Destroying the college racket

Retired Professor Armando Simon offered us his thoughtful reflections on the rotten state of American universities and colleges in "A Professor Looks at the College Racket."

Racket, indeed.  We are indebted to Professor Simon for outing his colleagues.  Like victims of the numbers racket or the drug racket, undergraduate students in America are being fleeced and harmed instead of given the opportunity to acquire a real education.  Even the serious, career-oriented engineering or pre-med student, in order to graduate, must submit to courses that are part of what Roger Kimball has called "the vast cornucopia of absurdity that is university life today." 

Surveys show that most college graduates don't know what you would expect an educated person to know – and how could they?

Professor Simon also offers this thought:

It did not always use to be like this. One of the most intelligent things that the United States Congress ever did (and, yes, sometimes it does something intelligent; not lately, though) was to provide returning veterans of World War II with the opportunity to go to college in order to go to a university in order to get a career instead of giving veterans the traditional "war bonus." Thus began the rise of universities and community colleges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over a third of the population has a bachelor's degree or higher, whereas in 1940 it was 4%.

Here again Professor Simon's words no doubt meet with widespread agreement.  Praise of the G.I. Bill is about as universal as condemnation of the deplorable state of higher education.  But there is a problem here: those "universities and community colleges" are the epicenter of the racket Professor Simon is exposing.  What if that explosion – 4% to over a third of the population – was not a good thing?  What if that was what destroyed higher education in America? 

I witnessed that explosion up close.  In 1962, my state university had recently made the leap from a tiny hilltop space to an abandoned military base with plans to fill that vast area.  Barracks and even Quonset huts were being used for temporary classrooms and offices.  My professors were nearly all WWII veterans who had gone to college on the G.I. Bill.  By and large, the professors were excellent.  The best were holdovers from the earlier tiny campus.  My debt to them all is beyond reckoning.  But the university they built is one of those academic swamps you read about in the press from time to time. 

What went wrong?

Isn't it obvious that the universities became academic swamps because they were swamped with young people unsuited to and uninterested in academic pursuits?  I saw it happen right before my eyes.  Affirmative action programs together with the need to fill the vast new campus with an ever growing number of students swiftly brought changes.  At first, the flood of unserious students had to deal with serious professors, but the need for more professors introduced a rapid decline in quality.  Too many of the new professors were radicalized by the Vietnam War and more interested in politics than scholarship.  The rest of the story you already know.

Professor Simon is certainly correct that it was not always this way.  Back when it was 4%, my maternal grandparents impoverished themselves to send my mother and her sister to teachers' college so they would have a profession.  The sisters worked to pay their way.  Their brothers helped, too, though there was no money to help them, and they never had the opportunity to attend college.  People were awfully serious about college then, and getting arrested for disorderly conduct on spring break in Florida was not common in those days.

Today the taxpayers are on the hook for over a trillion dollars of student loans.  Taxpayers are underwriting those loans, paying the vast numbers of professors, deans, administrators, and other employees who operate the college racket.  You may not like what is going on in those places, but you are paying for it even if you never spend a penny on college tuition.

The solution to the college racket is simple: serious students and professors dedicated to the hard work of education and learning.  Putting an end to the racket would result in a much, much smaller number of students and professors.  My guess is that the number of students might once again approach 4% fairly quickly.

Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

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