The National Association of Scholars (NAS), the nation's leading higher-education reform organization, has just published a devastating 65-page report on its investigation of the courses offered and required at 50 top undergraduate colleges and universities. The NAS used U.S. News & World Report's annual listing of "America's Best Colleges" (including both private and public). All figures cited below refer to those 50 elite institutions in the particular years chosen for comparison, 1914, 1939, 1964, and 1993.
The NAS concludes that students no longer learn the common core of knowledge once taken for granted as essential to a liberal-arts education. The universities have simply purged from the curriculum many of the required courses that formerly taught students the historical, cultural, political and scientific basics of our society.
The number of mandatory courses has been dramatically reduced from an average of 9.9 in 1914, to 7.3 in 1939, to 6.9 in 1964, and to 2.5 in 1993. The formerly universal requirement that students take a basic survey course in several important areas has virtually vanished.
Universities now offer very few courses that require prerequisites, which means that very few college courses now require any advance knowledge or preparation. In 1914, universities offered an average of only 23 courses per institution that did not require a prerequisite course; in 1964 the figure had risen to 127; today, the number is 582.
Only 12 percent of universities now require a thesis or comprehensive examination to get a bachelor's degree. As late as 1964, more than half of universities did.
The college year has been shortened by about one-fourth (leaving more time for spring break and other frivolities, but, of course, without any reduction in tuition price or professors' salaries). In 1914, college classes were in session an average of 204 days a year; by 1939 the number had dropped to 195; in 1964, to 191; and today students and teachers are expected to show up in class only 156 days per academic year.
Maybe the reason why young people can't write good English is that so few colleges teach writing any more. In 1914, nearly all universities had required courses in English composition; by 1964 the figure was 86 percent; today, it's only 36 percent.
Ditto for math. In 1914, 82 percent of the universities had traditional mathematics requirements; by 1964 only 36 percent did; now, only 12 percent do. In 1914, 1939 and 1964, more than 70 percent of the institutions required at least one course in the natural sciences; that figure has now fallen to only 34 percent.
Maybe the reason why the federal guidelines on the teaching of American history turned out to be such a travesty was that most college graduates haven't studied any history. In 1914, 90 percent of our elite colleges required history; in 1939 and 1964 more than 50 percent did; but now only one of the 50 schools has a required history course.
Literature courses were required at 75 percent of the institutions in 1914, and at 50 percent in 1939 and 1964. Today, not one of the "best" institutions has a literature requirement.
Meanwhile, the total number of courses offered at undergraduate institutions has increased by a factor of five since 1914, and has doubled since 1964, but that doesn't mean more opportunities to become an educated citizen. The majority of these additional courses are on narrow and idiosyncratic subjects of interest to the professors but almost worthless to the students. The total includes such trendy and trivial courses as Stanford's "Gender and Science" (which purports to study science free from outdated male assumptions), and Georgetown's "Unspeakable Lives: Gay and Lesbian Narratives."
Here are some examples of courses given at Yale University for which students can receive college credit: "Gender and the Politics of Resistance: Feminism, Capitalism and the Third World." "Gender and Technology." "Feminist Perspectives on Literature." "Lesbian and Gay Theater Performance." "The Literature of AIDS." "Contemporary Lesbian and Gay Arts and Culture." "Constructing Lesbian Identities." Such courses are just propaganda and entertainment masquerading as education.
The result is that our best colleges and universities no longer turn out graduates who have an elementary knowledge of our civilization and its heritage. They do not learn the basic facts of our country's history, political and economic systems, philosophic traditions, and literary and artistic legacies.
Quite apart from the fraud of charging an exorbitant $100,000 for a devalued diploma is the fact that we are in danger of losing the national cohesion of a known and shared heritage which has sustained and nourished our unique institutions of freedom within a limited, constitutional government.
The New York Times quoted a critic of this NAS report as arguing that "the real agenda of higher education today is the concern with problem solving, critical thinking, communicating and learning how to value." But how are students going to engage in all those thoughtful processes when their knowledge is so pathetically limited and their composition and communication skills are almost non-existent?
