Higher Education in America has floated lazily down the river of complacency and emerged in a sea of mediocrity, where it is presently being pulled by a strong current of denial toward a steep waterfall where a sparkling pool of failure awaits at the bottom. Artificially assured by an excellent reputation and the long-standing prestige of American universities internationally, the failure of the public K-12 system to adequately prepare graduating students has been combined with the misplaced emphasis on political correctness and the emotional well-being of students. This dangerous mixture warrants serious concern for the prospects for higher education in the U.S.
In addition to poor decision making internally by the system’s administrators, trends in American politics have acted as catalysts to the debilitation of higher education. Politicians have made the unfortunate discovery that political capital is yielded to them when they assert that college is the right and the appropriate path for every high school graduate. This misguided assumption has jeopardized the sanctity of the system as a whole.
The effort to ensure that college is financially feasible for anyone who possesses the desire and the capability to pursue higher education is undoubtedly a worthy endeavor, and I do not suggest that this effort should be undermined. However, an important distinction needs to be made between empowering those without the financial means to attend university versus persuading those without the aspiration for it that college is without a doubt the correct course for them. The latter practice has become insidious and it is damaging to the system as a whole, each university distinctively, every student and ultimately the individual at whom these efforts are aimed.
College is not the right place for everyone, and we as a society should be careful not to cast disdain on vocational schools and the increasing need for learning and application of practical skills. The college population has quadrupled since 1960 while the population as a whole has only grown by two-thirds. Once a luxury, subsequently a necessity and now an entitlement, the growth in the college population represents a trend that has been politically contrived. One indication that this is far too substantial an increase and that there are far too many students attending universities is the alarming proportion of students that are not finishing their degrees. Just 54 percent of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 had a degree six years later – and even fewer Hispanics and blacks did, according to some of the latest government figures. Logical observers can see how detrimental this is to universities and how taxing this is on federal funding of higher education when such a large proportion is essentially wasted.
At its unattractive core, the politicized emphasis on the obligatory college education has essentially dumbed down the system. Only 31 percent of college-educated Americans can fully comprehend something as simple as a newspaper story. This past August, the National Commission on the Future of Higher Education reported, “the quality of student learning – as measured by assessments of college graduates – is declining.” Instead of celebrating those exceptional students or achievements, current thinking condemns the demand for excellence as an obstacle to access. Those steering policy in government and education who have determined that higher education should be the pursuit of nearly all citizens – and non-citizens for that matter – have indulged in the tacit condemnation of universities’ demand for excellence as an impediment to access.
To achieve their aims of increasing the proportion of students attending college, these administrators have chosen a method typical in the politics trade – that is, of course, the one that is the easiest and the fastest and often most counter-productive. In this particular case, rather than increasing access by increasing excellence – encouraging hard work and higher standards with incentives – colleges have instead lowered standards, dumbed down the curriculum, inflated grades and given preference to minorities in search of a campus that appears, though does not genuinely reflect, the stated ideals of diversity and universal success. The pursuit of such a narrow conception of diversity has become the shaky foundation on which most universities have supported admissions policies that arrogantly and condescendingly assume that such diversity can only be achieved by lowering admissions standards.