Although the recent scandal of celebrities bribing their kids into college has a relatively low impact on the main problems concerning American universities (and seems to affirm their admissions processes more than anything), it has certainly revived the conversation on all these matters. Many writers have taken this opportunity to consider related topics like affirmative action (which, in admitting unqualified students based on race, mirrors the logic of admitting unqualified students based on wealth and status) and the corruption of college officials who leverage their credibility for personal gains.
Others are going even further by arguing that college is a total scam, citing its high costs, low standards, and radically leftist politics. While some hope to improve the situation, others seem to look forward to the great fall of American universities.
Considering the numerous abuses and idiotic behavior of so many college graduates, this attitude is understandable, but ultimately misguided. America needs its intellectuals, and it will require nothing less than a robust, revitalized university system to create them.
Don’t Mock Graduates
More than one-third of American adults today have a four-year college degree. As a matter of demographics, it simply will not do to blithely dismiss their education and the debt they have incurred. Rather, all members of society should try to help these students by finding ways to lower the tuition and raise the quality of their college education.
Nonetheless, most conservatives seem to prefer to mock college graduates, making the problem worse. The typical college graduate must not only worry about paying off her school debt, but must also endure the stereotypes of being pretentious, brainwashed, ignorant, incompetent, and entitled. This is a hundred times worse if the college graduate has a liberal arts or social science degree. Although this type (in most cases, a minority) provides entertaining fodder for viewers watching episodes of “Change My Mind” with Steven Crowder, the majority of college students learn to adopt a self-deprecating, unassuming manner and usually strive to avoid controversy.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this anti-intellectualism causes college students turn to progressive politicians, with whom they find validation and community. Some of this has to do with the political atmosphere of the colleges, but much of this has to do with college students preferring each other’s company.
Most supporters of Bernie Sanders may not know what socialism really is, and most supporters of Robert Francis O’Rourke may not know what exactly he stands for (if anything), but they do know that they will be among friends who understand them. By contrast, Trump supporters with college degrees tend to keep a low profile, hold fast to principles, and be more likely to befriend liberals than other Trump supporters—hence, the preponderance of Never Trumpers and reluctant Trumpers among conservative intellectuals.
This trend suggests that focus needs to be colleges themselves, not the graduates. In a very first-world fashion, American society has placed so much value on a college education that it has inadvertently inflated its cost and compromised its quality.
Despite all the grumbling, a college diploma is still synonymous with the qualities of responsible adulthood: intelligence, competence, and respectability. For this reason, nearly all parents and white-collar employers (and even spouses) will desire a college diploma above any other mark of achievement. This, in turn, creates a huge demand for college, which results in ever higher tuitions. So colleges, which used to select incoming students on the basis of their academic performance, will now admit nearly all students, prepared or not, who can bring in revenue either personally or through government subsidies, raising prices even further.
This pressure to attend college cannot be understated. From an early age, children are conditioned by their parents and educators not to question going to college. They may not know what they want to study, or how to study, but they know will go to college—otherwise, there is something wrong with them.
It doesn’t help that other options after school carry nasty (and unwarranted) stigmas: the armed forces are for roughnecks who need to straighten themselves out; trades are for knuckleheads who must work with their hands because they’re simpletons; and jobs not requiring college degrees are low-paying and dead end. These prejudices account for much of the condescension on the part of college graduates and resentment on the part of everyone else.
It is therefore necessary to relieve this pressure and take the blinders off parents and educators who see nothing but college for their children’s future. At the very least, there needs to be more information about the alternatives to college. Very few people seem to know what a trade school actually is.
Similarly, students outside of the JROTC programs hardly know about programs in the military. And, very few students—or their parents and teachers for that matter—know what jobs are available outside retail or what skills or certifications could help their employability. Instead, they are told repeatedly there are only a handful of acceptable jobs: doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant, and if none of those work, teacher.
The Effectiveness Problem
The other main problem with colleges is their lack of effectiveness. College students learn less than they should and often graduate without mastering basic academic skills like reading and writing, let alone work-specific skills like programming and accounting.
It’s worth noting that the students implicated in the recent college admissions scandal seemed to do well despite their comparative lack of aptitude. For what students pay, college should offer more rigorous instruction, but instead offers more recreation and bureaucracy.
Again, this situation arises from an excessive reverence for college. Just as parents and employers believe in college automatically making a young person competent and respectable, they also believe college will automatically make them smart. None of them demand accountability for college degrees even though they do this for everything else, including all prior schooling.
The only group that may evaluate college learning is the students themselves, and it’s not difficult to see what they might want: something fun and easy. Furthermore, college professors have no incentive to make their classes harder. Such professors could never prove that they demanded more (except perhaps through negative student evaluations), and they would receive no additional compensation if they could.
There’s a simple way to solve this problem: standardized testing. If students have to prove their ability through their SAT performance, GPA, and various personal essays before entering college, they should do the same when they leave college to prove that they learned something. As Victor Davis Hanson, a college professor, recently explained in his excellent article on the topic, “This would certify that the four- to eight-year undergraduate experience has led to at least minimal knowledge—much as welders or carpenters must show minimal competency to be licensed or to advance into union apprenticeships. “
Many will oppose this common-sense measure for a few reasons: (1) there is no way to fairly assess the intangibles of the college experience; (2) professors are paid to be experts in their area, not actually to teach; (3) most professors wouldn’t like it; (4) most students wouldn’t like it; and (5) most students will fail. The last reason serves to explain all the others, thus proving the need for testing.
If institutions can come up with objective and rigorous ways to test complex disciplines like law, medicine, and actuarial science, the same can be done for history, literature, and economics. Indeed, fewer people would deride graduates with liberal arts degrees who prove their mettle—and fewer graduates would feel any need to apologize for their chosen field of study.
Fix The System, Don’t Blame Those Who’ve Used It
Naturally, there are many more remedies for reforming American universities beyond changing attitudes and testing, but the most important thing would be keeping this conversation constructive. Too often, reformers and commentators will themselves in the details of higher education, or throw up their hands and tell college graduates to stop being lazy and fix the problems themselves.
Eager to relieve themselves of blame, parents and professors will follow their lead and do the same. The conclusion of these discussions is predictably unsatisfactory: young adults should suck it up, pay their fees, teach themselves, and stop complaining just like their predecessors claim to have done.
Not only has this thinking to led to an ever-growing throng of debtors who pin their hopes on populist progressives, this has led to a more ignorant and frustrated society that contradicts itself in becoming the most schooled yet least educated in history.
If parents care for their children, if intellectuals care for their culture, and if conservative politicians care to win future elections, they will confront this issue with urgency and compassion. Reformed and reinvigorated, the university system can truly make America great again—or, it will continue to render this sentiment and goal increasingly meaningless and absurd.