Reforming Higher Education

As the price of higher education has gone up, both the quality of the education and the opportunities it creates have vastly diminished.

What has survived is the myth of higher education: the idea that higher education is a means to a professional career and social mobility. For tens of thousands of college graduates each year, that has proven to be a cruel hoax.

For too many, graduation has meant carrying the burden of staggering debt without the marketable skills to pay it off.

How did we get here? The basic intellectual skills required to get through a real education are possessed by probably no more than 7.5% to 15% of the college-age population.

A real education not only means near endless hours of immersion in books but also some enjoyment of the process. It means an ability to deal with abstract thought and ideas that are frequently counter-intuitive. It means an ability to see how concepts organize information, how inductive thinking produces general principles, and how deductive reasoning produces hypotheses.

But most undergraduates could no more get through courses in scientific method, philosophy of science, and logic than they could get through a course in multivariate statistics.

We attempt to educate 50% or more of the college-age population. Of course, half the population does not possess the discipline, interest, or raw intelligence to do real college work. Many drop out after a few years with not even a degree, but the system has collected their money and the debt remains. Others receive degrees by the equivalent of social promotion.

We need to increase by 40% over the next ten years the number of people with college degrees, a state official once lectured us. Sitting in the audience, I thought, we know how to give people degrees. We no longer know how to give them a college education. Much of what universities do is tell people what to think rather than how to think.

Even the idea of civic responsibility and commitment to freedom of thought that were arguments for liberal education are gone. How else is it possible for invitations to speakers to be withdrawn, dissonant voices to be drowned out by hecklers, and members of the faculty to sit on the sidelines cheering on the modern version of the Hitler Youth?

But all of this is unnecessary. Residential colleges with their expanse of landscape, classrooms, professional sports teams, and residence halls are obsolete. Incurring the burden of massive debt to get an education is equally unnecessary.

Long before there was an Internet, there was distance learning. The British enabled colonial administrators in the 19th century to get degrees by correspondence.

We could make college cheap for everyone using the Internet: government-sponsored college instruction via the Internet. No residence requirement, no commute, and no student activity fees for the leftists to create organizations with the avowed goals of bringing down the society that enables them to attend college. No massive payrolls for faculty and administrators who are receiving middle-class welfare. There will be no need for a dean of parking meters.

Distinguished faculty would be paid handsomely to create and update lecture series available to all, even those who wanted an exposure to higher education but not a degree.

Libraries and public schools could be used during vacations and weekends for testing facilities. A professional class of examiners could write and grade examinations and computers could grade machine-readable examinations. Computers could add up credits and generate degrees.

Of course, there will be opposition -- opposition from those who make college loans, the local construction industry that views colleges as a never-ending WPA project, and administrators and faculty that will have to find work aside from organizing student protests.

Prestigious universities will undoubtedly survive this change, but the run-of-the-mill places will not. Some fields such as those requiring laboratories or hands-on attention might also survive although I am assured that computers can simulate laboratory experiments.  

The benefits of a cheap, easily accessible college education available to anyone who could pass examinations would unburden future generations from staggering debt and make a real college education available to nearly everyone.  It would also end the residential college’s role as a training ground for malcontents who want to destroy the social order.

What about the infrastructure and physical plants of the bucolic college environment? Well, we do have a need for affordable housing in this country. Just think about all the low-income housing into which these properties could be converted. They would be a fitting monument to the socialist aspirations of the contemporary faculty.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Hyam Salomon Foundation.

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