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Nothing spurs a verbal firefight quicker than questioning the worth of an institution or industry. Those in doubt should Google "health care" or "military industrial complex" just to see how many critics weigh in.

But if you really want to watch the fur fly, question the legitimacy and value of a college education. Few institutions boast the thin skins and bloated egos of academia, characteristics on red alert thanks to a new book expressing skepticism, even doubt, over the current worth of an undergraduate degree.

Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It was written by two academics: Andrew Hacker, a professor at Queens College, and Claudia Dreifus, science writer for The New York Times and a Columbia University professor. In a recent interview, Dreifus pulled no punches in her harsh assessment of academia — and the financial and emotional damage the college system is inflicting on young Americans.

MainStreet: What was the genesis for your book?

Dreifus: My partner Andrew is a long-time teacher, first at Cornell and now at Queen’s College in New York. I began teaching as a journalism teacher and I’m now at Columbia. Over the years, we’ve become fairly stunned over the culture of higher education, with all its caste systems and rituals. It’s a culture an anthropologist would love — very different and very detached from the real world.

MainStreet: You argue the undergraduate experience is no longer a priority with colleges. Could you elaborate?

Dreifus: Andrew and I came of age at a time when teaching really mattered and was important. I’m not saying teaching is in decline now, or is in any way debased, but there is a marked difference at the undergraduate level. It seems that the purpose of most colleges is to serve the interest of the graduate faculty, not so much for the undergraduates. Wages for undergrad professors seem like they’re at migrant worker levels. Training is a problem, too. Kindergarten teachers get better training than undergraduate professors.

MainStreet: What role does money play in your book?

Dreifus: It’s huge. Tuition costs today are two-and-half-times higher in real dollars than tuition costs 30 years ago. That’s real money. Then there’s the way that tuition is financed today. Basically, schools are saying to students “you can always take a loan to come here.” But we think it’s immoral for a college to stick young people with six-figure student loan debt. We know a 22-year-old college graduate who owes nearly $70,000 in loan debt — and she had a (partial) scholarship. Her story is not an anomaly — there are many more stories like that.

MainStreet: You compare the higher education system to the health care system. Why?

Dreifus: In our research, we found a lot of similarities between the health care system and the higher education system — both truly have a life of their own. We’re not saying there’s any vast conspiracy on the part of colleges to hurt their schools, but, like with health-care decision makers, we do see some academic leaders take actions that make no logical sense, but did have self-interest involved.

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MainStreet: Can you give an example?

Dreifus: People make their reputations by building empires, and lately, college presidents have made their reputations by making their schools bigger, whether it was in the school’s benefit or not. For example, you don’t nurture your reputation by developing a great philosophy department, but by acquiring land or turning your school into a Division one sports giant. In the end, undergraduate students are an afterthought, last on the list behind administrators and faculty.

MainStreet: What’s preventing a ‘wake-up” call in higher education?

Dreifus: As we said, the education system is as complex and dysfunctional as the health care system. But at least people question the health care system and the kind of decisions doctors and insurance companies are making. We don’t see that happening in academia. Our higher education system holds the key to who is allowed in the middle class and who isn’t — it’s extremely powerful that way. But higher education has become a monopoly that nobody questions. As a result, we don’t think college is worth it at the cost they want you to pay.

MainStreet: How did you research the book?

Dreifus: We visited about 100 schools across the country and made sure we went into classrooms and interviewed students. We also made an effort to visit campuses on parents’ weekends and talked to them, too.  In general, we talked to as many people as we could. What we found was a strong sense that something was seriously wrong. We found that schools with the best reputations had become “prestige” factories. For instance, the undergraduate experience at Harvard University is awful. They have classrooms that are as huge as at any state university, and undergrads have very impersonal relationships with professors. Most of the contact at that level is between students and “teaching fellows” — not actual professors.

MainStreet: What does that tell you?

Dreifus: It tells us that the Harvard brand is like the Louis Vuitton brand. You walk down the street with a Vuitton bag and you’re basically advertising to the world that you can spend $500 on plastic. Is that a good decision?

MainStreet: Are you feeling any backlash from academia?

Dreifus: Not really. What we do hear from professors and others in higher education that we’re really on the right track, and that there is something wrong with the system. They get it, but many college leaders don’t. There’s no question it’s a serious problem, and that’s what we tried to address in the book.

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