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American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges, 2nd edition

reviewed by Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur - 2006

coverTitle: American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges, 2nd edition
Author(s): Philip G. Altbach, Robert O. Berdahl, Patricia J. Gumport (Eds.)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801880351, Pages: 558, Year: 2005
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Altbach, Berdahl, and Gumport begin their edited tome on the current state and future challenges of higher education in the United States with an introduction that teases the reader by suggesting how a system of coordination could finally strike a balance between the goals of accountability and autonomy. But the book does not quite live up to the promise it begins with. It falls short as a scholarly work full of fresh insights and new ideas; and rather than a practical manual for educational visionaries and administrators to achieve their goals, American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century stands as a strong reference for those working in higher education research or as a useful text for those being introduced to the study of higher education for the first time.

Although individual articles stand well on their own, this book suffers from an insufficient integration of its parts. Besides a brief mention of the macro-level questions the editors sought to inspire the authors with (such as “what is the future of higher education?”), the introduction does little to pull the eighteen chapters together, and there are no section introductions and no conclusion. This is despite the fact that many threads carry through the volume, most particularly the issue of financial pressures. One of the reasons why this problem, so common in edited volumes containing as much diversity as this one, stands out is that this volume is a second edition. There is nothing to tell us what is new and what is classic, and in fact few of the contributors comment on what parts of their own analyses are new. In fact, only four of the contributions to this volume (on race, markets, curricula, and the contexts of college students) are completely new articles with new authors. Some of the rest are heavily revised and updated with new information (such as changes in academic freedom since 9/11), and almost all seem to include references to up-to-date sources and relatively recent facts and figures.

The book is divided into four sections: “The Setting,” “External Forces,” “The Academic Community,” and “Central Issues for the 21st Century.” The first section, “The Setting,” addresses the historical and cross-national context of American higher education, as well as some of the issues and challenges the sector is expected to face in the future. Altbach provides a basic outline of some of the challenges facing higher education around the world today. Geiger creates a useful periodization in terms of ten generations in his history of the structure of American higher education from the colonial period until today, though his article ignores post-1970s developments as well as the beginnings of women’s higher education at schools like Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. One of the biggest buzzwords in contemporary education, accountability, is covered by Schmidtlein and Berdahl, who outline what the term means, why it matters, and the various ways in which it is measured. In an article that might have well been placed in the fourth section on contemporary issues, O’Neil provides a useful review of the history and legal status of faculty academic freedom, as well as the future challenges to it in the digital and post-9/11 worlds. Finally, Zusman describes future challenges, changes, and transformations facing higher education in the areas of funding, access, mission, accountability, and the availability of jobs for Ph.D. graduates.

The section on “External Forces” consists of articles on the political, legal, and organizational environments that higher education institutions inhabit. Gladieux, King, and Corrigan provide an overview of the history and current status of federal regulation of higher education with a particular focus on the role of fiscal policies such as taxes and student aid. McGuinness follows this with a look at the various ways in which American states structure their oversight of higher education. In one of the best articles in the volume, Olivas provides a review of the current status of judicial intervention in higher education, with discussions of litigation around such hot-button issues as grades, affirmative action, tenure, and unionization. In addition, Olivas’s article focuses on the legal question of how we define what a college is. Harcleroad and Eaton close the second section of the book with a look at what they refer to as “external constituencies,” but by which they really mean the so-called “voluntary sector,” most particularly accrediting agencies, foundation, and various sorts of consortia. Although this article is weak in that it provides more of an overview of the various types of voluntary organizations that matter for higher education than an analysis of their consequences, Harcleroad and Eaton do provide valuable insight into the ways in which participation in these organizations is not truly voluntary.

The three articles in the section entitled “The Academic Community” address faculty, student, and presidential members of higher education communities. Altbach’s article on the professoriate is one of the more pessimistic contributions to the volume. He describes the current challenges facing higher education faculty, such as financial difficulties and accountability movements, and the consequences they will have for jobs, fields of study, research funding, and market differentiation. Dey and Hurtado provide excellent empirical data on the makeup, majors, performance, and post-graduate plans of undergraduate students since the 1960s. Perhaps the most practically oriented article in the volume, Burnbaum and Eckel’s discussion of presidential leadership provides not only an overview of the challenges and external constraints facing college presidents, but also a discussion of how to be a good president. They urge college presidents to view their role as a temporary service rather than a permanent role or career, describe symbolic strategies presidents can rely on, and emphasize the importance of negotiation.

Finally, the section “Central Issues for the Twenty-First Century” consists of six articles, including three of the book’s four new articles, dealing with some of the most important issues and problems currently facing American higher education. Johnstone analyzes the rising costs of higher education, including the reasons for, responses to, and consequences of these changes, paying particular attention to the increasing popularity of the high-tuition/high-aid model for higher education funding. Gumport and Chun outline current developments in higher education technology and their likely affects on the higher education system. Gumport also contributes an article of the history of graduate (meaning non-professional master’s and doctoral) education, the current challenges it faces, and the issues around funding. Given the chapter’s focus on the question of whether graduate student employees are valued for their labor or for their intellectual futures, Gumport might have paid more attention to the issue of graduate student unionization, though the most recent National Labor Relations Board decision ("Brown," 2004), which determined that graduate student work is not labor, may have come too late for the publication deadline. Bastedo covers the transformation of the curriculum from the founding of colonial colleges until today. Although his article is mostly historical, he does address some of the causal factors that might matter, such as politics, student and other social movements, and financial and vocational pressures. Slaughter and Rhoades discuss market pressures on higher education, such as student choice and colleges’ attempts to manipulate it through early decision and “snap apps” (quick and easy applications offering instant acceptance); patents and policies surround faculty research and development and collaborations with industry; and copyrights, particularly for software and instructional technology. Although this article provides a very helpful overview of the increasing “managerial capacity” required to deal with industry and federal regulations within the framework of neoliberalism, readers unfamiliar with the neoliberal framework will have to turn elsewhere for background information. Finally, Chang, Altbach, and Lomotey discuss contemporary racial politics on American campuses, including affirmative action, campus activism, student organizations, and curricula. One of the strengths of this last article is the focus on discussion of differences both within and between racial groups in terms of access and other factors.

Overall, the book does take a clear normative and political position: American higher education, despite its faults and despite the opinions of nay-sayers who believe it is in crisis and about to fail, is actually doing a good job in tough circumstances. Although the book pays little attention to such important issues as the problem of transfer from two-year to four-year colleges (Brint & Karabel, 1989) and cross-national comparisons, it is a good place to come for a compendium of basic knowledge of higher education today. The selections are well planned out to cover a large portion of the spectrum of higher education issues. American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century would be most useful as a general reference for scholars working in higher education who many need to learn about other areas of scholarship. In addition, the volume would be useful as a basic text-reader for advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate courses on higher education, supplemented by more thought-provoking articles, as the clear writing requires only the most basic familiarity with American higher education to understand. But if you are a scholar looking for serious new insights in your particular area of study, look elsewhere, as you will find nothing new here.


Brint, S. G., & Karabel, J. (1989). The diverted dream: Community colleges and the promise of educational opportunity in America, 1900–1985. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown University and International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW AFL–CIO, Petitioner, 342 42 (NLRB 2004).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 40-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12113, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 3:26:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Mikaila Lemonik Arthur
    New York University
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    MIKAILA MARIEL LEMONIK ARTHUR is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University. Her dissertation research concerns the role of students in the emergence of interdisciplinary programs in Asian American studies, women’s studies, and queer/LGBT studies in American institutions of higher education.
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