The Downward Spiral of Post-Secondary Education

By | 2019-04-14T18:55:50-07:00 April 14th, 2019|
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Something is seriously rotten in our education establishment, especially in colleges and universities. The culprits are the evolution of the educational agenda, the cult of progressivism on campus, and the debt that students accumulate for an increasingly disappointing outcome.

Total student debt as of 2018 stood at approximately $1.56 trillion, and the average student who graduated in 2018 faced a debt of about $30,000. Lending Tree offers a breakdown of the depressing statistics. The average graduate of a private institution owes nearly $40,000, and some 88 percent of graduates are indebted at some level. Students who attend elite colleges without winning scholarships and those who go on to graduate school will almost surely enter the workforce owing $100,000 or more. And these are debts that bankruptcy cannot erase.

Those who enter “professions” such as law, medicine, and business administration can hope to earn enough income to repay the debt. For the rest, the picture is much more bleak. Almost half of those who attended private colleges default within 12 years. Public schools, at least, saddle their graduates with a more manageable burden, so the default rate is more like 1 in 7. But that still represents many people who are experiencing severe emotional strain.

Many of these debtors simply hope for government forgiveness. But that would create a moral hazard. Would we then be obligated to make restitution to those who had recently repaid their debt? Or to reward those who spent family resources instead of taking loans? And how about those who chose public schools because they didn’t want to go deeply in debt to attend private institutions? This is a Pandora’s Box of pain and endless debate.

Bad and Growing Worse
The more profound problem is that fewer and fewer of the young adults who face this debt burden are obtaining the skills traditionally found in a college education. That makes them less desirable as employees, as can be seen by the proliferation of remedial training undertaken now by large employers. There are multiple reasons why this problem is bad and growing worse.

First and foremost, many students entering higher education are ill-equipped to handle either the intellectual rigor or the discipline necessary for college. The failure of many secondary schools to prepare students for college is well-documented; a large fraction of students entering many of the institutions in the California State University system, for example, require significant remedial work before they can undertake college-level courses.

But children reared to experience “success and self-esteem” without real achievement have been sheltered by helicopter parents unwilling or unable to confront disappointment in their kids. Such students, perhaps unfairly labeled  “snowflakes,” are so named because of their propensity to see themselves as special and to melt at the slightest disappointment or challenge.

Sadly, most colleges have responded with some form of coddling, from “safe spaces” to “crying rooms,” in order to sustain their enrollments. In addition, grades have become inflated; trigger warnings and content proscriptions have turned some courses into intellectual pablum; new majors and courses offer little that is related to critical analytic skills or the fundamentals of math and science, in favor of training postadolescent “social justice warriors.”  In addition, the culture has morphed into one that tolerates, or even demands, a lighter workload.

Thus, it is unsurprising that for some time, graduates’ skill sets have deteriorated year by year. On the bright side, this has raised the demand for graduates of the few schools that have not lowered standards and over-coddled students, such as M.I.T., Purdue, George Mason University, the University of Chicago, Princeton University, Thomas Aquinas College, Claremont McKenna College, and Caltech.

P.C. vs. Hard Science
The root cause of this situation is a combination of ideology and finances. On the first point, nobody disputes that colleges have turned hard left to the point where conservative perspectives are often not even tolerated, much less respected or sought out. Many students encounter skepticism about science that is not only unjustified, but dangerous. Prime examples can be seen in their acceptance of propaganda that espouses baseless antagonism to vaccines, genetic engineering, nuclear power, and fracking, among other products and activities.

Political correctness has become de rigueur on many college campuses. We find it astonishing that Dr. Lawrence Summers was driven out of the presidency of Harvard University for merely suggesting that it was legitimate to study whether aptitude for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) differed among the sexes. (Recent studies suggest that women tend to prefer careers with more interpersonal interactions than is typical in STEM; while not relevant to aptitude, it does suggest that sex plays a role in the selection of occupations.) The very foundation of universities should be to encourage a marketplace of ideas, which is incompatible with political correctness.

To make matters worse, the administrative structure of many colleges has become bloated. In the continuing effort to keep enrollments up, celebrity faculty are overpaid, departments and curriculum are created to satisfy social goals (e.g. diversity and sustainability offices, social justice courses, and so on), and facilities are overbuilt. The easy availability of loans facilitates this gross inefficiency.

More and more data suggest that the supply of STEM graduates is too small to satisfy the huge and growing demand. Where, we wonder, are the lucrative jobs for graduates in puppet arts, popular culture, and gender and ethnic studies?

The issues of supply and demand and financial mismanagement and misallocation, coupled with the deteriorating quality of college education, makes for a relentless downward spiral. The victims are the generations recently graduated, currently enrolled, and soon to apply.

This spiral will be difficult to arrest because it took many years for the administrative and ideological orientation of the schools to evolve. The late, great economist Milton Friedman used to say that to understand the motive of a person or organization, follow the self-interest. The self-interest of university administrators lies in more funding for the institution, a larger student body, and grander palaces, than in constantly improving the quality of teaching and research. (The same kind of self-interest is at work in the earlier stages of education where unions collude with politicians to limit school choice and public charter schools.)

Until universities recognize the biases and inadequacies of their institutions, nothing will change. We will be saddled with huge cohorts of ineffective employees, stunted entrepreneurs, and unhappy, deprived consumers.

Which university presidents and their boards have the courage to make a stand instead of just going along to get along? It’s a very short list so far.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Andrew I. Fillat, the co-inventor of relational databases, spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was formerly a Consulting Professor at Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies and an official at the FDA.