This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on October 25, 2015.

Washington Post op ed displays with unusual clarity the growing disconnect between the higher education establishment and the society it serves.
Penned by Hunter Rawlings, the op ed, titled, “College is not a commodity: Stop treating it like one,” seeks to correct “most commentary on the value of college,” which is “naive, or worse, misleading.” For Rawlings—president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell and the University of Iowa—the problem is that “most everyone now evaluates college in purely economic terms, thus reducing it to a commodity like a car or a house.”
Such an economic focus, writes Rawlings, “while not useless, begin[s] with a false assumption.” If society now insists on treating “college as a commodity,” it needs to grasp the fact that “[u]nlike a car, college requires the ‘buyer’ to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum.” However, “most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive education from colleges the way a person walks out of a Best Buy with a television.”
Rawlings identifies those he believes to be responsible for these skewed education priorities “[g]overnors and legislators, as well as the media, treat colleges as purveyors of goods.” He blames this mindset for the ills from which higher education currently suffers. He criticizes the drive to measure college “outcomes” for its effect at making students “feel entitled to classes that do not push them too hard, to high grades” and to their perceived right not to have to study material that might make them feel “uncomfortable.” “Trigger warnings,” “safe rooms,” and commencement speaker dis-invitations are, he holds, the “pernicious” products of the college-as-commodity conviction. So also is the focus on graduation rates and time to degree, which falsely assumes that these metrics “depended entirely upon the colleges and not at all upon the students.
However, countless public opinion surveys demonstrate that the American people do not recognize the campus world that Rawlings paints. And it is the public—those who toil and save in the hopes of attaining a degree—and not, as Rawlings would have it, merely politicians and pundits, who are demanding greater accountability on outcomes from our colleges and universities. This is evidenced by the fact that politicians from both parties, and across the ideological spectrum—Democrat President Obama, Republican former Texas governor, Rick Perry, socialist Bernie Sanders, etc.—their profound political differences notwithstanding, all agree on the urgent need to better monitor what our taxpayer-funded institutions of higher learning are providing for the money spent. The politicians are simply responding to powerful public sentiments, “leading from behind,” as it were.
A national Pew survey discloses that 57 percent of prospective college students believe college is no longer worth the tuition it charges. Seventy-five percent of respondents believe a college degree is simply unaffordable. In my home state of Texas, a survey by Baselice and Associates was commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. It found that seventy-one percent of voters believe the state’s colleges and universities can improve teaching while reducing operating costs. Ninety percent of voters surveyed believe there should be measurements in place to determine the effectiveness of the education delivered and material learned by students at colleges and universities.
Based on this public polling, are the American people merely as deceived (and deceiving) as Rawlings charges the political and media class to be? Is the public blind too to the fact that, as Rawlings puts it, “[g]enuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being”?
Unfortunately, this disconnect between the higher-education establishment and the American people is far from new and—if Rawlings’s well-intentioned response is any indication—appears only to be growing. Last year’sInside Higher Ed survey of chief academic officersrevealed that ninety-six percent believed their universities “were doing a good job.” However, their confidence stands in sharp contrast to how business leaders and the general public regard the matter. In a Gallup survey, only 14 percent of the American public, and only 11 percent of business leaders, strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. “It’s such a shocking gap, it’s just hard to even say what’s going on here,” remarked Brandon Busteed, who serves as executive director of Gallup Education.
Based on this public polling, are the American people merely as deceived (and deceiving) as Rawlings charges the political and media class to be? Is the public blind too to the fact that, as Rawlings puts it, “[g]enuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being”?
Unfortunately, this disconnect between the higher-education establishment and the American people is far from new and—if Rawlings’s well-intentioned response is any indication—appears only to be growing. Last year’sInside Higher Ed survey of chief academic officersrevealed that ninety-six percent believed their universities “were doing a good job.” However, their confidence stands in sharp contrast to how business leaders and the general public regard the matter. In a Gallup survey, only 14 percent of the American public, and only 11 percent of business leaders, strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. “It’s such a shocking gap, it’s just hard to even say what’s going on here,” remarked Brandon Busteed, who serves as executive director of Gallup Education.
Rawlings interprets this gap between the higher-education establishment and business leaders/the American people as only symptomatic of the latter’s ignorance of the fact that college is not a commodity and its resulting disregard of college’s distinctive purpose—“the awakening of a human being.”
However, the data on higher education support the public’s discontent. Moreover, the data speak directly to Rawlings’s proper focus—the central task of “awakening” students’ minds. Rawlings rightly advises that students need to work hard in order to get the most out of college. At the same time, we need to take account of the role that universities have been playing in incentivizing less-than-hard work on the part of students. Consider college grading standards over the past half-century. Rojstaczer and Healy’s analysis demonstrates that, in the early 1960s, 15 percent of college grades nationwide were A’s. Today, the percentage of A’s has nearly tripled, to 43 percent. In fact, an A is now the most common grade given in college nationwide. A’s and B’s today constitute 73 percent of all grades. Rawlings correctly cautions students that they “need to apply themselves to the daunting task of using their minds,” but grade inflation teaches students precisely the opposite. Our colleges must recognize their responsibility for grade inflation, which devalues student transcripts in the same manner, and for the same reason, that monetary inflation devalues our currency.
Worse, while students have been enjoying nearly a tripling in the percentage of A’s given by professors, their study times have dropped. Fifty years ago, students studied an average of 24 hours a week. Today, that number has dropped to 14.
The consequences of rewarding students more A’s for less homework could have been predicted. The landmark national study of collegiate learningAcademically Adrift, shocked the higher education world when it discovered that 36 percent of today’s college students demonstrate little-to-no increase in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills after four years invested in college.
Polling shows that everyday Americans are keen this decline in standards, as well as to the historic increases in tuition, but they continue to send their children to college, because it is still deemed indispensable for a good job. That is, the public’s perception that college is overpriced and of poorer quality than in the past leads it, falsely but understandably, to conclude that college is a mere commodity.
When we realize that students today are studying less but receiving more A’s, and this despite the fact that over one-third of them fail to increase their general collegiate skills during college, it becomes time for universities to bear some responsibility. Rawlings’s admonitions to students to study harder is necessary though not sufficient. Our universities also need to step up and reestablish an atmosphere that demands greater rigor. Given human nature, students generally will do no more than is asked of them in college in order to graduate. Too many of our universities are asking too little; and they’re getting it.
However, in the final count, we must concede that efforts to improve American higher education are to some extent beyond the capacities of both universities and their students. Both suffer from the societal project that goes under the name of “college for everybody.” When we as a nation decided to send more students to four-year colleges than the roughly 20 percent of high school graduates who can truly handle genuine college work, we simultaneously gave birth to the dilemmas outlined above: tuition hyperinflation; crushing student-loan debt; grade inflation; reduced study time; and poor student learning. I flesh out these contentions here.
So, Rawlings is to be commended for reminding students to work hard. And reformers are right to admonish universities to restore standards. But both efforts will be swimming upstream so long as too many students are going to college.
College is not a commodity. So understood, college is not for everybody.