declining by degrees

How good is higher education in America?

In this revealing documentary, veteran correspondent John Merrow takes you behind the ivy-covered walls of our colleges and universities to see if they are delivering on their promise.

"Declining by Degrees" premiered on PBS stations across the country on June 23, 2005. Check local listings for additional broadcast dates and times.

Who else is talking about higher education?
A number of organizations are studying the issues raised by this program.


A number of individuals and organizations have invented classes, scheduled discussions, held symposia or created some other kind of special event along with the viewing of "Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk." We encourage you to do the same.

Please don't keep your event a secret. Share it with the "Declining by Degrees" production team and we'll share it with the world.

Here are a few of the important examples we've learned of:

Wabash College hosts two screenings and a post-screening discussion.

"We hosted two screenings of the show and a post-screening discussion. We were disappointed in the number of faculty who showed up, but a number of our students watched the video. The good news is that one of the faculty who did see it has requested that the Campus Teaching and Learning Committee set up a discussion of the show. We're working on that. One of the students is also using "Declining by Degrees" as the basis of a project in his communications class. These are all small events, but on a small campus, small events often have real consequences. We also placed the DVD on reserve at our library, and sent out an announcement indicating that it was available."
Charles F. Blaich, Ph.D.
Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts
Wabash College

"Declining by Degrees" used in graduate level class at Michigan State University.

"I teach a graduate level course titled "Foundations of Postsecondary Education" that examines contemporary issues in higher education by exploring the intersection of historical, philosophical and sociological forces that have shaped and continue to shape US higher education. One of the assignment in the course requires students to select a documentary (from a list approved by the instructor) relevant/ related to the course theme, to show it in class, to facilitate the discussion with classmates, and to finally write a critical review that integrates course readings and key themes from the documentary. One of the teams in my course selected "Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk," and facilitated what I thought was one of the most engaging discussions in class around themes that emerged from this documentary."
Reitumetse O. Mabokela, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Administration
Michigan State University

Shown at American Education Week event and in class at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"I showed "Declining by Degrees" at an American Education Week event on campus, and about 20 students and faculty - as well as our First Lady Jessica Doyle - attended. Also, I'm using the book & video in my class this spring, Debates in Higher Education Policy."
Sara Goldrick-Rab, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison University

Part of Honors class and panel discussion at Western Connecticut State University.

"First year students in our Honors Program viewed part of the film on the second week of class. We used the film to discuss some of the issues now facing higher education in the U.S. and some of their own expectations about what they hoped to gain by attending college. The Honors Program, along with colleagues from the Psychology and Social Sciences Departments, also organized a panel discussion of honors students about the film in late October. We showed the first hour of the film. Afterward, students from the Honors Program made comments and answered questions. The audience consisted of a mix of about 40-50 students, faculty and administrators. The discussion afterward yielded some very interesting stories of some of the experience of both faculty and students."
Steven Ward, Ph.D.
Honors Program Director
Western Connecticut State University

Used in semester-long book group and discussion at the University of Connecticut.

"The University of Connecticut has had two book reading and discussion groups that have met over a semester, involving over 25 faculty, staff and administrators. The dialogue has focused on relating the messages of the book to the goals of the university. We were fortunate to have "Declining by Degrees" co-editor Richard Hersh join us for one discussion and state legislator Denise Merrill for another. Merrill represents the town of Storrs, where U of CN's main campus is located. She is also co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee on Higher Education Access and Affordability organized by the National Conference of State Legislators. The book/discussion group has been a great experience for all involved and will end with a combined session of the two groups organizing suggestions for action at the university consistent with the messages from the book."
John C. Bennett, Jr., Ph.D.
Associate Department Head / Associate Professor Mechanical Engineering
University of Connecticut

Stanford University uses film, book, and website as the basis for a writing and rhetoric course.

"In the fall of 2005, I taught a sophomore level course at Stanford University entitled "The Demise of Higher Education: The Rhetoric of America's Intellectual Decline." The main purpose of this class was to teach analytical thinking and rhetorically-based writing, research, and argumentation skills, applying those activities to a theme of interest to undergraduate students. As the course title suggests, our theme was to examine some of the current problems that Higher Education is facing. We began the term by viewing and discussing the Declining by Degrees film. Soon after, students each had to select one problematic issue related to contemporary higher education to research for the rest of the term, culminating in a researched argument paper and an academic conference style oral presentation. Students investigated related causes and effects of their selected problems, examined alternative models, and argued for plausible solutions. While students worked on their research projects independently, in class, we continued our discussion using the Declining by Degrees book. We also used John Merrow's related podcasts (e.g. Frank DeFord's interview) to flesh out topics that appeared in the film and in the book.

