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The Great Mistake

, 448 pages

2 halftones, 33 charts

July 2018



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The Great Mistake

How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them

Winner of the CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title of the Choice ACRL


Higher education in America, still thought to be the world leader, is in crisis. University students are falling behind their international peers in attainment, while suffering from unprecedented student debt. For over a decade, the realm of American higher education has been wracked with self-doubt and mutual recrimination, with no clear solutions on the horizon. How did this happen? In this stunning new book, Christopher Newfield offers readers an in-depth analysis of the "great mistake" that led to the cycle of decline and dissolution, a mistake that impacts every public college and university in America. What might occur, he asserts, is no less than locked-in economic inequality and the fall of the middle class.

In The Great Mistake, Newfield asks how we can fix higher education, given the damage done by private-sector models. The current accepted wisdom—that to succeed, universities should be more like businesses—is dead wrong. Newfield combines firsthand experience with expert analysis to show that private funding and private-sector methods cannot replace public funding or improve efficiency, arguing that business-minded practices have increased costs and gravely damaged the university’s value to society.

It is imperative that universities move beyond the destructive policies that have led them to destabilize their finances, raise tuition, overbuild facilities, create a national student debt crisis, and lower educational quality. Laying out an interconnected cycle of mistakes, from subsidizing the private sector to "the poor get poorer" funding policies, Newfield clearly demonstrates how decisions made in government, in the corporate world, and at colleges themselves contribute to the dismantling of once-great public higher education. A powerful, hopeful critique of the unnecessary death spiral of higher education, The Great Mistake is essential reading for those who wonder why students have been paying more to get less and for everyone who cares about the role the higher education system plays in improving the lives of average Americans.

Christopher Newfield is a professor of literature and American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class and Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880–1980.

"A well-written and readable work in the area of critical university studies, this book will be of interest to academics and general readers wanting more information on the causes of current issues in today's public educational institutions."

"[S]traightforward and compelling"

"It’s a compelling case and an important vision."

"Newfield creates a way to think of the entire landscape for the complex situation institutions face when trying to educate students with the highest quality, best learning outcomes, and fewer resources than ever before."

"This book is a major addition to the Critical University Studies corpus, and should be required reading for anyone concerned about the fate of public education in the United States... Newfield’s writing is clear and accessible enough for beginning college students even as his larger argument is sophisticated enough for graduate-level study."

"Anyone who seeks a trenchant, nuanced grasp of the situation in US public universities today, and of how we got here, should read this book. They will find themselves grateful for the insight, seriousness, and virtuosity with which Newfield has conducted his investigation."

"Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake is probably the most important, and certainly one of the best, books published on higher education in this century. It should be essential reading for everyone—faculty members, administrators, trustees, philanthropists, and politicians—looking to rescue our floundering public higher education system from the pitiful morass into which it has descended."

"The book’s prose is lively and accessible, incorporating parents’ and students’ perspectives as well as research by prominent scholars... This is an important, timely book. Highly recommended."

"It’s well-written, passionately argued, and, for the most part, a lively read."

"The Great Mistake is his third book on the subject and provides an incisive, convincing, and terrifying picture of the current condition of state universities, along with an analysis of how we got here and how we might repair all the damage that has been done."

"Amid much hand-wringing over the corporatization of the university and much chatter about the impending digital disruption of higher education, Newfield’s contribution stands out. He mounts a deeply informed and impassioned defense of the idea that our economic, cultural, and political progress depends to a large degree on quality higher education—or more specifically, on quality higher education that has a liberal arts component, that affords equal access, and that is guaranteed by the 'public provision.'"

"A wonderfully readable and vitally important book. The Great Mistake is not only an impassioned call for the refunding of public higher education in the United States but a brief for the end of neoliberalism altogether."

"Newfield exposes thirty years of casting the private sector as the most efficient benefactor of the public good. For higher education, the result has been soaring tuitions and expenses with plummeting services, fewer faculty, and diminished educational offerings. This book gives us an action plan to reverse this Great Mistake before it becomes a tragedy that dooms our youth and our nation’s future."

"Public research universities are in trouble, and Christopher Newfield shows us why: they are run on false principles. In fact, sponsored research costs more than it brings in. Humanities departments yield profits that subsidize the sciences. And higher education really is a public good—in economic as well as idealistic terms. This learned and passionate book offers a thorough analysis and traces the path to recovery."

"I’ve lived through the dismantling of public higher education and watched it crush students. Chris Newfield is right—policymakers have made A Great Mistake—and the nation will pay for it for decades to come. His analysis is astute and his prescriptions for change are spot-on. Read this book slowly and carefully, and then take action."

"Who has paid the price for the privatization of American higher education? You have! Written with an insider’s financial detail and a scholar-citizen’s outrage, The Great Mistake is an intimate and definitive exposé of how our long experiment in corporate logic has failed the university and failed the students who leave it weighed down by debt but without the sophisticated knowledge they need and deserve. I can’t imagine a more eloquent case for higher education as a public good."

"A devastating account of how American public universities became caught in a ‘doom loop’ that sees today’s students paying more to get less. Toughly argued, data driven, The Great Mistake delivers a compelling economic and political case for pubic reinvestment. Every higher-education policy maker, on both sides of the Atlantic, should read it."

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