“Higher” Education Has Been “Lowered”

A great deal of freedom comes with being an emeritus professor—you can say what you think because school administrators can do almost nothing to you. You can write books and articles advocating the most politically incorrect ideas without worrying that offended people will retaliate.

Jackson Toby is an emeritus professor of sociology at Rutgers University, where he has been on the faculty since 1951. He is known for his unconventional thinking—at least among sociologists. For example, he maintains that the key to reducing school violence is to stop making students go to school who don’t want to be there and that spending money to make prisons nicer does little to reform criminals.

Toby has seen higher education change greatly over the decades. In his new book The Lowering of Higher Education in America (Praeger), he pulls no punches in explaining how the mania for promoting “access” to college for as many people as possible has driven down academic standards and expectations. It’s unconventional thinking par excellence.

“Having convinced high school graduates to enroll in college, “ Toby writes, “we make it easy for almost any graduate to get accepted at some college and pleasant for them when they get there.” By pleasant, he doesn’t just mean nice campus amenities, but especially the watered-down intellectual demands on students that enable many to coast through to their degrees without having to learn much.

The problem, Toby argues, begins in K-12 schooling. Because young people know that almost everyone who graduates can get into some college, they don’t have much incentive to bear down on their high school work. Of course, quite a few of them do study hard—the sort of student who wants to have a chance at a prestige university. Many others, though, are “disengaged” from school and “just go through the motions.”

Ill-prepared and unmotivated as many applicants are, colleges are eager to have them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to stay afloat financially. Admitting throngs of weak students, however, leads to an array of problems for non-selective schools.

One of those problems is the need for remedial courses. Speaking from recent teaching experience, Toby observes that many students, even at a “flagship” state university like Rutgers, are terrible writers. They make mistakes on points that should have been learned in about third grade (such as the difference between the words “to,” “too,” and “two”) and cannot read college-level material because they have such limited vocabularies. That observation was also made by Professor Mark Bauerlein in his book The Dumbest Generation, reviewed here.

Remedial courses add to costs, but Toby doubts that they work very well. Is it possible for students to make up for years of educational neglect in just a semester or two? One reason why he’s skeptical is the attitude many of these students have. After all, they have managed to get through high school with fairly decent grades (mostly due to grade inflation, but they don’t know or care about that) and have received lots of positive feedback (due to the educational theory that self-esteem is crucial to success in school). Toby also notes the evidence that graduation rates among students who took remedial courses are substantially lower than rates among students who didn’t. I think the author’s conclusion that remedial coursework is usually “too little, too late” is accurate.

Another unfortunate result of admitting a large cadre of weak students is that it means classrooms filled with an oil-and-water mixture: some eager and capable students and some lazy and incapable ones. How does a professor deal with that? Concentrate on the good students and let the weak ones fail if they can’t or won’t keep up? Or dumb down the course and inject plenty of entertainment so the poor students can keep up and get the “decent” grades they’re accustomed to? Since most colleges are frantic about student retention, they often pressure the faculty to adopt the latter course. Academic rigor thus erodes.

Toby writes knowledgeably about other higher education sore spots including preferential admissions, grade inflation, and the enfeebled curriculum before coming to the key argument of the “access” crowd, namely that college must be a good investment because graduates have much higher average earnings than do non-graduates. He notes in response that while some college graduates work hard and learn a lot that helps them to be more productive, many others take easy courses, goof off, and end up doing “high school jobs.” Toby also points to data showing that we are graduating more young people from college than the economy creates jobs that call for post-secondary education.

Furthermore, Toby undercuts the common belief that huge numbers of jobs now “require” a college degree by observing that employers frequently use the college degree as a proxy for the probable possession of valuable “soft skills” such as the ability to converse civilly with customers. That is, he understands that college degrees are often valued not for any specific learning, but merely as a way for employers to screen out people who are presumed to be more difficult to train and deal with.

What should we do? Toby recommends changing the federal college loan system, which is now designed to assist most students to pay for college. He draws a parallel to the housing finance market of a few years ago, where the political objective was to get as many people as possible taking out mortgages and buying houses. Similarly, college loan money is available to nearly any student who is considering college, no matter how shaky the student may be academically and how questionable his or her prospects for repaying the loan. For young people who spend years in college on borrowed money and then find jobs as theater ushers or bartenders, the financial strains are severe. And for those who default, the consequences are very serious. They’ll have a bad credit rating that will make it extremely hard to borrow and their earnings will be subject to garnishment.

Toby argues that we would do just about everyone a favor, especially those marginal students and the taxpayers who supply the funds for our “college loans for all” system, if we introduced a strong element of academic merit. Instead of just trying to maximize “access” to college, we ought to limit government loans to those who seem to have the ability to benefit from higher education.

He is on to something here. Think about the way the commercial capital market works. Lenders don’t hand over money to just anyone who shows up with a business idea. They evaluate the risk of business projects and say “Sorry, but no” to those whose ideas seem unrealistic. Toby would have our college lending system function in much the same way. College loans would no longer be an entitlement. Instead, students should have to work to qualify for them. That, he maintains, would help to reverse the dumbing-down of K-12 education because those with poor records would not be eligible for federal loans. It would also reduce the “goofing off” temptation for students once they’re in college.

Toby realizes that his proposal will be politically unpopular with egalitarians. He also recognizes that it might do less good than he would like because students may succeed in pressuring teachers into giving them the grades they need to qualify for loans. My guess is that he underestimates the lengths to which schools will go to avoid their graduates being told “Sorry, but no.” 

The only real solution to the problem Professor Toby identifies is for the federal government to get out of the college finance business entirely. His clear-eyed analysis of the waste involved in luring weak students into college with easy loans, however, will help make progress toward his half-way measure and, ultimately, my clean break, more likely.