#highered book review: ‘A Perfect Mess,’ by David F. Labaree

In a 1982 speech, President Ronald Reagan described status quo as a Latin term for “the mess we’re in.” If that’s the case, then David F. Labaree has no problem with the status quo of higher education. 

“Why ruin a perfect mess?” Labaree asks at the conclusion of his recent book, A Perfect Mess: The unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. In this compact but well-sourced book, Labaree, a Stanford professor who specializes in the history of higher education, examines the history of America’s colleges and universities to explain how the U.S. system ascended from its humble and hardscrabble beginnings to become the strongest system of higher education the world has ever seen.

A system without a plan

Perhaps “system” is the wrong word to describe the way higher education evolved in America. By the middle of the 19th century, Labaree writes, higher ed in the U.S. was “a loosely defined system,” “[c]onstructed without an overall plan.” Unlike European institutions — which had a centuries-long head start and were rooted in either the church or the state — America’s earliest colleges and universities sprang forth during a time when the state was weak, the church was divided and market forces were strong. “Under these circumstances,” Labaree writes, “neither church nor state could establish dominion over this emerging institution, and the market gave it the ability to operate on its own.”

This absence of central control allowed an “ignomious collection” of U.S. institutions — “a loose assortment of parochial … liberal arts colleges” with “no academic credibility, no reliable source of students, and no steady funding” — to develop into “an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized.” In short, higher education the U.S. was an entrepreneurial and chaotic enterprise. And despite its byzantine bureaucracies and arcane governance structures, it still is, Labaree contends.

I would classify A Perfect Mess as a must-read for anyone interested in the history of higher education in the United States. It’s also a good read for my fellow marketers, because it offers insights into the historical, market-driven nature of our institutions. The book also homes in on some important issues related to the paradoxes and predicaments of our system, such as:

  • The stratification of higher education, which allows the elite institutions — primarily the research universities that are members of the American Association of Universities — to wield incredible influence in our society while institutions at the lower levels provide opportunities for students to get ahead, but not by much. (An example of this stratification: The AAU’s 62 institutions account for slightly more than 1 percent of all U.S. colleges and universities and only 5 percent of all students, but they receive 58 percent of all federal research and development grants and account for 71 percent of all U.S. Nobel Prize winners.)
  • The idea of higher ed as a public good that merits unwavering governmental support. This notion arose with the rise of federal investment into the system after World War II through the GI Bill and the expansion of research. But Labaree suggests, rather convincingly, that the U.S. system of higher education has been driven by tuition and by the market since its inception, and that the increase in public investment over the past half-century or so is an anomaly. Now, with state and federal funding on the decline for higher education, the system is returning to its original, tuition-driven model. And why not? Since it’s the students who benefit the most from a college degree, they should bear the burden, he writes.

These examples are just two illustrations of the mess higher ed is in. And while U.S. higher education’s ascendance from its ragtag origins to “riches and acclaim” by the end of the 20th century “is one of the all-time great institutional success stories,” its future is “dicey,” Labaree writes. Calls for greater accountability, affordability and transparency — if heeded — threaten to undermine the very thing that has made the mess of U.S. higher education so perfect: Its organized anarchy.

“It’s a system without a plan, which emerged in response to a set of market-based incentives that were peculiar to a particular time and place. … Since no governing entity had the will, the power, or the money to control its development, the system fumbled along on its own. It learned how to adapt to contingency, take advantage of opportunity, survive in the face of adversity, seek out sources of financial and political support, accumulate a variety of social functions and forms of legitimacy, please major constituencies, and develop a loyal and generous group of alumni.”

Will continued pressure from government force the U.S. brand of higher education to clean up its perfect mess? That chapter has yet to be written.

Follow David Labaree on Twitter: @DLabaree


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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