How American Higher Education Turned into a False Promise

The Department of Education recently proposed new regulations to punish colleges that attract students with misleading claims. But what if the whole system of higher education in America is guilty of that?

In his latest book, Charles Sykes, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, makes the case that it is. Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education gives the reader a sweeping view of our collegiate landscape and the scenery is not at all attractive.

It includes debt-ridden students who weren’t prepared for college in the first place, well-paid professors who teach little but devote most of their time to research that nobody reads, campus cry-bullies who live to air their grievances and protest, inflated grades and puff courses, extravagant spending on athletics and luxury amenities for students more interested in having fun than in studying, and much more.

Fail U. is not just an updating of Sykes’ first foray into criticizing higher education—Profscam published in 1988—but a major extension of his case that higher education was losing its focus on teaching students and instead becoming a game of extracting the greatest amount of money from parents and taxpayers. All of the bad trends he observed 28 years ago have continued and worsened, but in addition, a host of new troubles have arisen.

Such as?

One is the proliferation of college graduates who can only find jobs that don’t call for college education. As the number of Americans holding college credentials has skyrocketed at the same time the economy was going stagnant, many graduates now wind up working in low-skill jobs like customer service representative, theater usher, and taxi driver. “In 1970,” Sykes notes, “less than 1% of taxi drivers had college degrees. Four decades later, more than 15% do.”

In the past, when relatively few Americans went to college and had to show good academic progress to stay in and graduate, higher education generally was a sound investment, leading to lucrative careers. That’s no longer true. Defenders of the higher education system keep talking about the supposed “college premium,” but it’s extremely misleading. “Rather than benefiting from a wage premium,” Sykes writes, many students “find themselves actually worse off than if they had not enrolled at all.”

Another recent problem that has metastasized like an aggressive cancer is that of intolerance. Sykes devotes a chapter to that, calling it “Grievance U.” Back in 1988, you could have found a few faculty members who pushed their “progressive” ideas. Students then could easily avoid the intolerance; on most campuses, the fever swamps where only politically correct thoughts were allowed were small and confined.

Today, on many campuses the atmosphere of intolerance is omnipresent. Not only are there more faculty members who brazenly use their courses for proselytizing, but students who have been steeped in the leftist worldview now use the power that cringing administrators have given them to threaten anyone who dares to disagree with them. Even liberal professors admit to being frightened of zealous leftist students who are eager to maul anyone for even the slightest, inadvertent transgression against their beliefs.

There are many stories about this sort of intellectual thuggery and Sykes recounts several. Perhaps the most telling is the nasty treatment a 79-year-old UCLA professor, Val Rust, received for his “microaggression” of correcting grammatical errors in the papers of Ph.D. candidates. Among other “offenses” against these students, he “changed the capitalization of ‘indigenous’ in one of the papers,” which allegedly signaled “disrespect for the student’s ideological point of view.”

A few of Professor Rust’s students defended him, one writing that the protest was merely “a cheap way of arousing public support.” But instead of telling the students to behave like adults, the UCLA administration overreacted by appeasing the protesters and sending an email to all staff and students declaring that this “troubling racial incident” required that the university community “work toward just, equitable, and lasting solutions.”

What’s wrong with protests over “insensitivity”? Do they really affect college learning?

Sykes argues that the constant drumbeat on campus for protecting the feelings of students “is consistent with the deeply ingrained educational philosophy that insists on bubble-wrapping children, protecting them from all of the bumps, bruises, and setbacks of life, in the belief that by shielding them from adversity and offensive ideas, they will somehow be empowered to face the world.”

That’s a devastating point. Higher education, no matter what the student chooses to major in, ought to be about maturing and learning to cope with the world. Today, American higher education often sends just the opposite message to students—that they are doing the right thing when they try to silence and intimidate anyone who disagrees with them. Our colleges and universities are charging huge amounts of money in exchange for teaching some bad, illiberal ideas.

And thus we come to Sykes’s views about the college bubble. He is convinced that we are in one, similar to the Dutch tulip mania in the 18th century and the housing madness that gripped America just a decade ago.

The cost of college continues rising at the same time that the educational value delivered is generally falling. Many schools have gone so far into debt that they’re finding it increasingly hard to cover their debt service costs, and many families are questioning whether they can or should afford to send the kids to college. The higher education market is simply unsustainable.

Sykes puts it this way: “The education bubble bursts when puffery is confronted by reality. Increasingly, the economic model of higher education no longer works for many students, who realize belatedly that they have placed themselves in a financial stranglehold for unmarketable degrees.”

He’s correct. We’ve had a vast amount of puffery telling us what a superb “investment” a college education is, but in reality, for a great many students getting the degree is a waste of time and money. That understanding will have the same impact as tulip bulb buyers realizing that the price of a bulb far exceeded its value.

He is disdainful of the policy “fixes” that have been advanced by the Obama administration, especially loan forgiveness. “Easy money is being replaced by free money as the government transforms loans into grants through a variety of programs…. The result is a rolling, massive, and very expensive federal bailout.”

