'Bachelor's degree required, and the ability to lift 50 pounds'

March 31, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Professors, said Mencken, do not belong in government. Their proper business is teaching sophomores how to hate their fathers. But government is deeply involved in higher education, ''a remarkably unwatched industry,'' according to Anne Matthews. Her new book, which may make educators wish she were not watching, should be a sobering read for government officials.

In ''Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today,'' Ms. Matthews, who teaches in New York University's graduate journalism program, casts a cool eye on an industry that employs 2.5 million people (more than the auto, steel and textile industries combined) and constitutes ''an archipelago nation-within-a-nation, two thousand islands in the social sea.''

A professor's daughter, she feels affection for that nation, but paints a melancholy picture of it.

Higher education has, she says, grown every year since Harvard's founding, ''a 360-year winning streak.'' In 1946 there were 2.4 million students on campuses; in 1960, 3.2 million; in 1970, 7.5 million. Today 9 million people attend 2,125 four-year institutions (595 public, 1,530 private) full-time and several million more part-time.

Desperate for students

They are taking their time, an average of almost six years to earn a baccalaureate degree. Half who matriculate will not graduate. One in four freshmen will never become a sophomore. Institutional endowments total more than $100 billion -- more than Belgium's GDP -- but 60 percent of the total belongs to 50 schools. And all but 50 or so elite schools are, Ms. Matthews says, increasingly desperate for even marginal and unprepared students.

Only one student in five fits the stereotype of a student -- under 22, enrolled full-time and living on campus. The student population is increasingly female, public, adult, local (four of five enroll in their home state) and in debt. There are $26 billion in college loans and half of all students graduate with significant debts, some of which will last until their children are college-age.

Yet so frantic is the education industry for raw material (students), institutions are not only lowering standards (requiring only ''a pulse in one hand, a check in the other''), they are discounting tuitions, advertising sushi and waffle bars in the student unions and prime cable service in the dorms where, Ms. Matthews says, some students hibernate for days ''eating red licorice and channel-surfing.'' Some institutions send bounty hunters abroad in search of wealthy foreigners.

29 hours a week

Only 25 percent of undergraduates are liberal-arts majors. Twenty five percent are business majors, and most of the rest are on vocational tracks such as health care, and primary and secondary education. The four courses with the highest enrollments are American studies, basic composition, remedial math, statistics. The average student does about 29 hours a week of schoolwork, down from about 60 hours in the early 1960s.

There is a widening chasm between faculty formed in a print culture and students produced by a wired world. Ms. Matthews says it is shocking to hear undergraduates try to read 19th-century prose; Elizabethan English is like Sanskrit and ''Shakespeare courses rely heavily on in-class movies.'' She tells of an art-history professor showing students a slide of a Rubens painting.

Student: ''What's the story line on this thing?''

Professor: ''It doesn't have one. It's a 17th-century portrait.''

Student: ''It doesn't move at all?''

Professor: ''Unfortunately, no.''

Student: ''But I can't see things if they don't move.''

"Freeway flyers"

The market for Ph.D.s is glutted: only two in five get academic jobs. There are a million Ph.D.s without academic employment, and some are in academia only as ''freeway flyers,'' driving between adjunct appointments on several campuses, paid perhaps $1,000 per course, with no benefits or faculty prerogatives. Adjunct faculty, Ms. Matthews writes, are the field hands of academia and ''are thought to account for 40 or even 50 percent of all face-to-face undergraduate teaching now, as opposed to 22 percent in the early 1970s.''

But, then, the market for college graduates is saturated: An estimated 20 percent work in jobs that do not really require a degree. Says Ms. Matthews, ''A third of Domino's pizza-delivery drivers in the Washington, D.C., area have B.A.s.'' A help-wanted ad seeking a warehouse supervisor for The Gap reads: ''Bachelor's degree required, and the ability to lift 50 pounds.''

Anne Matthews' book refutes the premise of President Clinton's plan for tuition tax credits and deductions. The premise is that higher education's most pressing needs are more money and more students. Even without new inducements, students by the millions will come to campuses full of yearnings like those of the incoming freshman who wrote to a college adviser, ''I want to experience a philosophy or a sociology. There are none in Florida.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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