This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on August 29, 2015.
As the presidential primary season goes into full swing, candidates in both parties are championing a number of ideas designed to address the higher education affordability crisis. The proposals run the gamut—from federal measures to impose greater accountability on universities, to income-based repayment of student loans, to community college for free, and to four-year college for free.
But while the proposals differ, their differences are less important than what they share. What they all have in common is a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s driving the crisis that all sides seek to solve.
They fail to understand that the factors composing the dilemma we face—tuition hyperinflation, burdensome student-loan debt, and poor student learning—are to some extent branches of the same tree, whose roots are found in the well-intentioned but what has proved to be catastrophically naïve assumption that virtually all high school graduates should go to college. Charles Murray has written eloquently on this topic in his book, Real Education, which I reviewed here.
We can see the destructive effects of the college-for-all agenda when we look more closely at each of the elements of our higher-education crisis mentioned above—affordability, debt, and poor student learning.
When it comes to the increasing unaffordability of higher education (average tuitions have risen 440 percent in the past quarter century, far outpacing contemporaneous increases in general inflation), there is a growing consensus that the policies of the federal government itself have caused a good deal of the unprecedented spike. How? Arecent study by the Federal Reserve Bank has confirmed what former U.S. Secretary of Education saw nearly thirty years ago, when he observed that increases in government subsidies to college students allow colleges and universities “blithely” to hike tuitions. The Federal Reserve Bank has found that every new dollar of Pell Grants or subsidized student loans results in universities raising tuitions between 55 and 65 cents.
What led the federal government to adopt and then repeatedly expand taxpayer subsidies for student loans? Without them, the country could not hope to reach its new goal of ensuring that all who want to go to college could afford to do so. This began as the more reasonable and defensible goal of subsidizing able students who were poor. But the subsequent iterations of the loan-subsidy program have expanded it to include a good number of students from families who are not poor. In time, the flawed premise animating these programs metastasized to such an extent that the results have been no less than scandalous. A recentreport on the practices of Georgetown University makes this point. The elite law school counsels its students on how to manipulate the Income-Based Repayment Plan to shift large portions of their student-loan debt onto the backs of taxpayers.
Bearing this in mind, the crisis of crushing student-loan debt comes better into focus as both a cause and an effect of tuition hyperinflation. It exists as an effect because would-be college students and their parents, struggling to keep pace with rising tuitions, have been forced to borrow at historic proportions. Today, for the first time in our history, total student-loan debt, which stands at $1.2 trillion, exceeds total national credit-card debt, and this in a country fairly addicted to credit cards. It exists as a cause for the reasons stated earlier: When more money is in the hands of consumers, they will buy more; when they buy more, sellers will raise prices. Yet this simple fact of economics appears lost on those who have criticized Bennett’s hypothesis for nearly three decades—and appears still lost on those whose “solution” to the debt crisis is to quench the fire by dousing it with ever-greater quantities of inflammable student-loan subsides, paid for by federal taxpayers.
In short, when the national goal became college for virtually everybody, it sent millions more flocking to college campuses than had previously been the case. This increased demand, enabled by federal subsidies, could not help but to produce the sharp increases in tuitions—and with them, a concomitant increase in debt—that students and their parents have suffered under since.
But the drive to make college accessible for virtually all high school graduates has had an even more profound, and more destructive, consequence than the financial quagmire described above. The most tragic effect has been the decline in student learning. Sending millions more students to college has proved to cost more than mere money. As Murray accurately notes, a genuine liberal arts and sciences core curriculum—a staple of higher education institutions up until roughly fifty years ago—is too difficult for more than about 20 percent of high school graduates. What, then, to do when the goal became sending far more than this percentage to college? Inevitably, this could not be accomplished without lowering standards. Today, most universities have abandoned a required core curriculum, replacing it with “cafeteria-style” education—a little of this, a little of that, but nothing by way of a unified vision of the good life at which liberal education had aimed in the past.
The heartbreaking results of this lowering of standards have been documented in Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift, which should have stirred higher education more than it did when it revealed that 36 percent of college students nationwide show little or no increase in fundamental academic skills—critical thinking, complex reasoning, and clear writing—after four years invested in college.
Other national, longitudinal studies confirm the dramatic decline in university standards. For example, in the early ‘60s, college students studied an average of 24 hours a week alone. Today, that number has slipped to 14. Equally alarming, these less-diligent students receive historically high grades. Fifty years ago, “A” grades went to 15 percent of college students nationwide. Today, an A is the most common grade given in college (43 percent). Moreover, 73 percent of all grades awarded today are either A’s or B’s. Given these lax standards at universities, it is unsurprising that Arum and Roksa found what they did.
But even this massive, decades-long, watering-down of college curricula and grading standards has not succeeded in fulfilling the unfulfillable vision of college for all. Consider these facts: Roughly half of all who enroll in college never graduate. Of the half who do, we know from Academically Adrift that 36 percent fail to demonstrate any substantive increase in learning. This means that, of all the students who enroll in college, only 32 percent succeed in acquiring both a degree and the knowledge that a degree is meant to signify.
As bad as these statistics are, they barely communicate the true human toll exacted by our utopian project. Today, those without college degrees feel like second-class citizens. With this has come a denigration of the mechanical and other talents needed to succeed at skilled trades, which, on average, can pay well.
Worse, those students who, contrary to their interests and aptitude, feel compelled by public pressure to attend college, only then to drop out, suffer a double-blow. They are left not only demoralized by their “failure,” but also often find themselves burdened with student-loan debt, which is all the more difficult for them to repay because they do not have a degree.
Higher-education reformers look at this bleak picture and wonder why all the ostensible solutions to the higher-education crisis serve only to double-down on the misguided premise that produced the crisis in the first place. Until and unless we jettison our utopian expectations, increasing numbers of students will continue to pay more and more and learn less and less.