One development that will hasten the deflation of the bubble, Sykes maintains, is the rise of online education, especially MOOCs (massive open online courses). They “challenge the monopoly that colleges and universities have on credentialing,” he writes, because of “their ability to restore content to higher education and some meaning to the credentials that have become increasingly hollow.” And he scoffs at the defense often raised by the higher ed establishment that free online courses are “dehumanizing.”

“Universities can hardly complain that MOOCs dehumanize and depersonalize education,” Sykes counters, “since the modern university has already done all it can to minimize the interactions between elite faculty and undergraduates.”

Undoubtedly, Fail U. will be blasted by defenders of the academic status quo, just as Profscam was. They will say that Sykes exaggerates and sensationalizes the problems of higher education. I don’t think he does, but what would they prefer? Silence, or criticism so couched in appropriately fuzzy academic language that no one would pay any attention? Probably so.

The best thing about this book is that it will convince large numbers of average Americans that they should think long and hard before committing loads of money to college.

  • DrOfnothing

    “The best thing about this book is that it will convince large numbers of average Americans that they should think long and hard before committing loads of money to college.”

    The book is an ideological screed, the research is execrable, the critical thought is paltry, the analysis is wholly unoriginal (and repeats much of what he wrote in his previous book, the ludicrously-titled “Profscam”), and the writing is what one would expect from a talk-show host. It will not convince anyone of anything. It is only being bought, and read, by those who already believe his claims to be true. The worst part is that the author refuses to acknowledge the most obvious and direct cause of many of the problems he identifies–the marketization of college education.

    Besides, any author who claims that tenure creates creates “a class of untouchable aristocrats” has never spent any substantial amount of time either at a college or with aristocrats!

    Those who wish to find an insightful (and hilarous) skewering of modern universities would be much better off reading Jane Smiley’s novel, “Moo!” or Richard Russo’s “Straight Man.” For more direct analysis, see Frank Donaghue’s “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities” or the excellent article by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhodes, “The Neo-Liberal University.”

    All of the above-mentioned works are what Sykes’s jeremiad are not–well-written, carefully researched, objective, original, and insightful.

    • Ac Ellis

      Screed, execrable,…..yuk! academia at it’s worst!

      • DrOfnothing

        That would be at “its” worst 🙂

      • Lawprof

        I find it execrable that you misspelled its, but I will say no more to avoid a jeremiad.

        • Ac Ellis

          Funny! English grammar is loaded with inconsistencies- contractions, possessive nouns,etc. Got to be more careful if I’m going to post of this forum.

          My idea is to use the simplest word to convey an idea unless you are trying to impress someone.

          • DrOfnothing

            Simple language is always more effective. But writing, imho, should also be as precise as possible. Screed has a very specific meaning, and a different connotation from “rant,” ditto “execrable” vs. “awful.” And they’re both fairly common words. One could also argue that there’s no point in having a box of 100 crayons if you only use 20 of them. Anyway, tastes differ. You certainly couldn’t accuse Sykes of using anything but the most basic of grammar and vocabulary.

          • Ac Ellis

            My kind of guy!

          • Lawprof

            Keep in mind that context matters. If I’m reading about some TV awards show hosted by Jimmy Fallon, I’m good with 20 crayons, but if I’m reading about higher education on a higher education webpage then we had all better use and understand how to use the box of 100 crayons with purpose. Just sayin. As a law prof, I expect my students (and your future attorneys who may represent you in a crisis) to understand distinctions in meaning. We hold these truths to be self evident does not mean to be apparent, or clear, or “you know.”

          • Ac Ellis

            Agreed. Get your point.

          • Stanley1

            “But writing, imho, should also be as precise as possible.”

            Why would you be “humble” about that??? It’s a brilliant insight, one for the ages! And, consequently, it’s back to the drawing board for nearly all the rest of us.

            Leef quotes above one semi-lengthy passage from Sykes’s book …

            “is consistent with the deeply ingrained educational philosophy that insists on bubble-wrapping children, protecting them from all of the bumps, bruises, and setbacks of life, in the belief that by shielding them from adversity and offensive ideas, they will somehow be empowered to face the world.”

            … and, once again, DrOfnothing has nailed it: Surely Sykes never made it out of 3rd grade if he’s only capable of cranking out grammar and vocabulary such as that.

          • DrOfnothing

            You are absolutely correct. That is a long sentence. 🙂 And, like most of the book, it’s glib and unoriginal. This is the real problem–there’s nothing particularly original or insightful about Sykes’s book. It’s simply a summary/distillation of what Neocon critics have been saying for a decade. But repeating them with a more shrill tone and some pithy anecdotes does nothing to strengthen the argument. if a reader already believes these claims to be true (as Leef does), or is predispoed to his ideological slant, they will praise it. If they do not, there’s nothing there to convince a neutral observer besides angry, derisive rhetoric. George Will would not approve.

          • Stanley1

            Your awesomeness continues, DrOfnothing.

          • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

            Sorry — George Will would not approve? Are we talking about the same George Will? He is doing the same thing here, don’t you think? Yikes!!!

          • DrOfnothing

            How disappointing. I used to have respect for him (though I think Gore Vidal got the better of most of their arguments).

          • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

            Public opinion is a fickle maiden. And, this issue is highly divisive, polarizing.

            If George Will is now an unapologetic contrarian, how many other thoughtful people will also defect or change their minds? What happens when they do?

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      For humor, try “The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy Without Limits,” Jim Geraghty. As the blurb says, “You’ll want to believe this book is fiction, but in your heart you know so much of it – too much of it – is all too hilariously real.” There are enough real-life footnotes through-out.

  • Mooc’s are no answer… classes with thousands of students and a small small SMALL fraction that finish. Mooc’s are, I mean, WERE a fad. I’m a college professor in Arizona and an early adopter of teaching and taking online courses… I never jumped on the mooc bandwagon and glad I didn’t. Now, I tell my own students… what do you really want to do? What education do you need? What is the cost/benefit of that education? I did the same for grad school. I picked the ones with the best ratio of cost/benefit.

  • Lou Sander

    Aaarrrrrgh! Another microaggression from DrOfNothing! Where is my safe space???

    • goldushapple

      He’s the type of guy who’ll fine something in an article on Pope Center, comment on it in a disapproving and condescending way (surprise, surprise he supports the existing leftist world) and you just grin, shake your head, and wonder to yourself what does this guy have against the mission of the Pope Center.

      • DrOfnothing

        Ah, oldscrapple, you missed your calling–you should have been a psychoanalyst! You’ve got one thing correct, though, anyone who scrutinizes the analysis here is likely to find it lacking in evidence, consistency, and coherency. What is most galling is the total hypocrisy of damning universities for being ideological, since the writers here simply push a different ideology in the “guise” of critical thought and objectivity.

        But anyway, I doubt you’ll actually engage the substance of this article, or any objections to the flawed reasoning of Sykes’ book (which I’m sure you haven’t read one page of). You seem content with bizarre, and mistaken, personal comments about me. It makes me wonder who really has the fetish here . . .

    • DrOfnothing

      No place is safe (cue Jaws them)!

  • Jinwu

    Bravo. Reform either comes from within or outside, the questions is just when. Change is unstoppable.

  • Lloyd Cohen

    Good job George. At 69 and having spent virtually all my adult life in academia I can say with confidence that things were better and have gotten progressively worse on virtually every front.

    • alex

      I agree, at age 68 and in academia for 30+ years. I wouldn’t recommend college to students today, including my own grandkids, unless it’s somewhere like Hillsdale.

      • Stanley1

        At the same age, I’ve been in academia, on&off, quite a bit, too. And reached the same prescription.

        A faithful donor since graduation, I stopped donating to both my undergrad schools (Grinnell and Carleton) in about 2000, because their alumni rags were so full of diversity-babble. I send the money to Hillsdale, instead, even though I didn’t get around to visiting the campus until 2013.

        And I cut off my grad school in 2003, because they’d filed an amicus brief with the Supremes, supporting UMichigan on its two affirmative action cases.

        • alex

          I stopped donating also, except to Hillsdale! Stopped donations to my UG and PhD institutions, and the institution where I spend almost 30 years. I just don’t like the direction, not to mention the amount spent on vast increases in non-academic building and administration. A VP for diversity and inclusion and happy talk? Nope, not giving my money to that.

  • Ron Harrington

    “‘Going to college’ is to education as ‘Put something in your mouth’ is to nutrition.” (tweet from @iowahawkblog). Some degrees are more worthwhile than others. Some, such as “gender studies” probably leave students less employable than when they went in.

  • Rafterman

    MOOC’s? Didn’t that craze go away already?

  • stown

    I worked as an industrial worker in a plant of 5,000 from 1972 to 1986, During that time as mostly a line worker, I worked with many fellow workers with Bachelors and Masters degrees. The “mismatch” has always been there, it just now occurs in what are comparatively bad times. It is true that a degree does not equal middle class entry, and, maybe it never has. All work has been devalued and formerly middle class Professions and semi-professions are now precarious like most all working class jobs. I am interested in reading this book but I suspect it will be one that is poorly researched. I will see

  • akohlhofer

    The best way to correct this is to end government subsidized loans. Most colleges have an endowment large enough to help those in need, Hillsdale is a good example. Since the Clinton Administration presidents have been using the many titles (Title IX in particular) to enforce political correctness. Also, testing has shown for decades that only 45%-60% of graduating seniors are college ready. Get the government out of the tuition and regulating business and many of these problems will be corrected.

    • DrOfnothing

      Costs should be addressed, absolutely, but this suggestion is not advisable. Unfortunately, most colleges and universities beyond the elite private ones have relatively modest endowments. The public ones rely very heavily on state and federally-subsidized loans just to stay viable. There’s an element of taxpayer fairness here as well–it’s the state contribution that keeps in-state tuition relatively moderate (even at flagship universities) for in-state students. So unless you want to guarantee that only the wealthy can attend college, and that even the best upper-working-class or lower-middle-class instate students are shut out from the very system that their parents are underwriting, this is neither a viable nor a fair policy to advocate.

  • antonw

    College for everyone is over. See the Suggested Material section of
    Having taught statistics for 35 years the third article is my favorite.