Because students could see a meaningful relationship between themselves and the topics we were discussing, class discussions were extremely lively, the resulting research projects were engaging and perceptive, and, judging from their final reflective essays, students were left with lasting insight about these educational issues and their own roles in them. Overall, the various Declining by Degrees media products, especially if used in tandem, can provide both impetus and direction for students to critically examine these issues while questioning the underlying assumptions about their lives as students. From a teacher's perspective, I am grateful that we finally have readily accessible texts to begin a larger discussion about these very meaningful issues."

Erik Turkman
Program in Writing and Rhetoric
Stanford University

University of Maryland College Park Center for Teaching Excellence uses "Declining by Degrees" at workshop

Student affairs staff at Michigan State University watches film and engages in 2-hour discussion with NSSE's George Kuh

We’d like to hear from you about this important topic. Share your experience, or respond to the program, an article, or one of the experts.

Let’s talk!

The institutions of higher education have become "business of higher eduction." While this may be a natural evolution, I think that this course propels academics to a secondary position, with survival being first. There are many other inputs into this process that need to be considered. I am an adult learner, and have taught business and marketing at a private college as an adjunct for over 15 years. [more]

One input to consider is the quality of the product that walks into the college arena. What are we doing at the high school level to really prepare students for the academic and social/cultural realities of college? The second input is the quality of the instructors. Inspired teaching that engages the student and that makes learning a process of discovery is rare at the college level. The reliance on technology and lecture is just not making the connection with students. The third input is the community and family unit, and the importance placed on hard work, academics, and ethics. There are school systems in communities that consistently deliver high quality, well prepared students to the academic community. Shouldn't this the the norm rather than the exception? Finally, not only this country, but the global community stands to lose if the decay in academics continues in the U. S. Consider all the international students who come to this country every year, and pay the highest tuition rates in order to gain an education from our system. I think this documentary raises some important issues, and I plan to use it in several courses that I instruct.

Reply to this commentMerle Davis


After watching "Declining by Degrees", reading the book, and reading the website, I set up a preview and discussion session with our faculty. Even if no one showed up (Fridays are quiet in this community college), I'm not discouraged. I intend to follow up and keep on trying to raise awareness of the key issues raised in DbD. This site is a wonderful resource.

Reply to this commentAlberto Ramirez


Great site - excellent interviews. Thank God someone is finally talking about these issues, and the general failure of universities to do their jobs. Reply to this commentKeith Hampson

Toronto, Canada

I thought "Declining By Degrees" was good, however, you never mentioned non-traditional students (such as myself) who work 40 hours a week while going to community college. It takes a lot of effort and hard work. I never took SAT's and had to learn algebra which I never took in High School. I was afraid of college; in high school counselors made it seem impossible for someone such as me to get into college. "You have to take SAT's," they said. I think nontraditional learners, such as myself, were not given complete information on the college picture. Nor were you. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TAKE SAT's if you have a ASSOCIATE's DEGREE. I got some of my credits through Assessment of Prior Learning which is a great college program that gave me 50 college credits. College was fun and being an older nontraditional student I found my experience to be excellent.

Reply to this commentRobert Williams, Jr.


I am sad to hear all of this, especially because I am only in my 3rd year of Community College and was anxious to one day transfer to a 4 year university. It makes me sad that after so many years of people telling me that college is good and that I should go to a university, etc. etc., that the question comes up: "Is it really your money's worth?" I don't plan on hearing this and not doing anything about it. I am going to take full advantage of my being able to go to college. I want to make it the best college experience ever and leave it educated.

Reply to this commentIngrid Villafranca


This is the best and most relevant documentary I’ve seen in a long time. I was most interested in the segment about how little work is required of students. I found this to be the case during my education. I always got higher grades than I expected. I found that I could do the minimum amount of work and still get good grades. I think that most kids at that age are not mature enough to do the work when it’s not expected or required by teachers. [more]

Entering graduate school, I expected the program to be more rigorous than my undergraduate program—and I was ready to do the work. However, I even found my graduate program to be much less challenging than I expected. As a teacher’s assistant I found that students expected to get A’s just for doing the work. There was no thought for the quality of the work. The one exception I observed at school was in the engineering programs. I was a social science undergraduate and could get by doing the minimum work; however, engineering students I knew had to do much more work just to keep up. It probably has to do with the nature of engineering and hard sciences. Is this just a symptom of the social sciences? I wish the program had explored this a little more.

