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.

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More Comments:

Sig Reyes - 2/13/2004

"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."
A fad, huh? How about seeing the pehnomenon as a necesity, given the changes in the US economy over the last decades. Probably Mr. Reeves, upon gazing at the spectacle of working class and migrants sending their kids to... high schools circa early 20th century, might've written:
"Going to [high school] has become a national fad, a rite of passage, millions hope, into the world of [steady incomes] and [out of the tenements]. The trek to academia has now spread to the working class, who see sending their kids to [high school] as a sign of respectability, like vacationing in [upstate NY], owning an [Model T], and having [a roof over their heads and enough to eat]."

J.I.W - 12/11/2003

I, a student at a character building boarding school, am trained to listen. and i did. Though, I disagree. The student who wishes to pursue a higher learning, shall pursue a higher learning. We, like any adult, struggle with something in our learning or our life, so why is it now we are no longer ready for college. Second, isn't college as much of a learning experiance in a life sense as it is an academic oppurtunity. i mean you don't expect a baby to say sentence if the child a hasn't spoken his first word. So, why throw an 18 year old who is unprepared (as you have called us), out on the street with nowhere to go but down. So i would like to question your morality for these students.

john horse - 9/12/2003

S. Little, regarding your comment that "Comparing one man’s observations . . .of 100 years ago and of another man’s observations today is illogical and completely irrelevant." I couldn't disagree more. The reason that I enjoy history is that I think that people's observations from 100 years ago, even 1000 years ago, can be relevant to today.

"the real issue is the death of real intellectualism in higher education." My problem with this statement is the same one I have with Reeves. How do you prove this if you can't quantify it? How do you know that "real intellectualism" has decreased, increased, or remained the same over the last 25 years. This has got to be based on something more than personal observation. I mentioned the educator David Berliner. Read his book. It debunks alot of the bogus informaion and statistics that the media has reported about education.

john horse - 9/12/2003

J. Long, shame on those counselors. As someone who used to work in workforce development and job training programs, I am all in favor of vocational education. One positive recent trend has been the increasing emphasis of community colleges on serving their community through voc ed (and not just AA mills). I know at the community college in my area, there has been an explosion in the number of voc ed programs offered.

What I worry about are those kids who are qualified to pursue a college degree but who can't go because it is too expensive. I worry about the state budget cuts to colleges and universities and budget cuts to job training programs like the federal Workforce Investment Act programs. Finally, I worry about the $500 billion budget hole that Bush has got us in that leaves very little money available to help college and voc ed kids.

Garry Perkins - 9/11/2003

What institution are you writing about. I graduated from a fine upstate New York school just over three years ago. I drank a lot, I partied a lot, and I studied a lot. I used all of the skills aquired im my courses. I am now a financial analyst, and my Thai history course truly prepared me for that role. Students need to learn how to write, speak, and understand simple logic. Some social science long with some math or CS will do that to anyone. Students want to learn, they just want to have too. These kids today are learning "real skills." The interesting question is how much one values an individual's skill set vs. his resume.

A. Lance Couri - 9/10/2003

My career includes four years as adjunct faculty at a well know Midwestern college. I have been frustrated by students who appeared to have no business taking up space in classrooms; all but driving me to lower the bar of expectations just so there could be some sense of rapport among all the students. And frankly, some simply dragged their peers down to their level. That said, I still support the encouragement of all classes to seek a college education. And let me tell you why: I ?graduated? high school with a GED. I was a crappy student in a crappy school. I was not expected to do more than work in an area factory performing manual labor. Going to my local community college afforded me an opportunity to really learn, and discover my potential. I was on the Dean?s list my first semester, held various positions on the school paper; including Editor-in-chief, and became prepared to excel at a four year college (the very same one that recruited me to teach). If I?m the exception not the rule, I am grateful to be so.

