American Higher Education as bait and switch?

July 19, 2012 | By | Reply More

Thomas Frank at Harper’s has decided to spend an entire article kicking what has become of higher education in America. Here’s an excerpt from the article, which is available only to subscribers online:

[T]he purpose of college isn’t education per se. According to a report issued last year by the National Survey of Student Engagement, American undergrads spend less time at their studies nowadays than ever. They are taught by grad students or grotesquely underpaid adjuncts. Many major in ersatz vocational subjects, and at the most reputable schools they get great grades no matter how they perform.

But we aren’t concerned about any of that. Americans have figured out that universities exist in order to man the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in order order to obtain just one thing: the degree, the golden ticket, the capital-C Credential. Doubters might scoff that a college diploma is by the year turning into an emptier signifier. Nonetheless, that hollow Credential is what draws many of the young to campus, where they will contend for one of the coveted spots in that gilded, gated suburb in the sky. Choosing the winners and losers is a task we have delegated to largely unregulated institutions housed in fake Gothic buildings, which have long since suppressed any qualms they once felt about tying a one-hundred thousand- dollar anvil around the neck of a trusting teenager.

The question that naturally follows is: Given the rigged, rotten nature of the higher-ed game, why would self-interested actors continue to play by the rules? The answer, to a surprising extent, is that they don’t.

Thomas’ article then turns to the rampant fraud committed by those who deliver and those who seek cheap versions of the (much cheapened) real thing. Though a lot of Thomas’ attention is on America’s many diploma mills, then the question keeps coming back to the worth of a “real” college degree these days:

Who is to say that [those who graduate from diploma mills] are less deserving of life’s good things than someone whose parents paid for him to goof off at a glorified country club two decades ago? And who, really, is to say that they know less than the graduate turned out last month by some adjunct-run, beer-soaked, grade-inflated, but fully accredited debt factory in New England?

This is an excellent read, because it challenges an institution that could stand quite a bit of examination.

In this same issue, the Harper’s Index, always a joy to read, offers these two statistics:

Percentage change over the past fifty years in the number of hours U.S. college students spend working: +44%

In the number of hours they spend studying: -59%

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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