On College Campus, Unprepared

Ben Wildavsky

When President Barack Obama announced earlier this year that the U.S. should aim to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, he was staking out an ambitious but hardly a maverick goal. It is widely recognized, by Republicans and Democrats alike, that the gap between the earnings of high-school graduates and college graduates has become a chasm in recent decades. More college graduates would mean more prosperity for individuals—and for the nation, too. Bowing to this logic, governments around the world—from China and India to the Middle East—are trying to boost college attendance for their knowledge-hungry populations.

As Mr. Obama’s goal suggests, there is plenty of room for improvement in the U.S. While nearly seven in 10 high-school graduates go on directly to two- or four-year colleges (up from 49% in 1972), many students are poorly prepared for college and end up taking remedial courses. And huge numbers fail to graduate. Reformers believe, not without reason, that such problems can be solved in part by improved high-school preparation and better college instruction. But is it possible that aiming to increase the number of American college graduates is actually a fool’s errand?

A few skeptics think so. Most prominent among them is Charles Murray, who in “Real Education” (2008) argued that most young people are just not smart enough to go to college and should be encouraged to take other paths instead, especially vocational training. Now comes Jackson Toby with “The Lowering of Higher Education in America,” a provocative variation on Mr. Murray’s theme.

Mr. Toby draws on social-science data as well as personal experience—he taught sociology at Rutgers University for 50 years before retiring a few years ago—to decry the intellectual conditions that prevail on the American campus. Sidestepping the matter of students’ innate abilities, he blames low academic standards mostly on the easy availability of financial aid to undergraduates who are unqualified for college-level coursework.

Early on, Mr. Toby concedes that education has become the country’s “main economic escalator.” But he is alarmed at how few students are prepared to meet even the minimal demands of a real college education. He faults lax college-admission standards that give high schools little incentive to push their students harder. Too many undergrads can’t write with minimal competence or understand basic cultural references. Students often take silly, politicized courses. And they feel entitled to inflated grades: Mr. Toby reports that one of his students spewed obscenities at him for ending the young man’s straight-A record.

Perhaps this kind of experience accounts for Mr. Toby’s seeming bitterness toward unserious students, whom he calls “unprepared, half-asleep catatonics who drift in late and leave early.” Most undergrads, Mr. Toby suggests, enjoy a steady diet of extracurricular hedonism while skating through their coursework (though it’s unclear how this claim jibes with his complaints about low graduation rates).

Worst of all, he says, students have been misled about the value of their degrees. Yes, a bachelor of arts degree commands a wage premium, but less because of a graduate’s acquired knowledge than because of the signal that his degree sends to employers about the abilities that got him into college and about a variety of soft skills, such as reliability and problem-solving capacity. Graduates in undemanding majors—in the humanities, for example, or most of the social sciences—are unlikely to earn what their more studious counterparts in, say, engineering can. They are thus disproportionately likely to be saddled with debt and prone to default, Mr. Toby argues. He claims that this pattern amounts to the kind of unsound lending that led to our recent credit crisis—one that he darkly suggests may soon be repeated in higher education. He believes that today’s “promiscuous” system of college grants and loans—which, at the federal level, is based largely on financial need—ought to be retooled to focus on academic merit.

But his platform is less radical than his book’s subtitle promises (“Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance”). He acknowledges that quite a few states already have merit-based aid. And in a concession to political reality he would continue the federal Pell Grant program, which focuses on need alone. Mr. Toby’s main proposal, then, is to require good grades and test scores from those seeking federal student loans. This requirement, he believes, would improve incentives for academic performance and mitigate the inevitable trade-off between widening access to college and maintaining educational standards.

Strangely, Mr. Toby does not address the biggest objection to merit aid, which is that it usually subsidizes middle- and upper-income students who would go to college anyway. By contrast, need-based aid often provides make-or-break help to low-income applicants: Without grants and student loans, they would probably not go to college at all.

Mr. Toby sees reduced college opportunities as the price of keeping under-prepared students off campus. But that is one trade-off we should not make, especially when a college degree carries so much value in the marketplace. Our vast and varied college system, to its credit, enrolls all sorts of students. Mr. Toby delineates the system’s manifold shortcomings, which badly need to be remedied. And to be sure, academic merit deserves a place in our financial aid system. But the indisputable benefits of college ought to be spread more widely, not less.