John G. Fought - 9/9/2003

Perhaps 40 years of teaching -- anywhere -- is too many, at least for Reeves. I graduated from the UW Madison in 1960. During that period, the rates of freshman attrition and eventual graduation were in about the same range that Reeves complains about. It should also be noted that nobody can graduate by taking only required courses. Students do take electives, the ones they elect. One dimwit in my dorm, the son of a surgeon, on his way to medical school, once remarked to me and a fellow student, "Geez, if I got grades like you guys, I'd study too." He showed no sign at all of intending this to be funny. If you read any of the stirring tales of college life before WWII, or WWI, for that matter, you will find that the students of that day were generally well off, from good families, and didn't give a damn what happened in class. This is the era that gave life to the "Gentleman's C." They too were engaged in job certification. What is secretly but rather evidently bothering Reeves seems to be that his students have not displayed sufficient devotion his vision, and that many of them seem to him to be too vulgar to deserve a college education. I doubt that his perception is worth much. Like many a jaded academic, he's too, too good for us. What a shame. Time to retire.

S. Little - 9/9/2003

You haven’t presented any sort of reliable, logical proof that the American higher educational system is valued outside of the United States. I know from personal experience many foreign students over the years and the reasons for attending American universities was always one of the two I described earlier, not because they respected the American Universities. In fact they always went out of their way to talk about how the Universities in their own countries were superior. I am willing to bet my personal experience is typical. Anyway, whether or not this is true is irrelevant, because my point is that the number of foreign students enrolled doesn’t prove anything about the perceived quality of American universities since education is not the number one priority for these students when attending an American university.

American Higher education is an assembly line that produces a product (education/indoctrination) that will meet acceptable tolerance levels always falling within the set control limits. Unfortunately, much of what they teach in the colleges is a bunch of convoluted garbage that defies common sense, bearing no practical real world value.

Andrew A. Poe - 9/7/2003

> The author, I don't believe, means to imply it is wrong for
> middle class children or minorities to enter college. Rather,
> it is those groups in which the drive is so strong that even
> those who are not college material are being pushed toward
> college.

I appreciate that you are trying to give the author a fair hearing, but I believe the charge of racism and classism against him is probably correct.

In fact, I suspect the drive for college is far stronger in upper-class and middle-class white households than it presently is in working class, African-American, Native American, and Latino households. In my very middle-class "salt shaker" high school, college enrollment following high school exceed 90%, I believe, and in a class of nearly 250 students, only one student dropped out of high school. The idea of not attending college would have been unthinkable to anyone in my circle; the big question for us concerned "which" rather than "whether."

When I entered college, I became acquainted with a number of students (upper-class and white) for whom the question of "which" was also moot. Family tradition (and presumably connections) pressured them to enter the college of their parents and grandparents. Were all of these people "college material?" In fact, many of them had high school records which fell below the stated admission requirements. However, many of these students ended up proving themselves anyway, and I do believe they did exactly that--proved themselves fairly and honestly through hard work rather than through pursestrings. I say good for them, and isn't it wonderful that they had the opportunity to do that?

I suspect as well that those minority groups who presently have a drive for college have gained from such a drive. The proportion of Jewish students in top colleges exceeds their representation in the United States in general, prompting bitter and unfounded comments from some about a "Jewish conspiracy" controlling the country. The success of Asian students in college changed the national stereotype of Asians almost overnight from "the guy who does your laundry" to "your boss." Would Jewish and Asian families have done better if they had followed the author's advice and steered all but their most promising children away from college?

College may not be for everybody, true, and there are lucrative opportunities for individuals without college degrees, also true, but considering that there are greater opportunities for those with college degrees, why specifically must it be working-class and minority families who ought to rethink their decisions to send their children to college? I also wish to give the author a fair hearing, but, possibly unintentionally, this piece certainly gives me the impression that the author believes that certain groups of people ought to "know their place" rather than achieve their potential, even while other, more privileged, groups are allowed and encouraged to achieve their potential, even if it takes several attempts, and lots of money, to do so.

J. Bartlett - 9/6/2003

"Just because the foreign students are equal to their American counterparts speaks nothing to the value of American higher education."

