By George Leef
On December 16, the higher education establishment put out its tin cup, asking Congress to give it a 5 percent cut of any "stimulus" spending package---around $40 to $50 billion for new university construction projects.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I'm opposed to the concept of "economic stimulus" spending. The federal government can't make the country more prosperous by shifting money and resources around at the whims of federal politicians. But the idea of spending billions on higher education strikes me as particularly unjustifiable. The trouble with higher education isn't a shortage of funds, but that so much of what it has is spent to little effect.
The Carnegie Corporation's open letter signed by more than 40 higher education leaders contends that the nation faces a serious problem: "For the first time in our history, the cohort of Americans ages 25 to 34 is less well educated than the older cohorts that preceded it." Supposedly, this is an ominous sign that "our future prosperity and security will be weaker than in the past."
What an astounding claim. The higher education establishment wants us to believe that having more formal education coursework under your belt necessarily makes you better educated (and vice versa). The sad truth, however, is that for many young people these days, college courses impart very little in the way of skill or knowledge. Due to the erosion of academic standards throughout much of our K-12 system, hordes of students enter college with extremely weak academic preparation. They are, as Montana State English professor Paul Trout terms them, "disengaged." They dislike reading, analyzing, and writing---activities that take up time that could be devoted to campus fun. A student I had many years ago summed up the attitude that dominates in many classes when he asked, "Couldn't you just, you know, tell us the main point?"
Students like that want a college degree, but have little interest in education. Having a degree is important because many employers now use college credentials as a means of screening out people who haven't gotten their degrees and are presumably harder to train. Consequently, many students enter college simply to get that fancy piece of paper. As Professor David Labaree writes in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Trying, "The payoff for a particular credential is the same no matter how it was acquired, so it is rational behavior to try to strike a good bargain, to work at gaining a diploma, like a car, at a substantial discount."
Many colleges and universities are very accommodating to students who want a degree but are averse to serious work. While there are still islands of academic rigor, students can easily sail around them, picking up enough credits in courses where the expectations are slight and the grading easy. Low standards keep the weak students from leaving and we see their impact in the startlingly poor results on the 2005 National Assessment of Adult Literacy where only 31 percent of college graduates were "proficient" in their ability to read and understand prose. That figure had been 40 percent on the 1992 survey.
After we process these young people through to their degrees, what awaits them in the labor market? Often they end up in mundane jobs that call for no academic training. Lots of college graduates now work as travel agents, retail sales supervisors, aerobics trainers, and so on. In a recent Minding the Campus essay, Professor Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin wrote about a fellow professor's observation about "job fairs" at his school: "(M)ost of the positions being offered involved jobs as low-level managers at Target, McDonalds, and similar businesses. My friend surmised that students had to wonder why they or their families had depleted their bank accounts to pay for an education that led to positions that simply did not require the pedagogical preparation the school offered."
Why indeed? Despite all the hype about the wonderful intellectual and economic benefits of a college education, the reality is breaking through---for many young people, college is a poor use of time and money. The reason why the percentage of Americans 25 to 34 who earn college degrees is starting to fall is that families are figuring out that a college degree is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good life. The statistic that the higher education leaders find so alarming is made up of a lot of rational decisions that go something like this:
Mom and Dad: Son, your sister graduated from XYZ State two years ago and has been
earning $24,000 per year as an aerobics instructor. You're no better a student than
she was. We know that several of your friends are going there, but don't you think you
might prefer to learn electrical work or something like that?
Son: Well, that makes sense. I don't really like school work that much, and from what
I hear, electricians make good, steady money.
It isn't the least bit surprising---much less dangerous to the nation---that we're seeing some decline in college graduation rates. For a lot of marginal, disengaged students, embarking on the quest for a BA simply doesn't make sense.
So the justification for this plea for federal money is feeble. But notice something else here: Even if Congress coughs up all the money and all those new buildings are built, that does nothing to solve the alleged problem of decreasing college graduation rates! If the educational leaders really want to attract and keep more students, they need to lower costs and raise the value of their product. Unless that happens, all those expensive new buildings may sit empty.
George Leef is Director of Research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.