Off the Cuff: October 2011

Of all the problems America is talking about—and wringing hands over—the one that stands above the rest is the terrible job we’re doing educating our kids. I’ve given up on public schools, but now it seems that higher education is also coming under fire. Last month our sister publication, Boston magazine, ran an article by Janelle Nanos titled “Is College Over?” The piece noted that “the American system of higher education, long the envy of the world … is under siege. New books and reports raise questions about the staggering dropout rates, sky-high costs, and lack of evidence that anybody is actually learning anything on our university campuses. Suddenly, some very smart people are asking whether the temple of learning is anything more than a showy facade.”

The article goes on to say, “In the pantheon of fairy tales, the fable of the university is the last one that adults still believe. Parents save their pennies to send good boys and girls away to think big thoughts and expand their minds. The money, the time, the crafting of a perfect smattering of extracurricular endeavors to create a well-rounded applicant … all of it is for this. College is the glass slipper, the sword in the stone.”

We’ve now reached a point, however, where the expense of college, coupled with how little students actually learn, has punctured that belief. The cost has tripled since 1980, yet it’s patently clear that most students aren’t developing the critical-thinking skills necessary for the evolving job landscape. The responsibility for that falls on all of us, including students themselves, who, one study found, are on average studying less than 12 hours a week. But without either colleges or parents demanding that students work harder, why would a 19-year-old book long hours at the library, or even bother to get a degree?

Now, according to a recent report from Harvard, only 30 percent of students who start four-year colleges actually finish. And many young men, especially, who do get degrees end up living with their parents deep into their 20s, saddled with debt they can’t pay and few job prospects. Some observers of the trends in academia are calling college debt, which now eclipses credit-card debt, the new housing bubble. It is not a pretty picture.

Even academics are beginning to tell the truth about the crisis. “The secret kept from the public is that lots of people in higher education actually know that we’re much more ineffective than we have a right to be,” says Richard Hersh. Hersh was president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York and Trinity College in Hartford, and his book, We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, is about to come out. Part of the problem, Hersh says, is that very few college professors have ever been taught how to teach. Teaching is simply not a priority; advancing one’s academic career through research and getting published is considered more important than classroom performance.

Hersh points out that we need to be better consumers when it comes to what our kids are actually getting when they—or we—shell out $50,000 or more for a year at an American university. Parents tend to focus on the sideshow PR that every school can rattle off: The library is so big, the spending per student is so much. Does anyone actually measure what students learn?

It is high time we challenge long-held conventional wisdom when it comes to the bill of goods we’re being sold by our institutions of so-called higher learning. Because we can talk all we want about a faltering economy and job creation and all the rest of what ails us, but until we get education back on track in this country, we have no shot at taking on the rest of the world.