Correct, it was intended to speak to Little's first comment which also did not address "the value of American higher education" but which did imply that foreigners, more than natives, might have unusually uneducational motives for attending colleges in the USA.

My original observation remains unaddressed by these piddling digressions: non-Americans flocking to colleges here in much greater numbers than Americans in universities abroad reflects the internationally recognized relatively high quality of American higher education generally. Of course, there is a wide range around the average. If Reeves (and Little, apparently, based on his terse but copious comments) had the bad luck to land towards the lower end of the quality spectrum, that is their misfortune, but one might wonder why they didn't move elsewhere rather than seek solace in wholesale condemnations.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/6/2003

Thanks for the reference: I remembered that he'd written on education before, but forgotten the article and the responses.

But I'd like to suggest that even hopeless cynics like Dr. Reeves might have a point or two worth considering. The nature of college education has changed over the last few decades, and the range of college experiences has widened dramatically with the expansion of community colleges and state colleges, with the increase and expansion in pre-professional majors like marketing and communications and coaching and accounting and.... well you get the idea.

With the expansion has come a wider range of student preparation for the intellectually challenging side of college, as well as a wider range of levels of motivation as more and more students consider non-professional courses as little more than filler, hoops to jump through on the way to the diploma.

This is a challenging environment in which to teach, though the (non-financial) rewards are substantial. But, as I've said before in response to Reeves, our job as teachers is not to pre-select our students but to educate them, starting from whatever level of preparation and interest they have and drawing them in.

S. Little - 9/5/2003

Just because the foreign students are equal to their American counterparts speaks nothing to the value of American higher education.

S. Little - 9/5/2003

I think you are reading into the article things that might fit your preconceptions but in reality are not there.

S. Little - 9/5/2003

The Greeks at my University had a higher overall GPA than the general student body.

J. Long - 9/5/2003

As a high school math teacher I have seen students who struggled through high school sold the dream that a college degree is the ONLY way to go. The counselors actively discourage students from persuing vocational careers. The sad part is when those students come back home after not being able to cut it at college. They are not given all the options to make an informed decision. If I were ever to suggest to a student that maybe college is not the place for him or her, I would have hell to pay.

Josh Greenland - 9/5/2003

Reeves claims that "Minorities too are getting into the act, being wooed and financially rewarded by campus administrators to meet institutional racial quotas." Are racial quotas still being used? I thought those were mostly killed by federal legislation passed during the Bush Sr administration. Anyway, this crack from Reeves furthers the notion that "minorities" (and I'm assuming he means black and non-white hispanic people) wouldn't be in college at all unless they were somehow forgiven their natural incompetence. Reeves notwithstanding, "minorities" of all kinds of have always been in US colleges, if not always in large numbers.

Reeves sneers, "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." Reeves is so hateful that he has to lie: NO ONE considers a trip to Branson, MO, the center of country music shows, hillybilly humor acts and overaged Vegas stars, to be a sign of "respectability," and SUVs are a middleclass hungup.

As another poster pointed out, Reeves seems unaware of the disappearance of blue collar jobs recently and the lower real wages for those jobs that remain. Generally his thinking seems stuck in the past, perhaps in the 1950s or 1960s when there was an influx to college of the groups he mentions, and when there was still good money to be made in blue collar work.

Reeves' handle on reality is strained to say the least, and I don't know if he is deluded or cynical in making his dubious claims. I encourage everyone to read his earlier article that he has a link to in his essay above:


and read the comments from his colleagues and a student of his. You won't be able to truly appreciate the current essay until you do.

cassandra - 9/5/2003

I think Reeves has you in his cross-hairs. Taking your post as an indication, I doubt you have the old-school connections or the endowment levers that pull the kids of the wealthy through college regardless of their academic standings.
To carry reeves' argument through to its logical conclusion, working class and minority kids need not bother to apply, because destined by nature to fail. Face it, the kids of the wealthy are always going to survive, or else the universities will feel political heat from friends of their parents, and a decline in endowment gifts.
Don't believe that? Look around you at those fraternity rats, and how many of them fail.

