As recently as, oh, five years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a column like The Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson’s “It’s Time to Drop the College-for-all Crusade” on May 27. The conventional wisdom that the more Americans who go to college, the better off we’ll all be used to go unchallenged in the mainstream media, but no more.
That signals the growing perception that higher education has been terribly oversold. Samuelson made much the same case that the Pope Center has been making for the whole of its existence: college has been dumbed-down to the point where many students learn little or nothing and even those who graduate are apt to find themselves working in jobs that really don’t call for more than basic skills and trainability.
Furthermore, Samuelson made the same point that Professor Jackson Toby did in his book The Lowering of Higher Education, namely that pushing college as the best path for most young people has the undesirable side-effect of undermining high school education. If anyone can get into college, many students will just coast through high school.
Samuelson’s article bestirred one of the best-known higher education insiders in the Washington area, University of Maryland chancellor William E. Kirwan to reply on June 7. It is an embarrassingly feeble effort.
Rather than immediately confronting Samuelson’s strong case, Kirwan began with a quibble over Samuelson’s phrase “college-for-all.” That’s a “false premise” Kirwan declares, since no serious policy-maker has actually come out in favor of sending every young American to college. Take that! And because of that “error” Kirwan states that his opponent’s observations and arguments are rendered “less valuable.”
Good grief. The validity of Samuelson’s case is not affected in the slightest by his use of that bit of exaggeration. But by brushing him off with a quibble, Kirwan then thinks he can get away with ignoring the substance of Samuelson’s argument. He proceeds to give the same pitch that higher ed cheerleaders have been giving for decades, ignoring the holes that Samuelson (and many others) have punched in it.
One of Kirwan’s utterly predictable claims is that we need to put more young Americans through college because the United States has fallen to 14th place among industrialized nations in the percentage of citizens aged 25 to 34 who hold college degrees. “How can the United States remain the world leader in things that matter if we aren’t the leader in educating our citizens?” he asks.
The obvious problem here is that the quantity of people holding higher education credentials is not at all the same thing as the quality of their education. Did Kirwan not read the part where Samuelson referred to the alarmingly large percentage of college students who go through college without improving their thinking skills? Samuelson’s point of reference, the devastating book Academically Adrift, was published more than a year ago and has been widely discussed.
If Kirwan thinks the authors are wrong and that all or most students actually are gaining significantly in college, he ought to say so. Otherwise, he just looks silly in saying that the U.S. will suffer unless it scrapes the bottom of the educational barrel to get more kids into college and thereby “catch up” to other countries.
Next, he relies on that long-discredited claim that we should put more people through college because “people with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn $1 million more over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.” If a businessman made such a wild sales pitch for a product, he’d soon be facing a raft of lawsuits. (In fact, several law schools are now facing lawsuits for having made unfounded statements about the benefits of their product.)
Jenna Robinson and I recently took apart the exaggerated benefit claims for college degrees. I wouldn’t expect Kirwan to have read our piece, but in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street protests with their hordes of unemployed college graduates and evidence that many more are working in low-skill jobs, does he really believe that a college degree is the golden ticket to prosperity?
Or is it just a handy crutch?
Another of the worn-out arguments that defenders of the higher ed empire make is that the labor market is supposedly moving strongly toward jobs that “require a college degree.” Kirwan predictably plays that card, even though Samuelson pointed out that the Labor Department’s latest estimate is that 69 percent of the job market will be in work that does not require postsecondary education. It just isn’t true that more and more of the jobs in America are becoming so demanding that they can only be done by people who have gone to college.
Finally, Kirwan contends that we need to put more people through college so we can meet key future challenges, such as “global climate change, developing alternative energy sources, advancing lifesaving medical research.” Let’s agree that those are important. Why does it follow that we won’t be able to confront them unless we manage to dragoon more kids into college? Progress does not depend on the quantity of educational credentials in a society, but on the quality of the education of those individuals who are working on, for example, medical research.
With the Olympics coming up, we might suggest an analogy. How many medals a nation wins has nothing to do with the average physical fitness level of that nation’s population. On the whole, Americans are perhaps the least fit population on the planet, but our Olympic team’s performance will have nothing whatsoever to do with that. The U.S. Olympic team would do no better if a higher percentage of Americans were in good shape rather than “couch potatoes.” The same reasoning holds for progress on important problems and the overall level of educational credentials in a nation.
If you read Kirwan’s piece, then stop and think about it, you might conclude that his “college for more” agenda has hit the point of intellectual bankruptcy. That conclusion would be correct.