Reply to this commentName withheld by request

I am proud to note that this book is beginning the dialogue that is so important and unfortunately past due. I'm also pleased to note that my university, the University of Connecticut, has taken what is promised as only the first step: a book discussion group involving faculty, staff, administration, and others outside the university. I'm excited to have been chosen to help lead these discussions. I have read and am studying the book and finally have been able to watch my copy of the DVD. Both are excellent and filled with much good information. One sad item to note: Our local PBS system chose to show the program on a summer Sunday afternoon when I and I'm sure many others had previous plans. I would like to see this program repeated now that school is back in session - at a time more conducive for people to see it and maybe even with a companion panel discussion involving appropriate individuals familiar with the book/DVD and connected with the very important topics associated with both.

Reply to this commentJohn Bennett


It is a great documentary report (just saw the TV version). The one point that I don't agree with is a minor one: that classroom conversation-- interaction-- is needed to stimulate students. Maybe it is for many; I found lectures in college more instructive.

Reply to this commentJoseph Lardner


I am one of thousands of "part-time" or "adjunct faculty" who teach in higher education. Does your program investigate the affects of the overuse of part-time instructors in higher education. My stand is that the system is impacted in two ways: Part-time instructors (like me) often teach on multiple campuses and actually carry more of a teaching load than full-time, and with fewer full-time faculty on campuses, our tenured colleagues have to carry a greater load of non-instructional responsibilities. If you haven't already investigated this aspect, you should.

Reply to this commentPhil Jack


I watched the documentary last night. I must say most of hit at home, especially the part about the 63 year old adjunct. I have been an adjunct for a couple of years now and there is no end in sight. I graduated from college in 2001 and earned my MFA by 2003. While I attended prestigious institutions who granted me scholarships, I am still $70,000 in debt (all of it student loans). I truly enjoy teaching and consider myself a solid teacher. I consistently receive great evaluations from both students and co-workers. Additionally being a professor is my dream job. Yet sadly I will in all likelihood be leaving the profession. [more]

I would love to be offered a full time position, yet that will never happen not only because of the budget cuts but also because I do not have a Phd or many publications to my name. I cannot afford to return to school for a Phd until I save up money (however paying back my loans negates any substantial savings). And as for publication, well correcting 90 papers every two weeks, severely cuts into my writing time. I feel like I am in a unique position because that dream of getting a solid, well paying job with benefits by obtaining a college degree has been hampered by the debt I accrued while in college. On top of that I am encouraging students to do the same. I am telling them that college is worth their time and money, even if it means debt in the long run. I was one of those students who wasn't exactly poor but wasn't middle class either. I had to work many hours a week to pay my way through both undergraduate and graduate school. I loved my experiences at both schools and want to pass that on to my students. Yet I cannot do so with the amount of money I make, the lack of benefits and now the rising gas prices (I drive almost 500 miles per week during the semester). One of the schools I teach at is no longer requiring adjuncts to hold office hours because there is no longer office space for us (not even shared spa! ce). It makes me very sad to realize that unless something changes I will have to leave this profession and find another way to put my teaching skills to good use.

Reply to this commentName withheld by request

I have just finished watching the documentary "Declining by Degrees" and thought the message it presented is what myself and others from the rest of the developed world had suspected: that universities in the US do not produce independent thinkers but those who take the 'path of least resistance'. I have come from Australia, where a culture of students taking a degree of responsibility for their own learning prevails. I have been dismayed by the complete lack of critical thinking, basic literacy and a general 'follow the pack' attitude that many university graduates seem to display. Writing skills and just basic literacy seem to be sorely lacking in many, to the point that I wonder if these are a part of the general education system at all. An entitlement mentality precedes many (not all) that enter university that says turning up to class should grant them an A or at least a B. It must be a very frustrating experience for those students who genuinely put in the work but are not as bright or hampered by having to work as well, sitting beside other students who breeze through and show no application or effort whatsoever. [more]

The majority of jobs being created in the economy now and into the future will be in the knowledge sector where the skills of critical thinking, cross disciplinary problem solving and lateral thought will be highly sought after and rewarded. Many institutions do not seem to realize that it is not enough for students to get a degree, they must learn how to take control of their own learning for the rest of their lives if they wish to be professionally employed in these industries, usually in the science and engineering fields. It is less important for those graduating to know how to solve a fourth order differential equation, or in general regurgitate information, than it is to learn how to manage a multi-national team, effectively delegate tasks to those working under them, communicate technical ideas to non-technical people and to take a strategic perspective of how they fit into the larger organization in which they work. The most basic tenet that university can instill in a graduate is a willingness to learn, to put them into a mode of operation that sees them looking for new experiences, constantly questioning 'why?', taking in information, interpreting it and using it in ways that furthers their or their organization’s objectives. Many say that something needs to be done lest institutions of higher learning lose their way. I'd suggest that that's already happened and it's up to individuals to stop waiting for others to show them the way, be pro-active and take responsibility for their own learning. The future's going to be a very prosperous place for those who are willing to take responsibility; they'll have the lion's share. For those who are passive and just react to circumstance instead of creating it, they'll get what's left.

