The more you pay the less you get

March 24, 1996|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON -- Has the prestige of American higher education the price of which has never been higher ever been lower? There are many reasons for the decline at a time when 89 percent of four-year colleges offer remedial courses for students who are inadequately prepared by their high schools, and 30 percent of entering freshman enroll in such courses.

How do students needing remediation (about half the freshmen in the California state system are in remedial English and math classes) get into colleges? Through doors flung wide open by most colleges and universities. Most institutions have, in effect, open admissions: anyone with money and a high school diploma (actually, this is sometimes not necessary) can matriculate.

Only about 50 four-year institutions are highly selective, meaning they reject more applicants than they accept. About 200 more are somewhat selective, admitting 50 percent to 90 percent of all who apply. Small wonder America's 3,600 colleges and universities have 14.4 million students about 22 percent of all the post-secondary students in the world.

The ubiquity of open admissions is one reason why a high school diploma no longer is reliable evidence even of literacy of the recipient's ability to write or even read a moderately complicated paragraph. Because most colleges have virtually no admissions standards, most high school students have no stake in high achievement.

Chester Finn and Bruno Manno, both of the Hudson Institute, writing in WQ, the Woodrow Wilson Center's quarterly, note that American higher education is a $213 billion industry (about the size of Belgium's GDP) fueled by remarkably unresisted price increases. During the 1980s health-care prices rose 117 percent and produced talk of a national ''crisis.'' The price of attending public and private colleges rose 109 percent and 146 percent respectively.

In 1980 annual tuition and fees at public and private four-year institutions were 4 and 17 percent, respectively, of median family income. Today they are 9 and 38 percent. By margins of more than seven to one the public says college is a bad bargain. But the public keeps on buying because parents and students know that it is still a good bargain in one sense: The difference between the lifetime earnings of college graduates and nongraduates is substantially more than the cost of the degree.

Utilitarian education

Such a narrowly utilitarian, vocational attitude about higher education has produced a situation in which, according to Messrs. Finn and Manno, many degree recipients never take a history, math or literature course. In 1993 barely one-third of bachelor's degrees were in the arts and sciences, there were more degrees in home economics than mathematics, more in ''protective services'' than the physical sciences.

As the prices charged by colleges and universities have increased, the portion of university budgets devoted to instruction has decreased, as has the time spent by senior faculty in classrooms. And the National Association of Scholars, representing 3,500 academics alarmed by the dilution and politicizing of higher education, last week issued a report (''The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993'') charging that at 50 elite schools studied, the number of class days during the regular academic year declined from 204 in 1914 to 191 in 1964 to 156 in 1993.

The report also documents a general abandonment of rigor, as measured by academic requirements. In 1914, 98 percent of the institutions had Saturday-morning classes; by 1993, 6 percent did. As recently as 1964 more than half the institutions had a thesis or comprehensive examination requirement for a bachelor-of-arts degree. By 1993, 12 percent did.

In 1964, 90 percent of the 50 institutions had requirements in the physical and biological sciences; by 1993 only 34 percent did. In 1964 90 percent had foreign-language requirements; in 1993 only 64 percent did. There were mandatory history courses, or history courses as part of a required course ''cluster,'' at 60 percent of the institutions in 1964, at only 2 percent in 1993. By the same measurement, there were similar declines in required philosophy courses (from 46 percent of the institutions in 1964 to 4 percent in 1993) and literature (from 50 percent to zero).

The report notes that the abandonment of rigor accelerated in the late 1960s, coinciding with increased reverence by academics for the idealism and wisdom of students. The report also notes that the abandonment of rigor serves the professoriate's interest in emphasizing specialized research at the expense of general education.

And the less rigor there is, the easier it is to attract and retain students and their tuition checks. Messrs. Finn and Manno say ''higher education is a perpetual growth machine,'' and ''once a university grows, it must maintain its new base'' because tenured faculty and risk-averse administrators make retrenchments difficult. Hence the dynamic that has the price and the prestige of higher education moving in opposite directions.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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