gumport, Robert O. Berdahl

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 978-0-8018-9906-5, 511 pp, $29.95, 2011.


One wouldn't expect a book about the state of higher education in America to necessarily be a good read or provide the subject matter for a riveting page-turner. However, I found this book piqued my interest and offered a much-needed dose of reality about the ongoing "commercialization of higher education." When one thinks about the importance of higher education to our nation's future and its role in the global economy, one begins to appreciate the inclusive perspective provided by the book's contributors and editors. They all share the view of "colleges and universities as social institutions embedded in the wider society and subject to its constraining forces." They provide the background needed to help readers assess the validity of the current criticisms raised about American higher ed and how it fares in the context of the U.S. public agenda regarding what has been called the "4-A's"--access, attrition, affordability, and accountability.

There have been many changes since the first edition of this book was published 10 years ago, particularly in the areas of deregulation, decentralization, privatization, globalization, information technology, and the emergence of for-profit providers. This new edition captures the dynamic interaction between present-day society and higher ed, with the stated goal of bringing a broader perspective to the policy process in view of the changing agenda of issues.

The volume first provides the historical context of how American federalism gave states the responsibility for creating systems of higher education, but explains how the federal government's role has increased over time. In recent years, various national reports evaluated higher education and found it to be lacking. For example in 2006, the Spellings Commission produced the report "Charting the Future of US Higher Education," which suggested that institutions needed to be "more affordable, accessible, and provide more information relevant to accountability for student learning." In 2008, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's periodic analysis of state performance, in the form of its National Report Card on Higher Education, gave the states an "incomplete" in the area of student learning, saying that "data are still inadequate for cross-state comparisons." The report card, however, gave all states except for California an F for affordability.

In the introduction, the editors explain that their objective was to answer pertinent questions such as: What are institutions like today? What forces are shaping higher education? What is the future of higher education in the context of twenty-first century America? The editors further posit that an understanding of the academic enterprise requires "unraveling the web of relationships between higher ed and society and all its pressing issues." The take-home lesson is the need for a "balance between autonomy and accountability to insure responsiveness to societal issues but not at the expense of the academic ethos."

The book is organized in such a way that it can be read from cover to cover or readers can pick and choose particular chapters based on individual interests or relevancy to their work. The book is divided into four sections: (1) "The Setting" is a historical perspective on American higher education, with a comparison to educational systems worldwide. It also defines and expounds on the fundamental issues of autonomy, accountability, and academic freedom; (2) "External Forces" examines the roles of external constituencies, such as state and federal governments, the court systems, and nongovernmental entities; (3) "The Academic Community" looks at internal constituencies including faculty members, students, and institutional presidents; and (4) "Central Issues for the Twenty-First Century" covers key issues pertaining to curriculum, diversity, finances, and technology.

Readers might be asking themselves why this book is important for individuals involved in the undergraduate research enterprise. The simple answer is that it provides a foundational explanation of the workings and current state of higher education, which is necessary if academicians are going to be effective advocates for undergraduate research on their campuses. From a strictly educational standpoint, such research has been shown to be one of the top activities that engages students and improves learning. However, it is naive to think that in these economic times, that alone will guarantee that undergraduate research will garner the support and funding necessary for the majority of our students to have meaningful research experiences. We must be adequately prepared to make a case for how such projects can be leveraged on our campuses, showing how they help achieve other objectives--such as student retention-- that may be less noble, but essential for the ongoing functionality of our colleges and universities. After reading this book, I feel I am much better prepared to advocate for undergraduate research at my institution because I now better understand the landscape of higher education from social, political, and economic perspectives.

Reviewed by Amelia J. Ahern-Rindell, University of Portland
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Author:Ahern-Rindell, Amelia J.
Publication:Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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