Mass Higher Education: Good or Bad?
By: Ron Lipsman
Mass higher education refers to the phenomenon, promoted aggressively by President Obama, whereby a tremendous proportion of the eligible population enrolls in the nation’s colleges. It presumes that any American high school graduate who desires a higher education should be able to pursue one. Furthermore, it operates under the assumptions that this is a worthy goal, that such a desire should be inculcated into the youth of America and most importantly, that the vast majority of enrollees are capable – under suitably hospitable conditions – of completing a college degree.
The country has certainly embraced the movement toward mass higher education. When my generation entered college (approximately half a century ago), roughly one third of high school graduates went off to university. And that was more than triple the percentage that did likewise another fifty years earlier. Today, depending upon whether one counts two-year college enrollments, the fraction is somewhere between three-fifths and three-quarters. If the promoters of mass higher education have their way, that fraction will exceed four-fifths and perhaps approach nine-tenths within a generation.
The purpose here is to examine whether this objective is good for America or not. Before defining the phrase “good for America” and then investigating whether mass higher education is indeed good for America, it is worth pointing out that the movement toward mass or universal higher education in the twenty-first century bears some resemblance – albeit with significant differences – to the nineteenth century movement to ensure that all American youth received an elementary education (at least six and often eight years of schooling) and to the twentieth century movement to require all American students to complete high school.
Few would dispute the merit of the nineteenth and twentieth century goals. Therefore, how can the drive for twenty-first century universal higher education not be an equally worthy objective for the United States?
In order to respond, let’s be clear about what it means for a major political/cultural/educational phenomenon to be good for American society. There are two aspects: the nature of the process itself and then its outcomes. To be good for America the process must be: legal, moral, accessible to all and consistent with the historically established, political/cultural mores of American society. More importantly, to be good for America, the process’s outcomes must be characterized by: increased prosperity, a more cohesive citizenry, improved moral health of the body politic and the strengthening of the fundamental principles which undergird the American experiment. If, on the other hand, the phenomenon yields: more poverty, a less competitive country in the global market, a fractured population, moral decline or other deleterious, unintended consequences, then it is hard to see how it could be deemed good for America.
So is mass higher education good for America or not? Here are some arguments in favor of a positive response:
- Certainly the Founders believed that a well-educated citizenry was essential to the success of the Republic that they created. That’s a view that has been shared over time by the nation’s leaders and citizens. More education produces a population better able to participate fully in the nation’s political processes, better positioned to contribute to its economy and more liable to make important scientific, financial, medical or artistic discoveries that enhance the quality of everyone’s lives. Therefore, how could increasing the percentage of the population with a college education not prove a benefit to America?
- Statistical analyses repeatedly confirm the direct correlation between the amount of formal education and total lifetime earnings. In short, more education translates into more riches.
- The nation has passed from an industrial age to a new techno-information age. We need a better educated citizenry to both cope with changes in society the new age has wrought as well as to produce leaders who will take our society down exciting paths to be forged in the new age.
- Education civilizes the human savage. Better educated people are, in general, less violent, more thoughtful and more disciplined than their less educated counterparts. That assertion might be difficult to justify. But, to pick a perhaps extreme example, in a study done by the National Center for Crisis Management, it was found that only 4% of serial killers were college graduates. (Roughly 23% of the population has a college degree.) Yes, college graduates do commit felonies; but it is a common perception – which probably has substantial merit – that an educated person is likely to be more “civilized” than his less credentialed neighbor. He may or may not be smarter or happier, but he is better behaved.
- Finally, it is not uncommon to hear the opinion that a well-educated person is, because of his exposure to myriad ideas and narratives, more likely to be tolerant, understanding of cultural differences among people and able to function more effectively in the polyglot nation that is the USA. Once again, it might be that a college graduate is not any happier or wiser than a high school graduate, but he brings a set of attitudes, gleaned from the college experience, that makes him a more open-minded and ecumenical citizen than his less educated counterpart, which helps him to foster a more cohesive, just and fair-minded society.
It all sounds rather impressive. But, alas, there is another side to the story. Applying the second most powerful law of nature (Einstein is reputed to have claimed that the first is compound interest), i.e., the law of unintended consequences, we encounter the following downsides of mass higher education:
- Dumbing down and flunking out. Once upon a time, in order to earn a college degree, a student needed to have significantly above average intelligence, the willingness and capacity to work hard, healthy doses of patience and perseverance, and the ability to defer gratification. Perhaps a quarter – but likely much less – of the population possesses all those traits. Moreover, it is clear that no more than a third can have the first one – with or without the rest. So if we are going to push 75% (or more) of the youth toward a college degree, then at least one (and probably both) of the following must happen:
- the course content required to earn a college degree will be significantly dumbed down;
- there will be an enormous amount of dropping out, i.e., students failing to graduate.
