George Leef’s latest Martin Center column asks why it’s so hard to reform American colleges.

Former Harvard University president Derek Bok can’t stop thinking and writing about higher education. Ten years ago, he wrote Our Underachieving Colleges, in which he lamented that on the whole, American colleges and universities don’t do very well. Many students don’t graduate and among those who do, many seem to have gotten little intellectual benefit from their years of study.

Recently Bok completed another book, The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges. …

… Bok’s view, in short, is like that of former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm who declared that higher education “is like jet fuel for the economy.” Pour in the fuel and the economy roars. The trouble is that this view is mistaken.

At no point does Bok mention that the nation already has large numbers of college graduates who are working in jobs that any reasonably smart high school student could learn. Nor does he see that due to the “positional” nature of educational credentials, the more we push “attainment,” the higher the degree level people need to set themselves apart—the credential inflation problem I have often written about. Finally, Bok barely acknowledges that many successful Americans acquired the knowledge they need without completing college, and in many cases never going at all.

Furthermore, Bok plays the “social benefits of college” card, making the tired claim that we will improve society by putting more people through college because good outcomes (such as civil engagement) correlate with college degrees. …

… Ill-prepared and disengaged students already swell the dropout numbers, so how can colleges succeed in graduating lots of still weaker and less academically engaged ones? Rather lamely, Bok writes “high schools and colleges will have to discover better ways of preparing low-performing students to succeed in the classroom and graduate.”

Earnest school reformers have been looking in vain for that Holy Grail for many years.