JAMES PIERESON: What’s wrong with our universities? – The New Criterion
What’s wrong with our universities?
by James Piereson
On the ailing state of higher education.
This fall more than 19 million students will enroll in the 4,000 or so degree-granting colleges and universities now operating in the United States. College enrollments have grown steadily year by year, more than doubling since 1970 and increasing by nearly one-third since the year 2000. More than 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in a community college, four-year residential college, or in one of the new online universities, though only about half of these students graduate within five years. The steady growth in enrollments is fed by the widespread belief (encouraged by college administrators) that a college degree is a requirement for entry into the world of middle-class employment. A college education is now deemed one of those prizes that, if good for a few, must therefore be good for everyone, even if no one in a position of academic authority can define what such an education is or should be. These conceptions are at the heart of the democratic revolution in higher education.
Higher education is thus a “growth” industry in America, one of the few that foreigners (now mostly Asians) are willing to support in large numbers. College tuition and expenses have increased at five times the rate of inflation over the past three decades, forcing parents and students deeply into debt to meet the escalating costs. Fed by a long bull market in stocks, college and university endowments have exploded since the mid-1980s, providing even more resources for salaries, new personnel, financial aid, and new buildings and programs. A handful of prestigious colleges and universities, mainly private, are overwhelmed each year by applications from high school seniors seeking to have their tickets punched for entry into the upper strata of American society. But these elite institutions are far from representative of higher education as a whole. The vast majority of colleges and universities—90 percent of them at least—admit any applicant with a high school diploma and the means to pay. Given the availability of financial aid, any high school graduate who wishes to attend college can do so.
Many universities, and not a few colleges, have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies with their layers of highly paid executives presiding over complex empires that contain semi-professional athletic programs, medical and business schools, and expensive research programs along with the traditional academic departments charged with providing instruction to undergraduate students. Like other industries, higher education has its own trade magazines and newspapers, influential lobbying groups in Washington, and paid advertising agents reminding the public of how important their enterprise is to the national welfare. In contrast to corporate businesses, whose members generally agree on their overall purpose, colleges and universities have great difficulty defining what their enterprise is for. What is a college education? On just about any campus, at any given time, one can find faculty members in intense debate about what a college education entails and what the mission of their institution should be. Few businesses would dare to offer a highly expensive product that they are incapable of defining for the inquiring consumer. Yet this is what colleges and universities have done at least since the 1960s, and they have done so with surprising success.