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A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education

reviewed by Gabriel Serna - August 14, 2017

coverTitle: A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education
Author(s): David F. Labaree
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022625044X, Pages: 240, Year: 2017
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In his recent text, David Labaree takes readers through a lively and engaging history of American higher education. The underlying argument is that the U.S. system, though derived from an uncertain background riddled with many points of potential failure, rose to become the leading system in global higher education. Unlike many historians, Labaree is comfortable appealing to readers with comprehensible language that loses none of its authority in such translation. Indeed, an attractive feature of this text is that it is deeply rooted in historical analysis, yet presents an accessible account of the history of American higher education. Much of Labaree’s book focuses on the often contradictory organizational and social processes of how higher education in the United States has evolved.


In the first part, Labaree guides us through a fairly typical, chronological presentation of U.S. higher education history by laying out the elements, or lack thereof, that set the groundwork for the system as it exists today. Chapter One sets a foundation for the arguments made in subsequent chapters with the underlying themes or motifs being those of contradiction, uncertainty, power struggles, and competitive pressures.


Chapter Two focuses on the early history of American higher education in the 19th century, or what the author calls a “ragtag college system.” As colleges expanded, the same could not be said for the number of students seeking them out, making the system’s survival uncertain. Again, the threads of uncertainty and competitive pressure tie this chapter’s main points back to the text’s larger discussion. Early colleges hardly expected huge amounts of state support, and as a result set in place the characteristic tuition charges that are a hallmark of the American system. Labaree provides a description of institutional hierarchies and distinct missions, which are also distinguishing features of the system.


In Chapter Three, Labaree lays out the historical structure of American colleges and universities. While in the early days of American higher education British examples served as organizational guides for institutions, early American colleges lacked academic credibility. Enter the old German university model that provided advanced academic and graduate training to provide the needed credibility. The addition of the “pinnacle” or graduate school, to the “base” resulted in institutions that were decisively positioned to become research universities. However, these changes did not come without contradictions. Some influential leaders suggested that “graduate school only” universities like those from Germany were the ideal, while others argued that by including undergraduate instruction and professional education, the system entered its “Golden Age.” In its final pages, Chapter Three also outlines the evolving role of higher education as a protector of the middle class and producer of the new managerial classes, where status and social rank were now transferred through college degrees.


Chapter Four considers the role of the curriculum and constant power struggles around the role of liberal and vocational education, as well as that of consumer. Labaree offers a truly insightful analysis of the rise of vocational education, while introducing the notion that instead of the liberal being subverted, vocational education has become more liberal. His examination of the educational hierarchy is a fascinating look at how position within said hierarchy creates a sort of stratification that results in a kind of “rhythmic development.” This process is characterized by the stratification of “four tiers” of American higher education, with each institution seeking to move up to a more prestigious level. Community colleges, at the bottom, provide more vocational education, and prestigious research universities, at the top, provide more liberal education. Labaree describes the persistent subversion of the vocational over the liberal, and the liberal into the vocational. A major problem with this scenario however, is that like institutions, students, or consumers, also seek prestige, albeit through credentials that enhance their social and economic positions. Hence, curriculum at all levels begins to reflect consumer demand such that “the content is liberal, but credentialism means that the content doesn’t really matter” (p. 93).


In Chapter Five, the discussion turns toward the market pressures faced by American higher education throughout its history. Because American colleges and universities are heavily tuition dependent, demands of the market overwhelmingly influence education policy. Labaree provides evidence that schooling becomes more stratified as more outsiders wish to join insiders; a situation reminiscent of a social reproductive system (Bordieu & Passeron, 2000). Indeed, one might sum up the argument in this chapter as “Some people can pursue the chance to get ahead and others the chance to stay ahead” (p. 97). While Labaree provides evidence of movement to expand access, the final conclusions seem uncritical of this movement’s same ability to maintain social inequality. A nod to social reproduction theory, and its deep implications, would have been a valuable addition to the discussion in this chapter. Nonetheless, it remains a thoughtful and insightful analysis of educational stratification and development in American Higher Education.


Chapter Six turns the conversation toward understanding how private institutions have maintained a relatively stable advantage over public institutions. The overarching argument in this chapter is that the age and traditions of early colleges have resulted in institutions at the top garnering significant donative resources, accumulating huge endowments, and obtaining the lion’s share of research grants, and by extension, prestige; a similar argument to Winston (1999). This chapter goes on to explain that the private side of higher education has largely decided notions of prestige, and the public side has mirrored such behaviors time and again, although the governance structures and levels of autonomy differ considerably by sector. In an interesting shift, Labaree considers the interactive relationships among the public and private sectors. He notes that there exists a “paradox” of sorts wherein top private universities supply the majority of faculty to public institutions. It is, however, this institutional cross-pollination that has enabled public universities to “occupy a dauntingly strong position in global higher education,” (p. 139) and which has also led public universities to respond in an entrepreneurial way to markets and challenges to autonomy.