J. Bartlett - 9/5/2003

I was not trying to claim that students (foreign and domestic) don't have non-educational motives for attending American colleges but that the multi-tiered competitive structure of American higher education sorts out the sheep from the goats (and better than any Texas-government mandated standardized testing system, by the way). In my experience, the foreign students attending the Ivy League and large public colleges I have been associated with, or am familiar with, are at least equal to their American counterparts in general aptitude and potential and far above them in non-native language skills. America's universities are the envy of the world, Reeves' disgruntlement notwithstanding. It is our primary and secondary schools that are the international disaster area.

S. Little - 9/4/2003


If you are currently in college, quit. There is nothing they will be able to teach you. Once again you make the most sense of anyone here. You should speak your mind often wherever you go because people could learn a lot form you.

S. Little - 9/4/2003

Impressive analysis. Too bad the educators can’t figure this out.

S. Little - 9/4/2003

Comparing one man’s observations on the educational system of 100 years ago and of another man’s observations today is illogical and completely irrelevant. However, you make a good point on the ACT scores. But the ACT is not the heart of the issue since the real issue is the death of real intellectualism in higher education.

S. Little - 9/4/2003

I can’t speak for the incentive of the institutions, but from what I have seen there is a complete lack of intellectual interest in the general student population. Most students want the paper diploma and the good times. Society would be better served if these people were taught real skills.

S. Little - 9/4/2003

Students from all over the world come to American universities for two main reasons, both of which do not have to do with the educational value of our universities. They come here either to simply to see the American experience for themselves or they use the educational system to facilitate a more permanent residence in the USA.

S. Little - 9/4/2003


I don’t think the author ever said that educational opportunities should be denied to the children of working class people, minorities, etc… Therefore, I don’t see where you disagree with the author.

Alvin Brinson - 9/4/2003

I'm not sure about the author of the article himself, but my impression is far from racist, and I don't believe it is classist.

I'm not a minority, but neither am I middle class. I grew up in a rural area in a house that was so bad that there were times that the floor fell through from beneath our feet. There were times when the only reason we had enough food to eat was because we worked the land to make it produce for us - we could not have bought enough at the money we had in our home.

The author, I don't believe, means to imply it is wrong for middle class children or minorities to enter college. Rather, it is those groups in which the drive is so strong that even those who are not college material are being pushed toward college.

Regardless of race or social class, everyone should have an equal right to an education - that I do not believe is, or should be, the debate here. Rather, the debate centers on the necessity of college for some of these people (regardless of class or race). And the truth is, there are many now showing up on the doorsteps of universities only because their parents want them there, society tells them they must go there, and it is the "thing to do" to be respectable, when they have no preparation or ability to benefit by the education being offered.

If it is simply a matter of preparation - great. Go to community college first. It's what I did. Some studies say that students who begin at community college are less likely to gain a 4-year degree ultimately. However, others show that of those who *do* later transfer to university studies after a completed 2-year program, more of them complete their university studies, as a percentage, than those that started at the university!

Without the actual numbers at hand, it's hard to judge exactly what's going on there. But I'm willing to bet that fewer people would ever have a crack at university life without the opportunity of community college first, and it is obviously beneficial *to those who complete it*.

With this route to higher education available to all, I simply do not see how it is racist or classist to say that those who are not prepared, able, or willing, should not be wasting space in classrooms with those who are. Anybody can who is able and willing can become prepared through various venues. And we don't, last I checked, turn down anyone to any university in this country because of their minority status (in fact, in many places it is a bonus, whether rightly or wrongly is for another debate).

cassandra - 9/4/2003

"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..."
One wonders when all this trekking of working class kids to college began, since I seem to recall Henry 8 established a college to handle the press of students whose parents pushed them into college. As for minorities, pershaps there were none when reeves went through....

