Is American higher education cheating students?

American colleges and universities, widely admired throughout the world, have come under heavy fire in recent years. Critics complain that costs are too high, that too many professors shirk their classroom duties, that leftist indoctrination and political correctness are rampant, that breadth of knowledge requirements are minimal, that graduation rates are low, and that employment prospects for graduates are far below what students expected. Some grads are carrying signs in Occupy rallies demanding that the government wipe out or reduce their college debts.
Higher education is indeed expensive. This fall tuition and fees went up by 8.3 percent at four-year public colleges and universities. Financially strapped California led the way with a whopping 21 percent hike. The average cost of a single year at a private college--tuition, fees, and room and board--is US$38,589. Tuition and fees alone for an in-state resident at a public college and university amount to over $9,000. During the last decade, campus costs have risen an average of 6 percent a year, well above increases in paychecks and general inflation. Total outstanding college loans are soon expected to top $1 trillion, a sum larger than all credit card debt. And the borrowing continues. In 2009, the average college student debt was $24,000.
It is true as well that many (certainly not most) professors are scholars as well as teachers and therefore attempt to avoid heavy classroom schedules in favor of research and writing. By 2005, lower cost and untenured faculty amounted to 68.1 percent of all professors. Some 48 percent of college teachers were part-time employees. It's obvious that students are often being denied exposure to expertise in a wide variety of fields.
It is ironic that despite annual cost hikes and the use of cheap labor, a great many campus endowments have reached astounding levels. By early 2011, Harvard could boast of an endowment of more than $27 billion. (As in government, many leading educators think in billions, not millions.) Yale's was at $16 billion, and Princeton and the University of Texas System could boast of having more than $14 billion. In 2010, 30 campuses had endowments of more than $1.8 billion. The rising, if shaky, stock market has been helpful in increasing campus endowments throughout the country.
The issue of liberal indoctrination and the iron grip of political correctness on campus has often been studied. The National Association of Scholars, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and activist David Horowitz, among others, have provided us with an abundance of evidence, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that we need not explore here. The fact is that students are too often unexposed to both sides of issues and lack opportunities to think for themselves. Conservatives on campus, students and faculty, suffer.
Then there is matter of what college graduates are supposed to know. A study sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, grades 1,000 colleges and universities on the breadth of their graduation requirements and lists graduation rates. Campuses are graded from A to F on the basis of seven key areas of knowledge: composition, literature, foreign language, US history, economics, mathematics, and science. (Curiously, philosophy, fine arts, and the history of Western civilization are ignored.) Most educators and many students are well aware of the U.S. News ranking of campuses, in part a reflection of the reputation of professors on board. Now we have a more objective study pointing to the knowledge being required of students.
There are many, often shocking, surprises. In Massachusetts, for example, not a single campus earned an "A." (That is true of most states.) Tufts and Wellesley earned a "B," MIT received a "C," Brandeis, Harvard, and Williams received a "D," and Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Holy Cross were graded "F." Academic reputations can be deceiving.
In California, Pepperdine, California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, and the California State University at Dominguez Hills (which has a large minority enrollment), received an "A." Almost all the California State University campuses and the University of California-San Diego earned a "B." Stanford, Pomona, the University of Southern California, and the University of California -Santa Barbara received a "C." Mills and the University of California-Santa Cruz, received a "D." The flunk-outs included Occidental and the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Davis, and Irvine.
In Wisconsin, the "B" range includes Marian and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Campuses rated "C" include Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Graded "D" were Beloit, Carthage, Lawrence, and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Trailing with "F" were Alverno, and the University of Wisconsin campuses at Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Parkside. (Both Milwaukee and Parkside, neighbors of mine, were given bottom ratings in the U.S. News rankings as well.)
Other schools around the nation receiving "A" include the Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard Academies, Brooklyn College, St. Johns Maryland, and Gardner-Webb. Among the "B" institutions are the University of Chicago, Ave Maria, Columbia, Cornell, St. Bonaventure, Seattle University, the US Naval Academy, Loyola University in Chicago, the University of Miami, Notre Dame, Duke, and Villanova.
At the other end of the scale nationally, the "D"s include Johns Hopkins, Yale, Northwestern, the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, Ohio University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Oregon, Reed, Bryn Mawr, Penn State, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.
At the very bottom we find: Vassar (where tuition alone is $43,190), the University of Rochester, Lake Forest, Knox, New College of Florida, Case Western Reserve, the University of Cincinnati, Colorado College, Bucknell, Dickinson, Gettysburg, Trinity, and Wesleyan.
There appears to be no correlation between breadth of knowledge requirements and graduation rates. In Massachusetts, "F" rated Amherst graduates 95 percent of its students, while "D" rated Harvard graduates 97 percent. In Wisconsin, "C" rated Madison leads the state with 83 percent graduation, and "F" rated Parkside trails all with a rate of 32 percent.
High admission standards and venerable campus academic reputations appear to correlate most closely with high graduation rates. Students want a prestige degree, and actual knowledge acquired in the college classroom seems to be of secondary importance. That should not be surprising since American students, for many generations, have gone to college with rising socio-economic success as the foremost consideration. Business is the most popular major.
As for the conflicting claims that there aren't enough college graduates, and on the other hand that there are fewer and fewer jobs for college graduates, perhaps we need to reconsider what a college and university diploma should mean.
What is an educated person? I believe that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has it right when they argue for breadth of knowledge. Tough academic courses in all seven fields should be required or at least encouraged strongly. (A Roper poll shows that that 70 percent agree that colleges and universities should require courses in basic skills. The figure jumps to 80 percent among those in the 25 to 34 year old bracket.)
Instead, catalogs are stuffed with pseudo-intellectual, ideological, and even silly courses and majors that require little mental effort and are often brimming over with ideological bias. Students are often able to select from a wide range of courses and, predictably, many choose the easy way out. (Mass communications, sports psychology, and gender and sexual studies anyone?)
Students need not major in, say, history or English if such studies lack employer appeal, but history and English should be somewhere on a graduate's transcript. Exposure to the literature itself is important, even if the professor isn't. Perspective, serious thought, and good writing skills can be useful, on and off the job.
Today nearly 40 percent of American adults have a bachelor's degree and higher, and yet the state of our popular culture and our political-intellectual life is scandalously low. In part this is because a college diploma too often signifies very little beyond foresight and persistence.
If you think I'm exaggerating, read Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation. The author documents in detail the miserable state of ignorance and anti-intellectualism shared by both our high school and college graduates. You can also learn the significance of computers and tech toys in the overall decline. And don't miss the new book Academically Adrift: Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The authors document lax standards in the classroom, and report that 36 percent of students experienced no significant improvement in learning after four years of higher education. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 63 percent of employers believe that recent college graduates lack the skills necessary for success.
I believe that educators are more to blame than students. Weak academic requirements are often products of deliberate efforts to keep campuses growing and prosperous. Students deserve more knowledge for their (often borrowed) money, even if they don't want it. Our culture cries out for the learning that might produce higher standards of conduct, thought, sensitivity, and responsibility. We must also, of course, be able to compete effectively in the world marketplace. Few Americans want to be speaking Chinese in the near or distant future.  Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.


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