In addition, there is the dumbing down inherent in giving courses that are not college courses at all, but are designed to teach students what they didn't learn in high school. Sometimes these courses are called "remedial," but the institutions prefer euphemisms such as "second tier" and "sub-freshman." Such courses were unheard of prior to 1939, and only three institutions offered them in 1964. Today such non-college-level courses are offered in 70 percent of the elite universities, and most of them award college credit.
California state legislators recently discovered the high cost to the taxpayers of the remedial education courses given at the state universities. Last year, 60 percent of new students needed remedial help. California legislators assert that students have been the victims of consumer fraud perpetrated on them by the high schools that gave them high grades. The legislators want to send the invoice for the cost of the remedial courses to the high schools that deceived their students by giving them a 3.8 or higher grade-point average.
The 1996 Governors Education Summit at Palisades, New York, spent two days discussing "standards" for what students should learn in public schools. Longtime American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker gave this concept a reality check. He said that when, as a teacher, he assigned homework to his class, the pupils invariably responded in chorus, "Does it count on our grade?" He pointed out the fact of human nature that standards aren't going to make any difference if, no matter what students learn or don't learn, they can still get admitted to nearly all U.S. colleges and universities.
The standards question in the public schools could be resolved if colleges and universities would abolish their remedial courses and admit only students capable of doing college work. But they won't because of the easy flow of taxpayers' money, which makes it so profitable for colleges and universities to admit all the students they can and then send the bill to the taxpayers.
Secrets About College Education
The high cost of a college education is not just the sticker price of a year's tuition; it's the increase in the number of years it takes to get a diploma. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 31 percent of college students graduate in four years or less, while 69 percent take five, six or even more years to graduate.
In a front-page article, the New York Times (Sept. 14, 1994) reported that a typical student takes only three courses a semester instead of five. We're talking about college students of traditional age, not the re-entry men and women who take college courses later in life. The Times article included a picture of four roommates at California State at Long Beach who have been in college a total of 30 years. That's an average of 7.5 years each. Since the roommates were three females and one male, we can speculate that college was just so much fun that there just wasn't any incentive to hurry up and finish.
There would be a public outcry about consumer fraud if the students had to pay for the product. The problem is that somebody else is usually paying, either the taxpayers or the parents. The easy availability of taxpayers' money to admit and keep students in college makes it possible for them to waste their education dollar on worthless courses. Cost is not a factor in lengthening your college schedule if you can send the bills to someone else.
The price of a year at a state university is about $7,500. A student who takes six years to get a bachelor's degree pays $15,000 more than it costs the student who graduates in four years, but the degree isn't worth a penny more.
For the past decade, students have been urged to go to college in order "to find themselves," that is, enroll in a variety of easy courses until they find a subject they like. However, a student who isn't literate and mature enough, on his own, to read the course catalogue, devise a plan of study, and select the courses to achieve that goal, has no business going to college at all.
Four years is long enough for a student of traditional age to spend in college, and I believe that three years is a better length. It took me only three years to get my bachelor's degree, and two of my children earned their bachelor's degrees from Princeton University in only three years each. At present rates, that means each of those Princeton degrees cost at least $25,000 less than what others paid. A college degree isn't worth any more whether you take three years or eight years, but the cost differential is enormous.
The out-of-pocket tuition price is only part of the cost. The more destructive part of the cost is that so many young people between the ages of 18 and 25 waste so many of their prime productive hours and years. Cruising along as an undergraduate for extra years results in an artificial and unnatural deferral of maturity and of taking responsibility for your own life. I worked a 48-hour-a-week night-shift job while carrying a full college schedule, so it's difficult for me to understand what today's college students do with all those extra hours. In any event, it's wrong to make the taxpayers subsidize them.
I am hopeful that the day will soon come when students can stay home and take superb college courses by video from the nation's top scholars and authorities. This would greatly improve the quality of college lectures and teaching, first, because a professor being videotaped would prepare and try harder, and secondly, because videos would present real professors instead of Teaching Assistants (T.A.s) masquerading as professors. One entrepreneur is already selling a series of 70 45-minute lectures called "The Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition," featuring respected scholars from prestigious Ivy League universities.
The rapid advances of the electronic age are already starting to make it possible for such courses to be interactive between professors and students. That's more than most students get in college now.
Books about What's Going on at Colleges