From the Editor

Drescher: Bill Bennett, former U.S. education secretary, still critical of higher education

jdrescher@newsobserver.comNovember 1, 2013 

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Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett speaks at a press conference before the first Education Leadership Summit spnsored by the new James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy held at Duke University.

SCOTT SHARPE — 2002 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Bill Bennett, the former Triangle resident and U.S. secretary of education, has long liked to tweak the people who run America’s colleges and universities.

“Sure I do. I enjoy it. They deserve it,” Bennett told me Friday by phone. “Those hallowed halls need it. It’s a pretty self-satisfied bunch. They command a lot of attention and they expect a lot of deference.” He added, “I don’t think many of them are doing their jobs as they should.”

Bennett, 70, was president of the National Humanities Center at Research Triangle Park from 1979 to 1982 and lived in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. He used to play pickup football on Sunday afternoons in Raleigh at Martin Middle School. His wife is from Charlotte and Chapel Hill; they now live on Bald Head Island, south of Wilmington.

Bennett left the Triangle when President Reagan named him chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He now hosts a national radio talk show. It was on Bennett’s show that Gov. Pat McCrory earlier this year said “educational elite” had taken over and were offering courses that had no path to jobs.

Bennett, who has a doctorate, has been a critic of higher education for decades. As education secretary in 1985, Bennett said many students were being “ripped off” by their colleges. He told The New York Times’ Edward Fiske (who now lives in Durham) that if Bennett’s son wanted his college money to instead start a business, Bennett might let him do that.

Bennett’s criticism of higher education continues with his new book, “Is College Worth It?” He and co-author David Wilezol say too many people are going to four-year colleges; many college graduates don’t get a good education; many don’t get the kind of job they thought they would get; and many start their careers burdened with large college debts. He said he still believes in humanities education and the development of the mind and soul but said colleges don’t do that well either.

The books opens: “Two-thirds of people who go to four-year colleges right out of high school should do something else.” An exaggeration? No, Bennett said. Half of students who enter four-year colleges drop out, he said, and half of all recent college graduates are unemployed or dramatically underemployed.

Duke president responds

Others have raised similar questions. In response, Duke President Richard Brodhead wrote an article in Duke magazine this summer, “Why College Is Worth It.” Brodhead acknowledged that the price of higher education has risen faster than inflation and that student debt has reached $1 trillion. But he wrote that strong evidence shows an undergraduate degree remains “the most valuable road to worldly success.” Beyond that, Brodhead said a Duke education prepares graduates to lead meaningful lives.

Bennett said some colleges are worth the expense because of the return they provide (and Duke is one of them). He’s a fan of community colleges and said many grads of two-year schools are earning more, at least early in their careers, than graduates of four-year colleges.

He’s not telling high school graduates not to go to a four-year college. But he urges them to think about their goals; what they will study; the record of a college’s graduates in finding employment; and how much debt they might incur.

Bennett’s latest book has hit a nerve with many recent college graduates and their parents. He’s written or edited a dozen books. This one, he said, has received the most response.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com

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