A recent book, Academically Adrift, outlines the lack of learning in today’s universities (Here is a quick review by Richard Vedder.) It should be no surprise that college students are spending less time engaging in scholastic endeavors and more time socializing, nor should it be surprising that those behaviors have produced little student learning. College is not a challenge to many of today’s students. This is because universities no longer wish to challenge them. Failing is an option for only the weakest of the weak. Learning from failure is all but absent. Universities no longer exist to produce well-rounded individuals with an ability to read, think, and write critically. Universities exist to exist.
Their purpose has even been harpooned by state leaders. In Texas, the State is doing its best to facilitate the further demise of higher education by basing 10% of university funding on graduation rates. Take for instance Governor Perry’s State of the State Address. In it, he said, “Texans deserve college graduation for their hard-earned tax dollars, not just college enrollment.” Because of this belief, he would like to see 10% of university funding be based on the institution’s ability to graduate students. The Commissioner of Higher Education, Dr. Raymund Paredes, also supports so called “Outcomes-Based Funding.” Why? Because they believe quantity to be synonymous with quality.
After spending the last five years working in university classrooms, the concept of greater quantity equaling greater quality is puzzling to me. How has this logic also escaped Dr. Paredes, who has spent a great deal of time as an academic? If anyone should know the current dismal state of higher education, it is him. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is aware that providing money for graduation rates may lower the quality of the degree received. They have no counterargument other than to suggest the institutions care most about student learning. How convenient and naïve? Universities follow the money. What in recent history suggests we should trust universities to act in the best interests of students and their families? That did not work for tuition deregulation; it will not work for outcomes-based funding either.
University administrators already pressure faculty members not to fail too many students. Grade inflation is rampant on college campuses and harmful for the future. Students are learning less and less, and being rewarded for it! Many students have a hard time reading critically, forming arguments, and writing papers. Any professor can provide numerous anecdotes regarding the sad state of students’ knowledge and abilities.
These lackluster students also graduate. They enter the workforce completely unprepared. Many college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. Several factors are at play here (choosing majors with little job prospects and the slow economy being two major ones), but it is important to realize that many graduates are entering the workforce with little-to-no professional skills or knowledge. Also notable is the fact that more students who have no business in a university classroom are attending college. The drive to give everyone a college degree essentially means no one has a degree. College, like everything in life, is not for everyone. We need to stop treating it as such because we are ultimately watering down the expectations to accommodate the lower-tiered students.
The value of a college degree has decreased in recent years. Outcomes-based funding will only finish the job. Universities are supposed to teach students skills and provide them with knowledge. The institutions were not, as Perry and Paredes suggest, created to hand out degrees. Our colleges and universities are already degree mills. Outcomes-based funding will only expedite our general ignorance.
Finally, the problem of doling out degrees to whoever enrolls in college has much broader implications than just the dumbing-down of higher education. Most worrisome is the economic effects it may produce. Governor Perry likes to talk about the success of the Texas economy. When we combine the lack of student learning—and its implications on career prospects—with the horrible debt many graduates find themselves under thanks to tuition spikes, it is easy to imagine a point in the future in which our Governor will not be championing the state’s economy, but trying to salvage it. We all know what has happened in places like California where people were buying houses they could not afford. What happens when Texans cannot pay their college loans because they do not have the skills to find decent work?
Perhaps I’m being too apocalyptic here. Only time will tell. I welcome your responses.
Michael is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at a public university in Texas.