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Culture Beat / Mar. 19, 2019

Deflating College Degrees

The value of a college degree decreased considerably as academic merit became secondary.

What is a college degree really worth these days, as opposed to how much it costs? One of the Democrats’ favorite policy platforms recently has been the call for “free college.” That this message is so popular with the younger generation may be an indication that the increasing cost of a college degree and the ballooning student debt associated with it (now more than $1.5 trillion) has not placed graduates on the fast track to the higher-paying jobs educated professionals once enjoyed. Instead, more and more college graduates are finding themselves ill prepared to successfully engage in a dynamic free-market world that rewards innovation, enterprise, and hard work.

In other words, a college degree no longer provides, in and of itself, a path to earning income that is greater than that of those without a college degree. Nor is that income sufficient to pay off student loans — now grossly inflated by government guarantees, which preclude any liability to educational institutions. Those institutions should be co-liable for student loans rather than being enriched by them while taxpayers bear the burden of default. And worse, millions of young people incur several years of student debt and never finish their degree. (The Trump administration has proposed limits on student loans as a first measure to resolve this debt crisis.)

It didn’t used to be this way. To put it bluntly, education standards have slipped considerably. How else can one explain why Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who majored in economics and graduated cum laude from Boston University, fails to understand the most rudimentary economic principles?

But why have the standards slipped? One of the main factors is that academic merit, which should be the primary and sole criteria for admission into institutions of higher learning, has become secondary. Academic merit has been displaced by financial considerations, athletic ability, favored racial-minority status, and legacies. The results are predictable: When students are admitted who fail to meet the higher academic standards, what eventually occurs is that those standards are gradually lowered. Secondarily, the requirements for gaining a degree begin to slip as well. For example, in 2017, Yale changed its course requirements for English majors so that it is now possible to graduate without ever having read or studied Shakespeare.

Unlike the recent case where students cheated the admission system, in this case the admission system has cheated the students.

In recognizing this dumbing down of higher-education standards, Harvard University Professor Harvey Mansfield, who has been teaching for over 60 years, applies a unique practice to demonstrate how the pressure to lower academic standards has produced deficient students. Mansfield gives all his students two grades — the first grade goes into their official transcript and is one that has been artificially inflated; the second is the grade they have actually earned. His reason: to honestly show his students how they really did.

It would seem that too many colleges and universities today are more concerned with producing “woke” activists than sober academics.

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