Federal Meddling Has Badly Damaged The College Ideal

Aug 10, 2014 by

George Leef –

For most of our history, few people paid any attention to higher education. Our colleges and universities attracted few students and except for a tiny number of professions where having completed a degree was necessary, no one cared whether a person had been to college or not.

At least a few people regarded college as a negative point for job seekers. We read, for example, in Professor Edward Chase Kirkland’s book Dream and Thought in the Business Community, 1860 – 1900  that some business tycoons thought that college spoiled young men for useful careers. Overwhelmingly, people learned what they wanted to know—both for work and to satisfy their intellectual curiosities – without sitting in college classrooms.

The role of government in higher education was negligible. It was not pure laissez-faire, as Daniel Bennett shows in his recent Independent Review article, since there was “a significant amount of state intervention that shielded it from competition and kept its doors open with a steady stream of subsidies and protections….” (The article is not yet freely available online, but will be in October.) Crucially, government assistance was state and local, and went to schools themselves, not to students.

There were plenty of “Animal House” kinds of students – wealthy kids who enrolled mainly to have fun and put off the day of needing to work. Nevertheless, most schools maintained rigorous academic standards and a curriculum that emphasized the liberal arts.

Crucially, students did not think of themselves as consumers who were buying a needed credential and entitled to have it on their terms. Neither did the faculty or school administrators. Education was foremost in their minds. If students came but showed themselves incapable or uninterested in doing serious academic work, fine. Better that they should leave than waste time and resources.

Higher education is no longer much like that, although one can still find pockets of educational excellence at some institutions. Today, vast numbers of young Americans go to college, which now costs far more than in the past. But many of them are poorly prepared for anything resembling serious academic study due to the low standards that now prevail across most of our K-12 education.

Also, many who enroll in college expect that it will be like their K-12 experience – not too demanding. Professors have been commenting on the at best unacademic and sometimes downright hostile attitude of today’s college students for quite a while. See, for example, Peter Sacks’ Generation X Goes to College (1996) and Patrick Allitt’s I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student (2004).

Instead of standing fast for their traditional standards, most colleges and universities have chose to accommodate these students. (A professor friend of mine suggests that it’s more accurate to call them “tuitioners.” They may do little studying, but their presence is desired because they pay tuition.) They have shifted the curriculum away from the liberal arts and towards occupational training, which is what most students are interested in – a credential to impress prospective employers.

They have also allowed (or even encouraged) the degradation of academic standards to keep students happy, enrolled, and, of course, paying. While lip service is usually paid to academic excellence, the truth is that it runs a distant second to revenue maximization in the calculus at many schools. Most students now see themselves as consumers; most college officials see them the same way.

What brought about this transformation?

More than anything else, it was the federal government’s intervention to make higher education “more accessible” starting in the 1960s under President Johnson’s administration.  Federal grants and guaranteed loans began to entice more young Americans into college. At first it was a trickle, but over time, it became a deluge. Going to college after high school became the norm. Even weak high school students were encouraged to go to college, and those students had no trouble finding schools that would accept them and take the money they would pay.

As the numbers increased, so did the percentage of students who weren’t either prepared for serious college work or interested in it. And, making the downward spiral worse, the ease with which almost every high school graduate could get into college had the effect of allowing high schools to relax their standards. So argues Rutgers sociology professor Jackson Toby in his book The Lowering of Higher Education in America.

The degradation of higher education was catalyzed by government financial aid policies that slowly turned it from something that a few students thought worth striving for into a near entitlement for everyone. The impact of those policies was considerably strengthened by the Supreme Court in its 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power decision. That decision made direct aptitude testing of job applicants legally hazardous for employers, so they began turning to a safe proxy for competence – college credentials.

Bryan O’Keefe and Richard Vedder explain the connection in this paper published by the Pope Center, where I serve as research director. The reason why so much of what passes for “higher education” these days is just preliminary job training is that the Supreme Court inadvertently gave this trend a tremendous boost more than 40 years ago.

In sum, higher education is far different than it used to be owing to government intervention. Overall, it costs much more but delivers less value. As a consequence, we now find many people and organizations criticizing the status quo and offering alternatives for students who see the old-style BA as a bad value. Higher education, which changed little from 1789 to 2000, is now very much in flux.

That has some defenders of the old order greatly annoyed. Instead of seeing that government policy is to blame for the horrible besmirching of their beloved Ivory Tower, however, they’re prone to venting against those who critique this state of affairs from the right and who offer alternatives. Consider these examples.

Hunter Rawlings III, former president of Cornell University, in a Chronicle of Higher Education article aimed specifically at reform efforts in Texas under Governor Perry, claimed that those efforts are intend to impose a “factory model” on higher education with no concern over its quality.

But the reason why there is so much interest in Texas and across the rest of America in more affordable models for college education is that the current model is often low in quality but high in cost. Hardly anyone would be interested in changing the way higher education is delivered if it were generally regarded as doing a good job. It isn’t. Governor Perry and like-minded reformers are not the bad guys.

Much in the same vein, but much more vehement are the views of English professor and literary critic William Deresiewicz. His recent Chronicle Review article entitled The Miseducation of America is a rant against critics and reformers.  His big line, meant as an arrow through the heart, is that “there are powerful forces at work in our society that are actively hostile to the college ideal.”

The long essay impugns motives of critics and even descends into name-calling (Professor Sebastian Thrun reminds Deresiewicz of a “Bond villain”) but adduces no evidence at all that anyone who criticizes what has happened to higher education or is endeavoring to give students good alternatives is “hostile to the college ideal.” (I write more about this snide and overtly ideological hit piece in this article.)

I submit that it would be very hard to find anyone, much less “powerful forces” opposed to the kind of serious college education that used to prevail. No one wants to stop students from taking the sort of courses that used to be regarded as the pillars of a sound, broad education. The manifest decline of such courses and the fading of “the college ideal” are unintended consequences of government meddling, not some dark, nefarious campaign.

Why do “progressives” have such a hard time seeing that the problems we now face – in education, healthcare, unemployment and many other fields — are the result of supposedly helpful policies they championed decades ago?

Federal Meddling Has Badly Damaged The College Ideal, But Establishment Voices Blame The Wrong People.

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