Adrift or Foundering?

For many of us concerned with the state of higher education, Academically Adrift, the new, widely discussed book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, re-states what we already knew: contemporary college students don’t learn much. Even if we were already convinced of this fact, though, we should welcome a new public investigation and demonstration of it.

There is a serious problem with the book, though. It doesn’t get at the fundamental source of the degradation of higher education in the United States: the historically sudden movement of a limited, elite institution toward the practices of mass production.

No institution, no curriculum, no program of academic rigor can serve up a generous helping of intellectual skills and knowledge to just anyone who walks into an admissions office. But an individual who really wants a good education can get one with nothing more than a library card. Someone who only wants a credential to secure a desirable position will not get an education under any circumstances.

The key question is not: why are colleges failing to educate students? It is: why are students not educating themselves in these knowledge-rich environments?

America’s extraordinary expansion of higher education over the past half-century is the greatest part of the answer.  In 1960, only 17 percent of those aged 18 to 24 were attending institutions of higher education. Today, 46 percent of the 18 to 24 cohort are enrolled.

That expansion would have been a wonderful thing if it had been due to the diffusion of a craving for intellectual inquiry throughout the population, or to widespread dedication to self-improvement in technical skills. Instead, the push for college credentials came from two mutually reinforcing pressures: the desire for a degree as a white-collar union card and from government subsidization of post-secondary schooling.

The proportion of the labor force with college degrees began to outpace the proportion in professional and technical occupations as early as 1970. As degrees became more common in every kind of job, having the piece of paper became critical for positions that previously had required little formal education and for which the substance of college education was largely irrelevant.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a regional manager of waffle houses who told me he was looking for new restaurant managers and the only requirement was a college degree in any field. I respect people who run small businesses and I like waffles, but I can’t think of anything my colleagues or I profess that will teach someone to manage a waffle house better than an intelligent, industrious high school graduate.

By providing subsidies for higher education, state and federal governments have encouraged college attendance by students who have no interests other than obtaining employment certificates. This hasn’t just led to a greater number of unqualified pupils. It has degraded the institutions as environments for learning.

One of the reasons why a campus can be better than a public library is that students learn from each other. In my studies of the determinants of educational achievement among high school pupils, I’ve found that the most important influence on how well any individual does is the general quality of the individual’s classmates. This is also true at the college level. Getting a good education depends on going to school with peers who are intellectually acute and interested in their academic subjects.

Unfortunately, flooding classrooms with credential-seekers has watered down both the  acuity of the student body and the intellectual content of courses. Instructors tend to teach to the average student and as the average becomes less able to respond to challenges, the teaching becomes less challenging. More importantly, what pupils can learn from each other becomes less and worse than what they could learn by sitting in the isolation of that public library.

Arum and Roksa’s finding that students who study alone tend to learn more than those who study with peers probably reflects the diminished quality of peers available, even in supposedly selective institutions.

Professors are, of course, important resources for students who want to educate themselves. Some students certainly do, but many others are only after credentials purchased as cheaply as possible—cheap in terms of work, that is. Unfortunately, many professors are quite willing to oblige them with watered-down courses and easy grades. When that is the case, the famed “marketplace of ideas” produces cheap, shoddy goods.

The mass marketing of higher education has also contributed to an insidious change in conceptions of the purpose of schooling.

Between the two world wars, when enrollment in high school became the norm throughout the United States, many educators and educational theorists began to re-define the nature and goals of public education. Particularly within the progressive education movement, thinkers such as George S. Counts and Harold Rugg began to see schools as means of indoctrination and mechanisms of social reform. For them, schools were places to re-shape the American public along the lines of the experts’ ideals and goals.

The rise of mass higher education has been accompanied by similar trends in colleges and universities, with devastating consequences for these institutions as marketplaces of ideas.

Many professors and administrators no longer see post-secondary institutions as places for undirected inquiry and the open exchange of ideas.  As tertiary education has become the new high school, college academics have taken up the old progressive educators’ idea that the purpose of schooling is to promote dedication to building the right sort of society.

 As an illustration of that progressive influence, one of the more pernicious orthodoxies of recent years is the re-definition of colleges and universities as “community service” centers. The members of the faculty march together under the banners of institutionally approved programs for social improvement while they try to inculcate the correct ethos among students through “service learning.”  This kind of soft communitarian indoctrination doesn’t really teach anything, except that students can get their credentials by mouthing the expected slogans in a plush, comfortable re-education camp.

As it becomes more evident that college degrees outside of the technical fields frequently signify nothing, we hear calls for reform that echo long-standing calls for change in secondary schooling. Arum and Roksa’s own call, for greater academic rigor, is laudable, but it is not clear how this can be achieved in a setting dominated by policies intended to make post-secondary schooling ever more accessible.

Academically Adrift offers a welcome recognition of the present troubled state of higher education. But the problems go much deeper than just a loss of rigor or a drift toward unchallenging courses. It may be, as José Ortega y Gasset suggested long ago, that elite values and practices cannot be transformed into commodities for mass distribution. At the very least, though, it should be clear that pumping more credentials into markets of goods or ideas doesn’t do much for the credentials’ intrinsic worth.  It is time for a painful but necessary contraction.