College Isn't for Everybody and It's a Scandal that We Think It Is

Culture Watch

Mr. Reeves is the author of A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy. His latest book is America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (Encounter, 2001).

A billboard I saw recently featured the photograph of a smiling woman and under it, in large letters, the boast that she has sent nineteen young people to college. Whether this was an advertisement for a bank or a charitable organization, the thought occurred to me, a veteran of forty years of college teaching, that the act itself, while on the surface laudable, might not have been a wise investment of time and money.

Going to college has become a national fad, a rite of passage, millions hope, into the world of hefty salaries and McMansions. The trek to academia has now spread to the working class, who see sending their kids to college as a sign of respectability, like vacationing in Branson, Missouri, owning an SUV, and having a weed-free lawn with a gazing globe. Minorities too are getting into the act, being wooed and financially rewarded by campus administrators to meet institutional racial quotas. But is this crush for diplomas necessarily a good thing? Is it always a prudent investment, for the individual and for society, to be sending junior off to the dorm?

Let us consider our nineteen new college students. In the first place, how many of them have the intellect and the intellectual preparation to be serious and successful students? ACT scores continue to decline nationally, and Richard T. Ferguson, ACT's chief executive, urges better high school preparation. About four in ten last year scored well enough on the test to suggest that they could earn at least a C in a college-level math course. On tenth grade math tests in Wisconsin recently, 76 percent of white students attained proficiency or better, compared with 40 percent of Hispanics, and 23 percent of blacks. In Michigan, Colorado, Texas, and New York academic tests have been altered or thrown out because of low scores. The great majority of high schools continue to require little in exchange for their diplomas. Hundreds of thousands enter the campus gates without a clue about the intellectual challenges that are, or at least should be, awaiting them.

The impact on college and university campuses of legions of unprepared freshmen is never positive. Millions of dollars must be spent annually in remedial education. And the rate of failure is still extraordinarily high. The ACT estimates that one in four fail or drop out after one year. A third of the freshmen at the relatively select University of Wisconsin-Madison do not return for a second year. I toiled for decades on a Wisconsin campus on which a mere 18 percent of the entering freshmen ever graduate. The financial costs, let alone the emotional toll on the young people involved, is scandalous.

Even more important is the impact of intellectually unprepared people on the educational process itself. Anti-intellectualism is the Great Enemy of the educator, and with a classroom full of people who do not read, study, or think, academic standards inevitably suffer. In an article titled "The Classroom Game," (Academic Questions, Spring, 2001), I described my own tribulations with students in an open-admissions environment. The most well-intentioned professor cannot educate those who refuse to be educated. All too often, such students demand that they be passed through the system and awarded a diploma, as they were in high school.

The well-documented proliferation of stuff and nonsense for academic credit in large part stems from the admission of masses of ill-prepared students. Why take a lab science, a foreign language, or (for real diversity) the history of foreign countries if these courses aren't required? Why take classes with written examinations and term papers when most do not? That almost no one cares about the denigration of academic standards in higher education is also scandalous.

And what colleges and universities did our nineteen students on the billboard attend? Did they go where leftist indoctrination is their daily food and drink? Probably. It is difficult to find alternatives these days. When the University of California Academic Assembly recently dropped its requirement for professors to be impartial and dispassionate, it was simply acknowledging the abandonment of efforts to be objective. A San Diego schoolteacher whose son complained about leftist bias in a class he took at the local UC campus, commented, "I'm very concerned about the changes. This gives much greater latitude to those professors who would use the classroom as a personal bully pulpit. UC students and the people of California deserve better." So do young people and taxpayers all over the country.

In America and all across the western world, intellectuals are enthralled with the abolition of moral and intellectual standards. In the courts and in the media, as well as the classroom, they are ramming this dogma down the throats of the vast majority. Are our nineteen students better off for being enveloped by the very poison that is slowly killing our civilization? Are we by definition doing them a favor by sending them to college? They may earn more during their lifetimes. But at what cost?

Shortages in skilled labor abound. Why not a billboard boasting that, say, eight of our nineteen young people have been sent to tech schools, have learned trades, and are currently in the work force leading productive lives and earning good wages? Is a machinist or a carpenter any less of a respectable American than someone who spent six years studying Mass Communications and Anthropology? In my judgment, we say so at our national peril.

I recently read about an auto mechanic whose high school counselor told him that he was ruining his life by opting for vocational training. The young man is now in great demand in the job market, works extremely hard, and makes over $100,000 a year. He is a happy and productive citizen. Did he waste his life? Not in this old professor's book.

This article was first published by the National Association of Scholars and is reprinted with permission.