Alvin Brinson - 9/3/2003

One would hope, actually that this is the route they took. Anytime I people complain that college isn't affordable, or they don't qualify, I feel compelled to point out two realities:

1) If you can't afford community college, then there is financial aid. At least in Texas, community colleges are dirt cheap for the return you get on your investment. If you can't afford the tuition and books at San Jacinto Community College, in Houston, TX, then you *definitely* qualify for a pell grant which will pay for 100% of your costs, and you'll have money left over. If you have parents who cannot or will not pay your tuition, or the overage because you're considered "dependent", then do like I did... take some community college classes and wait till you're 24 or 25 (not sure which) and qualify as independent. Save. Go broke your first year, take out lots of loans. Your second year, magically your income will drop (because you were going to college instead of working) and you'll magically qualify for financial aid. Unless you've failed a lot of classes you *will* qualify at any state level institution I've ever heard of to get at least some kind of loans. I have enough to pay 100% of my bills so I don't have to work and can concentrate on my studies. Can't afford it is no excuse. My mother is 55, in bad health, grooms dogs 3 days a week and goes to college 3 days a week. She can't afford the basic heart medication she's been prescribed, and she can't get a job that pays anymore than she makes grooming 3 days a week. She can afford college, thanks to financial aid. When she finishes, she'll have something she didn't have before.

2) "My grades aren't good enough to get into college". This is fear talking. The truth is, partly because of the upward push, and partly due to availability of community college as a "transfer path" into the higher level universities, nobody's grades are too bad to get into college. Seriously. So what you can't get into Yale, Harvard, or even UH. Go to a community college. Guess what? Transfer student admissions requirements to bachelor's programs are *much* easier to meet than entering freshmen at most colleges. University of Houston only requires a 2.0 GPA for transfer students with over 45 hours from a 2-year institution. And high school? Your teachers did you no favors if they used that line about getting good grades to get into college on you. It was a tactic to try to make you work harder, but leads to many believing they can't go to college. Fact is, they don't really matter unless you absolutely must get into the "best" school right off the bat. I dropped out of high school. Got a GED. And now I'm almost finished wrapping up my bachelor's degree and assured admission into the graduate program at my university.

So, to try to be briefer than my previous post on this subject. The original article resonates with me, as does Lloyd's response.

The fact that college is accessible is good - and more people need to know how accessible it is. The fact that so many people are pushed to go to college when they will not do well there, or do not need such an education (and often do not enjoy it, seeing it as a sentence to be served to get the proverbial "good job"), is not good. It should be a willing choice, not a requirement.

Garry_Perkins - 9/3/2003


I wish everyone in America read both the article and your response. I have seen the future of education creep in America. It is in Asia. There are countries, such as Taiwan, where even the most mundane positions (think bank teller) require a BA. Even worse, a typical entry-level post college job almost always requires an MA or PhD, usually from an American university. It is typical for Taiwanese equivalents of our college graduates to study into their thirties before obtaining their first job. Even worse, immigrants from countries such as Taiwan are bringing their habits with them. One need only look at the explosion of cram schools in the US to see this trend. Students not only need to go to college, they need to go to an Ivy. They need to spend thousands of dollars at Princeton Review.

This must stop.

Lloyd Drako - 9/3/2003

One can aspire to worse things than a vacation in Branson or an SUV. My guess is that most of the 19 went to a local community college where they received a sound freshman- and/or sophomore-level grounding in liberal arts, science or some vocational area, at a fraction of the cost they or their folks would have paid at Prestige U.

Alvin Brinson - 9/3/2003

The difference between now and then concerns not the availability of education to the "masses" but the expectation that everyone must take part in it solely because it is available.

A middle-class or lower-class family, in the past, was rightfully proud to have a college graduate - they knew a college degree was the result of an intense commitment on the students' part to get through a rigorous academic program, and it meant something.

As Mr. Reeves has pointed out in this article, now many feel that degree is something they are entitled to. The feeling is that if you pay your money, you should get your degree. And if you pay your money to a more prestigious institution, you should get a more prestigious degree.