Reply to this commentReece Lumsden


I saw your documentary and was impressed enough to buy the book and the video. Only fleeting mention is made in the essays is the role of online learning, which has the potential to remedy many of the ills described in your book. Let me explain.

Online learning was catapulted into fame by the Internet but dominated by IT professionals, blissfully unaware of the importance of pedagogy ­ how students actually learn, and the vital role of professors. Unfortunately, most online learning is a sorry compilation of professors' notes and slides, with limited ability to adapt to each student's needs or to measure the students learning and grasp of key concepts. Much of what passes as online learning is provided by "Content Management Systems", which do little more than provide an administrative framework, and do nothing to advance student learning per se. Small wonder that drop out rates (from online courses) are around 50%, that faculty workloads (to answer student email questions) actually increase with online learning. To my knowledge, none of the current online courses (with one exception) meet NEASC's "Best Practices for Electronic Offered Degree and Certificate Programs". [more]

Properly designed online programs, adapting to the needs of individual students, and blending online instruction with face-to-face instruction represent a quantum jump in learning. The time of the professor is thus freed for higher level discussions with properly prepared students. Courses that adapt to each individual and provide feedback on her or his progress, create a substantial jump in student engagement. Dr. Sonwalkar, Principal Education Architect at MIT, spent five years researching how students learn and, only then, developed the computer software to make his research a reality. The software provides for concept maps, diagnostic quizzes, learning styles that automatically adapt to each student, and a complete range of reports on each student. When pedagogy is the driver, the number of email questions from students is cut by two thirds, with completion rates in the ninetieth percentile. A useful by product is that overall costs are reduced by 50%, potentially solving one of higher educations most pressing problems. Dr. Sonwalkar can be reached at He is the author of numerous publications on pedagogy and online learning and author of Changing the Interface of Education with Revolutionary Learning Technologies: (iUniverse, Inc. 2005)

Reply to this commentDon Hutchinson

I saw the documentary on PBS about a month ago and thought it was absolutely fantastic. I hope to purchase the video and show it to the freshmen enrolled in the course I am teaching this fall, as part of my course. I think we will just watch the first hour and 15 minutes, not the whole 2 hours. It should make for some very interesting discussion afterwards!

Reply to this commentName withheld by request

I have a program that follows student through the college process for four years. Professors are working with us to improve the quality of education and monitoring our students for success.

Reply to this commentMary Wayman


An excellent documentary overall. Although, I have to say, that having personally observed Dr. Kurzer in the classroom, I felt that the documentary did her an enormous injustice. It was apparent to me that she is diligent in doing everything possible to engage her students, despite the apathy of a great majority of the undergraduates. Her lectures are both interesting and entertaining and she obviously devotes significant time to developing classroom experiences that will engage her students. When I've attended her lectures, I've found them to be insightful and thought provoking. I also know that she goes the extra mile to extend help to any student who requests it, to the point of making special trips into her office to meet with students at their request. The documentary suggested that she didn't stop her lectures frequently to ask if there were any questions. While that may have been true of the lecture witnessed by the documentary maker, it is ludicrous to suggest that a lecture for hundreds of students take the form of a discussion session. I wish the documentary makers had chosen also to film Dr. Kurzer in a one-on-one session with one of her students. It would have painted a more accurate picture of the caring and compassionate teacher that she is.

Reply to this commentName withheld by request

I loved this documentary when I saw it a month or so ago. I've told so many people about it. I hope it is aired more frequently than I've been able to find it. Even though I graduated almost 10 years ago from college, I completely related to the attitude of the students (and faculty for that matter) in this program.

I entered college with an expectation that I would have to "buckle down", and it actually turned out to be a breeze. Basically, I showed up, did a little work, and graduated with a 3.4 GPA. Today, I have a good job that I needed a degree to get, but could be doing with the knowledge I had in high school. Really, it is appalling, and I applaud you for making this documentary to finally shed some light on this waste of four years of young people's academic lives.

