by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef’s latest column for Forbes probes the federal government’s role in transforming American higher education in a negative way.
Instead of standing fast for their traditional standards, most colleges and universities have chosen to accommodate these students. (A professor friend of mine suggests that it’s more accurate to call them “tuitioners.” They may do little studying, but their presence is desired because they pay tuition.) They have shifted the curriculum away from the liberal arts and towards occupational training, which is what most students are interested in – a credential to impress prospective employers.
They have also allowed (or even encouraged) the degradation of academic standards to keep students happy, enrolled, and, of course, paying. While lip service is usually paid to academic excellence, the truth is that it runs a distant second to revenue maximization in the calculus at many schools. Most students now see themselves as consumers; most college officials see them the same way.
What brought about this transformation?
More than anything else, it was the federal government’s intervention to make higher education “more accessible” starting in the 1960s under President Johnson’s administration. Federal grants and guaranteed loans began to entice more young Americans into college. At first it was a trickle, but over time, it became a deluge. Going to college after high school became the norm. Even weak high school students were encouraged to go to college, and those students had no trouble finding schools that would accept them and take the money they would pay.
As the numbers increased, so did the percentage of students who weren’t either prepared for serious college work or interested in it. And, making the downward spiral worse, the ease with which almost every high school graduate could get into college had the effect of allowing high schools to relax their standards. So argues Rutgers sociology professor Jackson Toby in his book The Lowering of Higher Education in America.
The degradation of higher education was catalyzed by government financial aid policies that slowly turned it from something that a few students thought worth striving for into a near entitlement for everyone. The impact of those policies was considerably strengthened by the Supreme Court in its 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power decision. That decision made direct aptitude testing of job applicants legally hazardous for employers, so they began turning to a safe proxy for competence – college credentials.