By taking up the discussion of higher education’s so-called “fling” with the university as a public, rather than a mostly private good, Chapter Seven offers compelling evidence that the Cold War era was instead an anomaly as opposed to the norm in terms of American higher education. Labaree argues that the market-based system of higher education, with students as consumers, was the driving force behind early expansion and rising enrollments. He notes that the state and federal governments simply did not have the financial capacity, or indeed the willingness to fund the system robustly. However, the start of the Second World War changed things substantially. Three major changes resulted in a boom of university funding. First, the “hot war,” where institutions were viewed as sources of expertise for military research and development set in place a highly competitive entrepreneurial model largely intact to this day. Second, universities were a place for returning soldiers to go once the war was over. Unemployment had been a major concern before the war, and having a place for returning soldiers was an urgent national issue. The third cause was the onset of the Cold War. In contrast to World War II, the Cold War created an environment where both military strength and the containment of communist ideology were driving factors for a surge of federal funding that flowed to higher education for almost three decades. It was in this atmosphere that college for the public good came to be viewed as the norm. College enrollments and federal funding increased, but with the onset of tax revolts in some states as well as waning concern around the Cold War, other priorities displaced higher education as a major recipient of state and federal funds. Labaree offers compelling evidence for viewing higher education as market-based or primarily “private” good, but some of his assertions about what was the norm struck me as a somewhat sugar-coated retrospective on the guiding ethos of higher education from a consumerist perspective. As the country continues to grapple with its own relationship to markets and liberal democracy, the question of who is an insider and who is an outsider will decidedly come to bear on how higher education is funded and framed for many Americans.


In another departure from other histories of American higher education, Chapter Eight explicitly considers the relationships among institutions in the top tier to those closer to the bottom. An important factor noted in this chapter is the fact that institutions not in the top tier educate the majority of individuals, and provide the bulk of college graduates to the economy. Another major point is the paradox of the American system’s supposed egalitarianism. In one sense, those at the top do stay ahead, however, a great number of individuals (including students and faculty) from lower-tier colleges and universities still take up positions in the labor market and social institutions that are highly competitive. Labaree considers this “fluidity,” determining that tiers can, ideally, be permeable. He argues that the movement of individuals up and down the system resulted in a structure that allows for “access and advantage, opportunity and privilege, mobility and stasis” (p. 177).  Undeniably, these assertions will prove to be points of discussion into the future.


In the ninth and final chapter, Labaree sums up the major points of his argument. Namely, that the defining elements of the American higher education system, though contradictory, paradoxical, opaque, complex, populist, practical, and elite, have in fact evolved into a “perfect mess”; one that should be honored rather than replaced. Through careful analysis and prose, the final chapter makes a clear point: if the system’s central components are done away with, then with their removal the central effective elements will also be discarded. Underscoring this argument is the notion that the group of colleges from America’s early history, grew, along with newcomers, to become world-class institutions of higher education by “doing everything wrong” (p. 182), and evolving to become what American society needed throughout each point in its history. In other words, it is form rather than content that has come to matter most for American higher education’s rise. To rationalize such a system through typical accountability or managerial mechanisms would “cut away the critical supports that made the system so effective– its autonomy, its flexibility, its consumer sensitivity, and its comprehensive complexity” (p. 196).


In sum, this text provides a thoughtful and careful argument about America’s higher education system. The authoritative writing also furnishes a captivating account of the evolution of the system, and though some might disagree with Labaree, they will nonetheless find a resource to spark debate, discussion, and a rethinking of the accountability movements facing colleges and universities across the United States.


Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. (2000). Reproduction in Education, Society, & Culture (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.


Winston, G. (1999). Subsidies, hierarchy and peers. Journal of Economic Perspectives,13(1), 13–36.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 14, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22133, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:45:09 AM

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About the Author
  • Gabriel Serna
    Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
    E-mail Author
    GABRIEL R. SERNA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His research interests lie in the areas of higher education economics, finance, and policy with special emphasis on state-institution relationships, student price response, undocumented student populations, enrollment management, and college and university fiscal administration. He is currently working on projects that explore the economic and financial impacts of in-state tuition benefits to undocumented students, as well as the diffusion of these policies across the states.
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