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The Author's Page: The Decline of Higher Education in the United States

Higher Education in the United States has been more-or-less converted into a business enterprise. A business-driven administrative elite has largely taken over higher education, and has reduced its goals to pure numerics--an illogical but growth and profit-driven paradigm that emphasizes student (aka 'customer') recruitment and retention. Consideration of academic standards and real education has been all-but-lost at this stage, as evinced by rampant and widespread grade inflation. 

In keeping with a business model, universities employ advertising techniques. They now have offices of marketing and Brand Management. Public relations firms create slogans for universities and oversee advertising campaigns designed to increase enrollment. In doing so, they and several allied academic-business 'think tanks' have prooffered falacious arguments, designed to woo more student-customers. One of these is the tiresome contention that 'a college degree leads to much higher income and a better (economic) quality of life'.

On the face of it, this argument appears correct. But when broken down by age cluster its claim is not bore out. It is statistically true:  Americans with college degrees make substantially more money than those without college degrees. The dimension that must be interfaced in the analysis, however, is age cluster. Americans who are still working in their fifties and sixties (or even seventies) greatly alter the overall data. Those of us who graduated from a four-year institution pre-1985 were relativley rare. The number of college degrees granted each year in the United States is today several times higher than that in the 1970-85 period (and even more dramatically over and above that of the pre-1970 levels). If someone graduated from college in the seventies then yes, of course, the degree meant much greater economic mobility. Why? Because there were comparatively few Americans with college degrees.

Second, today college is a much more expensive proposition. Business-administrators have agressively increased tuition and costs associated with university attendance. Student loan debt, which now totals over $1 billion nationwide, has ensnared an astounding 14 % of the American people. In contrast, those of us who attended college in the seventies and eighties paid relatively little in tuition (my tuition at the University of Texas in the early 1980s was $402 per semester), so that college--being affordable--made economic sense.

Third, the U.S. economy has changed dramatically over the past forty years. Nearly 75 % of the U.S. economy now rests in the service sector. For the vast majority of service sector jobs, attending college is neither necessary nor logical. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who graduate from universities each year discover this fact often painfully, as they drift back into relatively low-paying service sector jobs. I recently encountered a graduate of my university, whose motto is that it "Transforms Lives", and this former student bore this out. 'Yes,' he said, 'my life is transformed. I have the exact same job (in the service sector) that I had before I attended, but now I have $30,000 in student loan debt!'

For these three reasons--the number of university graduates, the cost of a college education, and changes in the broader U.S. economy--college does in fact not necessarily make economic sense. Some of us would like to communicate a more honest assessment of the meaning of a college degree, and are loathe to endorse the frankly deceptive, advertising-oriented appeals upon which some of our employers are increasingly relying. In some ways the university-business is engaging in a predatory recruitment scheme not unlike that of the banks pre-2008 Financial Crisis. Neither the broader university-business model, nor the inflated enrollments and student loan debt in the United States, are sustainable in the long-term.  

A related issue is that of the gutting of academic standards. Fixated on making money, many university administrators could care less about the quality of education. A few years ago, a guest instructor in my department not only gave nearly every student he had an "A", but he did it with outlandish 'projects'. One grade-earning exercise was to approach him in front of his girlfriend at a university sporting event and greet him politely, while using the title of 'Doctor'. That in itself is pretty amazing (a testimony to the human capacity for rank egotism); but in some ways what is more amazing is the total lack of administrative oversight. There was absolutely no administrative check on this type of outlandish behavoir! On the contrary, university administrators love grade inflators. Professors who dole out As and Bs like candy are popular, and these are frequently the ones who in turn receive teaching awards. And of course this reflects their managerial goals . . . of recruitment, numbers, revenue growth and retention. When I chaired my department years ago I did a numerical study of grade gpas and student evaluation scores (we had a numerical evaluation process at the time)--there was almost to the tee a direct connection! The higher the grades, the higher the student enthusiasm for the teacher. 

This raises a concomitant issue:  student motivation. Who can doubt that many people go to college in order to earn a degree, rather than actually develop their minds? When the goal is to obtain a degree (presumably in order to improve one's employment options), of course it is logical to seek out and robustly approve teachers who smile and give you happy grades. What is disturbing is the collective delusion in this equation. Americans are not smarter and better educated because we now have enormous universities and an abundance of degrees! On the contrary, we're arguably getting dumber (anyone who has taught for twenty years or more at the same place can affirm that the use and understanding of the English language is in sharp decline). The consequences of encroaching ignorance could be significant . . . in political life, societal ability to function and, ultimately, the fate of humanity and the planet.

We could have a little problem here.        



John W. Sherman teaches Genocide History at a university in the United States. The views expressed on this site are solely those of its author, John W. Sherman. They do not, and are not, intended to represent in any way the views of his employer, or those of his colleagues or associates.  John W. Sherman is solely responsible for this website’s content.


John W. Sherman