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Colleges Are Taking It on the Chin Lately

James Shott · May 21, 2019

The bad news for higher education keeps piling up. Recent scandals involving parents bribing people to help get their otherwise unqualified kids into elite schools and the new story of sexual impropriety at Ohio State University add to the list.

Such things as challenges to free speech on campus and the imposition of politically correct mandates that run contrary to common sense have dramatically changed things for higher education.

The traditional role of colleges to help students mature into rational and knowledgeable adults who are prepared to deal with the stresses of life is no longer a given.

Once a place for young people to prepare for a career in an idea-rich forum that challenges them to consider new and different perspectives, many campuses have developed “safe spaces” where students can seek refuge from reality, sometimes when instructors provide them with “trigger warnings” in advance of possible “troubling” topics in the classroom.

The complete shutting out of certain unpopular ways of thinking about things often occurs when the dominant left-liberal philosophy of many campuses is threatened by the presence of a conservative or religious speaker. These existential threats turn otherwise normal, calm, rational people in their late teens and 20s into mobs protesting these speakers, sometimes violently, even if they are not required to go and hear what they have to say.

These highly negative attributes are not present in all institutions of higher learning, of course, and perhaps one or more of your former schools has avoided this plague. But the trend is extensive and growing and threatens to debase the once-proud custom of a college education.

More and different criticisms of higher education appear in Dr. Walter Williams’ column from last week referencing a new book titled “Restoring the Promise” by Richard Vedder, Ohio University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics.

Williams, himself a professor of economics — in fact, the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University — cites Vedder’s view that our universities “are vastly too expensive, often costing twice as much per student compared with institutions in other industrialized democracies,” and that while exceptions exist, students “on average are learning relatively little, spend little time in academic preparation and in some disciplines are indoctrinated by highly subjective ideology.”

The latter point supports the idea that too often college students are taught not “how” to think but “what” to think.

Other points Williams makes from Vedder and other sources include:

  • “‘There is a mismatch between student occupational expectations after graduation and labor market realities.’ College graduates often find themselves employed as baristas, retail clerks and taxi drivers.”

  • “Research done by the New York Federal Reserve Banks and the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that each dollar of federal aid to college leads to a tuition increase of 60 cents.”

  • “Very little improvement in critical reasoning skills occurs in college,” and college graduates are less literate than they once were. Areas of exception to this trend are engineering, nursing, architecture, and accounting.

  • “Vedder says that student ineptitude is not surprising since they spend little time in classrooms and studying,” and cites weak preparation in high school as another reason. In “2010 and 2013 NAEP test scores, only 37% of 12th-graders were proficient in reading, 25% in math, 12% in history, 20% in geography and 24% in civics.”

It seems that the “every child should go to college” craze is blessedly over and the college bubble I have quietly predicted for a few years appears to be upon us.

After high school, kids must focus on how they are going to make a living for themselves and perhaps a family. The basic K-12 educational curriculum ought to provide them a good background to do that.

Many good-paying jobs may require post-secondary training, but not a four-year college degree (or more). Therefore, many, perhaps most, high-school graduates should not seek a college degree.

Williams concludes his column with this:

Vedder ends “Restoring the Promise” with a number of proposals with which I agree:

–College administrative staff often exceeds the teaching staff. Vedder says, “I doubt there is a major campus in America where you couldn’t eliminate very conservatively 10 percent of the administrative payroll (in dollar terms) without materially impacting academic performance.”

–Reevaluate academic tenure. Tenure is an employment benefit that has costs, and faculty members should be forced to make tradeoffs between it and other forms of university compensation.

–Colleges of education, with their overall poor academic quality, are an embarrassment on most campuses and should be eliminated.

–End speech codes on college campuses by using the University of Chicago Principles on free speech.

–Require a core curriculum that incorporates civic and cultural literacy.

–The most important measure of academic reforms is to make university governing boards independent and meaningful. In my opinion, most academic governing boards are little more than yes men for the president and provost.

At this point it is difficult to tell if this will get straightened out and what higher education will look like if it does. Certainly, it will be a difficult period for colleges.

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