A whimsical, informal account of American university life as it now stands. Matthews (Journalism/New York Univ.; Where the Buffalo Roam, 1992, etc.) structures her book as a journey through the academic year. It runs from summer to summer, beginning with a look at how colleges and universities make their (often undignified) pitch to high-school students and ending with a reunion of old-timers at Princeton. The author's ambition is sweeping. She aims to touch on all kinds of four-year institutions, leaving no part untouched: student drinking, faculty salaries, academic standards, tenure, mathematicians who dress funny, and so forth. The result is an entertaining glimpse of what goes on behind the ivy-covered walls of elite schools (which are likely to conceal faulty plumbing), at state-financed mega-universities (""where you can get a good education, if you want one,"" she writes in evident innocence of her prejudice), and in the hardscrabble world of small and marginal institutions with trailer-park dorms. There is Sinte Gleska, for example, a college in South Dakota that is struggling to carve a niche for itself in the already competitive ""academic marketplace"" of Native American higher education. Matthews gets a good deal of mileage out of anecdotes from student life, with punch lines like ""I told him there was a pizza under the sofa!"" Faculty are good for laughs, too: ""How can she whine for money to the dean when she wears two-hundred-dollar shoes?"" (overheard at a Renaissance scholars' conference). ""After tenure,"" Matthews notes, ""a campus asks only one thing of its professors: keep your brain alive. Many do not, will not, cannot."" Over the long haul all Matthews's knowing cuteness wears pretty thin. Her touch is informed but light--the result is less journalism than infotainment.