Reply to this commentDiane Tarr


What a compelling program. It should be mandatory viewing for everyone on campuses throughout the USA. The companion book and the video provide important and powerful new insights into the growing crisis in academe. There are only two things that could have been added had you had more time... [more]

First, it was not really pointed out that so much of the "research" that faculty publish for fear of perishing is simply pseudoscience. I and others have documented this in educational research on numerous occasions, and I know it is a flaw in most social science research conducted by academics. The benefits of this research for the public at large are dubious at best. As I have written, it is time to put the "public" back in publication.

Second, while you did discuss the workload of the community college instructor, I think few people understand the hours worked by faculty in research universities. The best research indicates that faculty in research universities average 57 hours of work per week, but my colleagues and I find this to be an underestimation. Being a professor has evolved into a job that is never done, and 70-80 plus hours weeks are the norm.

But the bottom line is that your video and book should be a wakeup call for academe.

Reply to this commentThomas C. Reeves, Ph.D

I was amazed at how familiar these stories were. I have heard these EXACT points of view for years, coming from my friends, co-workers, students, and professors, but never heard them reflected in the media. Thank you for making such an important and honest film. Reply to this commentMary Bokkon

On this site I read the comments of those who appear to be surprised that some students may be unprepared for college. If we had been keeping up with US Department of Education, National Assessments of Education Progress (NAEP) studies, we wouldn't be surprised. These studies, which are published every other year (I believe) assess 4th, 8th and 12th grade students, with regard to Math, Science, and Reading, according to "authentic" instruments, rather than "normed" measurements

(The students of Lake Woebegone, who according to Garrison Keeler, "are all above average," are obviously assessed with a "normed" measuring instrument. Figures don't lie but liars sure can figure.)[more]

I find the NAEP reading results most telling... 70% of our students can NOT read (competently comprehend) their own textbooks, only 30% can and only 5% are reading beyond their own grade level. What is beyond the grade level of a 12th grader?

Apparently, DOE and the NAEP studies have been telling us that only 5% of 12th graders can read at college level.

If this is the case, if the majority of our college freshmen cannot read their own textbooks, how can we expect them to succeed in college? Obviously, they can not and they don't! By sending our freshmen children and money to schools where so many will drop out because they are unprepared, is our money just funding graduate classes and professors who work only a fraction of the hours we work to pay that tuition?

So, why does our reading skill curriculum end in the 3rd or 4th grade? If boys are not normally ready to begin reading until 2-3 years after girls are ready, practically speaking, do boys receive only 1 or 2 years of reading instruction? And why are the NAEP studies published in secret now, and why are the results so difficult to find?

If the pond that is higher education is dirty and stinks, perhaps we should look up stream. If 70% of our students are failing to learn to read well enough to read their own textbooks, should we be awarding and rewarding their teachers and that system? Do teachers go home crying because they have failed to teach 70% of our students to read well enough to read their own text books? Does our education system produce good readers or does our system produce average and below average readers... readers who don't read well enough to enjoy reading, readers who don't read well enough to want to practice the skills of reading that can enable them to improve their reading skills? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

If our system doesn't produce good and excellent readers, how are they produced? Do our reading skills reflect our intelligence? Wasn't Einstein dyslexic?

If the system is broken, why do we continue supporting it? If the system is broken who should be fixing it? Should it be those who appear to be quite satisfied with a 5% or even 30% success rate? If you had 10 children or grandchildren, would you be satisfied with a system that fails to teach 9 or even 7 of them? What business could succeed with those numbers? When we pay a business for a service, do we expect results? What is the largest business in nearly every state?

Reply to this commentStephen Behunin

I am a junior faculty member at the University of Arizona. I thought the documentary was very well balanced, placing responsibility on federal, state, and university administration. It is true that, while the university tells parents that teaching is our highest priority, junior faculty are told that teaching is not important for tenure. I enjoy teaching; the reward is instantaneous (unlike publishing and bringing in grant moneys, which can take months). And, I dislike teaching large classes as much as my students despise taking them. I try to foster a small-class feel as much as possible, encouraging participation in lecture, pausing to make sure they understand concepts, asking for demonstration volunteers, asking questions, etc; but I hate that I am not given the chance to get to know them personally.

Declining by Degrees : Join the Discussion
Declining by Degrees : Book Excerpts
Declining By Degrees : Show Synopsis
Declining by Degrees : Buy the Book
Declining by Degrees : Meet the Experts - GEORGE KUH


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