This is not, however, entirely the fault of the middle class parents and students who are in college mania. This is, in large part, due to a workforce environment where employers cannot trust a high school diploma to be worth the paper it is written on. Therefore, jobs that require basic literacy, often must require at least 2 years of a college education now, whereas in the past, a high school education sufficed. The upward push in educational requirements does not stop there. Because of increasing numbers of graduates and "partially" college educated workers available in all jobs, employers can be more demanding on job requirements, often disqualifying otherwise qualified candidates.

Until this upward push is halted, the pressure on universities to award college degrees based on attendence rather than merit will continue.

The answer, in my opinion, lies in two places. First, in high schools. Not to demand stricter testing, more rigorous academics, more hours, or anything else. Simply to demand that if a student does earn a diploma, that the student possesses the basic education necessary to function in the working world. We must resist the desire currently present in public education to award degrees based on the "A for Effort" idea. We must, as a society, face up to the fact that if a student does not succeed in high school, regardless of the effort put forth, that the student did not earn a degree.

I do not speak this from a high horse of elitism. I did well in many subjects in school, but Algebra was not one of them. I ended up dropping out of high school after three years because I had repeated 9th grade algebra for the third time. I was too intelligent to go on the "special" programs that would have allowed me to graduate without those requirements, but was not able to earn the math credits I needed. Looking at my senior year, still needing to earn 2 math credits in 1 year (not possible) I simply dropped out.

Sad dropout statistic? To some, yes. But I don't begrudge anyone my failure or their success. I didn't earn a degree, and I didn't get one. What I did after that was purely up to me (I got a GED and went to community college). As it turned out, once I finally conquered my problems with math, I've been an excellent college student, and a member of a national honor society.

The fact is, some people can, and some people can't. Employers have to have some way to know the difference. Right now, a college degree is how they tell the difference. That sadly leaves a "middle class of education" in the lurch, however. Those that truly were good enough to earn a high school degree, and do possess basic literacy and math skills, but are not college material. They find themselves facing a job market that looks at their high school degree as worthless, and lumps them with those to whom the degree was merely given for attendence.

We must face that a portion of public school students should not earn a high school degree. This allows those that do to be recognized for their efforts, and those that can go on to college to do so without the pressure to do so simply to prove their basic literacy. This is contrary to the current political situation which implies that any child that is not ahead of his or her grade level has been "left behind" and that is a failure. Perhaps these ideas come from the same people whose math is weak enough to allow them to believe that everyone can be "above average".

Second, employers must be realistic in their job requirements. Managing a Taco Bell does not require a college degree, I'm sorry. It requires the ability to read numbers and do basic math. Other than that, it is about people skills and hard work. Selling furniture, or a car, also, does not require a college degree. Stop requiring insane levels of education for basic jobs. You'll find (if the public education system kicks in and does its part) that those with a proper high school education can add 2+2 just as well as a college graduate.

Then, perhaps, college can return to being something for those who want more than a basic education - for those whose love of knowledge or technical or scientific interests leads them beyond what they could otherwise have achieved into the realms of truly "higher" education.

john horse - 9/2/2003

The first question I had after reading this article was why was it on a history website. It contains very little history. The complaint that our students are unprepared goes back at least 100 years. It includes critics like Admiral Rickover and the Nation at Risk report. What all these critics have in common is that it is always the next generation that is unprepared. In any case Reeve's analysis includes none of this historical background.

Regarding Reeve's assertion that "ACT scores continue to decline nationally", I looked up the national ACT scores and here is what I found: 1993-20.7, 1994-20.8, 1995-20.8, 1996-20.9, 1997-21.0, 1998-21.0, 1999-21.0, 2000-21.0, 2001-21.0, 2002-20.8, 2003-20.8.
These statistics hardly point to the picture of national decline that Mr. Reeve's paints. Conservatives, some liberals, and the media have for years depicted our K-12 system as failing, but if you look at the facts they do a pretty good job under rather adverse conditions. For example, even though SAT scores have declined,if you look at the SAT scores by race you'll find that they have increased for every single race (Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians). The reason they have declined is that more minorities have taken the SAT. (Read David Berliner's The Manufacture Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack On America's Public Schools).