In fact, both phenomena have been manifest for years and they will occur with increasing frequency. These eventualities will, on the one hand, drastically demean the value of a college education and, on the other, seriously demoralize and stigmatize a sizeable portion of American youth.
- As a consequence, the American college degree is cheapened. But American higher education has been the model of an advanced education for the world . As we degrade its worth, we harm not only our youth, but also our country’s reputation. And of course, the youth we hurt the most are the nation’s most talented students as we dilute the superior product that they deserve and require.
- We also cheapen the high school degree. We inadvertently signal its worthlessness by implying that its recipients cannot rely on it to make their way in life – it is at best a stepping stone on the path to the gateway that is really important. It is therefore no surprise that the high school dropout rate is the highest it’s been in three generations.
- Technical and trade schools, and other vocational alternatives to college have been deemphasized in the US. These schools used to train a significant portion of our blue collar workers and para-professionals. Enrollment at such schools has dropped precipitously in recent decades because students who would have normally gone there are now encouraged to go to college. The resultant constriction in the number of suitable workers has contributed to the decline of manufacturing in America?
- The dumbing down of the American college curriculum has resulted in the proliferation of garbage courses, programs and degrees on campus. (See virtually any program that has the word “Studies” in its title.) The vaunted institutions that were American universities have been turned into something more akin to a reality TV show. Of course, there is still much serious stuff on campus – e.g., in the sciences, but it is tarnished by the garbage that coexists beside it and commands equal respect.
- In order to service the hordes of students crashing the door, the academic support staff at US universities has exploded in size. These people contribute little to the fundamental mission of the university, i.e., teaching and research. What they do is…
- Drive costs astronomically higher. It takes a small fortune to pay and house all these useless employees. Thus, the cost for a four-year college degree is now obscene.
- And because of that cost, students take on crushing debt to pay the freight. It is estimated that the average debt is $20,000-$25,000 per student – whether they graduate or not. One starts life with a car loan to pay off – and no car.
- So Uncle Sam rides to the rescue with generous government loan programs. Taken together with the fact that – because most universities can’t balance their budgets with just tuition and endowment funds – academia relies critically on government grants tied to faculty research, it can be legitimately claimed that the feds have in some sense taken over higher education.
- But that goes hand in hand with the overall leftist takeover of the culture of the university – a topic intimately familiar to readers of this journal. The near total domination of leftist thought on the vast majority of American campuses is abetted by the infusion of youthful fodder from the nation’s high schools at which liberal brainwashing is far advanced. One of the most pernicious downsides of mass higher education is that the brainwashing that commences at government schools in grades K-12 is now augmented and perfected at the university.
- A side effect of which is the blight of affirmative action – whose need is justified by the huge influx of students, many of whom are from minority communities. The one place in American society that should be devoted to diversity of opinion, an open clash of ideas and the search for knowledge is instead dominated by racial preferences, uniform group think and willful ignorance of inconvenient truths.
In summary: five pros, eleven cons. Maybe mass higher education is not such a great idea after all. In fact, the attempt to convert the nation’s universities into diploma mills to service virtually all of the country’s youth is an intended goal of the progressives who control the educational establishment. The attempt finds favor among a large percentage of the population that is blind to the unintended consequences. If instead we retained the high level of academic achievement and personal responsibility that should be required for an individual to complete a higher education degree, then there would be more productive ways (for society) to direct many of the nation’s youth after high school. These include the military, trade schools, internships, apprenticeships, work in the family business or an entry level job in almost any business, or work for religious, charitable or other voluntary organizations. At the very least, we should recognize that too many of our youth are emotionally and socially unprepared at age 18 to seriously pursue an academic degree. Instead, many of the above alternate choices could supply young people with the maturity to pursue a degree later – when they would have a better chance of succeeding and also when they might not be as pliable in the hands of the progressives who control higher education. But I doubt that President Obama would endorse that idea.
 This trend has reversed very recently.
Ron Lipsman, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, Former Senior Associate Dean College of Computer, Math & Physical Sciences University of Maryland