Even though the view that our educational system is a failure is more popular among conservatives, let me remind them that if today's students are not prepared, then the educational reforms initiated by such people as Bush in Texas and President Reagan were also failures.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/2/2003

I don't think I've ever seen such a complete display of anti-intellectualism in the form of codgerism. Not only are bad students ruining colleges (it ain't what it used to be), but bad academics are ruining good (and bad? hard to tell) students (it ain't what it used to be): nothing to do but raze the whole thing and start over.

And his comments about the decline of standards and the weakening of academic requirements are way off base at every institution I've seen, where there are concerted efforts by both faculty and administrations, often driven by accrediting agencies, to raise standards (and students like high standards, according to the research we've been presented) and to make requirements broad and meaningful.

J. Bartlett - 9/1/2003

Awhile back, (ex?)Professor Reeves had a lively, if contested, piece here discussing the unpreparedness of college students. A logical follow-up might have been how to fix our broken high schools. Instead, here is this article about why we should shut down colleges.

It may be music to the ear of anti-intellectuals to hear academia damned as the "poison that is slowly killing our civilization", but, in reality, students from all around the world flock to American colleges, and not just for orgiastic parties or to pad the resume upon returning to Lower Slobovia. The most highly reputed universities are not organs of the "leftist state", but are profitable, privately funded, independent enterprises. This, to rephrase character Gordon Gekko's speech in the film, "Wall Street", is because "education works".

By the way, the linked article in Beth Quitslund's comment is hilarious.

Beth Quitslund - 9/1/2003

I suspect that most university teachers, even at elite institutions, have had bilious moments resembling Mr. Reeves'. And I agree that it is ridiculous to stigmatize the technical and vocational training that will equip students to do jobs that our society needs done, let alone those important jobs themselves--a competent auto mechanic can probably more directly and immediately improve more lives than a competent anthropologist can. But it would also be nice to know that all or at least most auto mechanics and anthropologists had the kind of education that would allow them to make reasonably informed decisions about, say, political rhetoric, popular health claims, and statistical information in general. This is, unfortunately, more than many of my students, graduating from a tier-2 research university, can do now, but it would be a mistake to say that they therefore should not have gone to college. They should have had a better primary education that would have enabled them to absorb a better secondary education that would have brought them to me ready to begin (or continue) thinking independently and even skeptically about what I present to them. Or maybe it just would have made them good citizens who could train for a respectable technical profession. Such citizens might even vote to raise and allocate public resources for the kind of education on which sound democracy depends. In the meantime, college professors have, I think, an obligation to give the students we have the best we can FOR THEM, which may in some cases amount to little more than a concerted asault on the anti-intellectualism that Mr. Reeves rightly notes and some indication of how to really learn later on, when they're ready.
An excellent if strident related article on the social and economic implications of the American university system appears in this month's issue of Academe (the AAUP publication, available online at http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/03ja/03jamany.htm). It also, of course, represents the insidious poison of leftism that Mr. Reeves deplores, but is a humane look at what "college" means for the majority of American students.

john horse - 9/1/2003

I am puzzled by Mr. Reeve's statement that "going to college has become a national fad . . . the trek to academia has now spread to the working class . . ." My question is when did this "become" a fad? I had always thought that the opportunities for large members of the working class to go to college began with the passage of the GI Bill and continued with the post WWII wage gains made by the working class, enabling them to enter the middle class and send their kids to college. As a result, many sons and daughters of factory workers and mechanics are today doctors, lawyers, and even college professors. Given the transfer of many good paying working class jobs to third world countries and recent cuts in higher education by states facing budget problems, if there is a trend it will probably be for less opportunities for the working class to go to college. While I agree that college isn't for everyone, shutting this door of opportunity would be tragic for our country and our democratic ideals.