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Perhaps the defining event in the history of modern higher education was the passage of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights. Enacted in large part as a reaction to what was widely viewed as the poor treatment of World War I vets and their subsequent suffering during the Great Depression, the GI Bill offered veterans a variety of assistance programs. Among them was the payment of tuition up to $500 per school year, along with the right to receive a monthly living allowance while in school.
In the end, it didn't matter that the bill almost didn't pass. One tie-breaking vote opened the door of higher education to hundreds of thousands of returning veterans. Many men who would otherwise have flooded the job market eagerly seized what was for them the opportunity of a lifetime: a college education.
Before World War II, college was a largely unattainable goal for average Americans. Only ten percent attended college before the war. It was, in fact, primarily a luxury of the upper-middle classes, along with those few who could obtain scholarships. Two years before the war, approximately 160,000 Americans were enrolled in college. By 1950, the number was almost 500,000.
Such numbers reflect an enthusiasm for higher education on the part of those former soldiers, who would ordinarily have never seen the inside of a college classroom. By 1952, veterans accounted for 49 percent of all college students. Altogether, it is estimated that 2.2 million vets took advantage of the opportunity presented by the GI Bill and enrolled in college. It was a revolution of sorts, a transformation of higher education, to say nothing of the transformation of the participants' lives. With college degrees in hand and, more importantly, the education that those degrees represented, countless veterans went from being poor blue-collar workers to middle-class white-collar workers.
Tom Brokaw writes about this phenomenon in his book The Greatest Generation:
Campus classrooms . . . were overflowing with young men in their mid-twenties, many of whom had never expected to get a college education. They left those campuses with degrees and a determination to make up for lost time. They were a new kind of army now, moving onto the landscapes of industry, science, art, public policy, all the fields of American life, bringing to them the same passion and discipline that had served them so well during the war.
GI Joes were transformed into Average Joes who were anything but average. Having helped save the world from a terrifying and tenacious enemy, they were now well-educated homeowners, breadwinners, fathers, and stalwarts of a newly growing middle class. And while this new middle class was busy working and raising what would become the Baby-Boom generation, there was another revolution of sorts taking place on college campuses—the fall of the Protestant establishment in America and the reverberations that followed.
David Brooks, in his book BOBOS in Paradise ("BOBOS" being "bourgeois bohemians"), paints a vivid picture of this establishment and how it controlled higher education:
In the 1920s, sensing a threat to the "character" of their institutions, Ivy League administrators tightened their official or unofficial Jewish quotas . . . Columbia reduced the proportion of Jews . . . from 40 to 20 percent in two years. At Harvard, President A. Lawrence Lowell diagnosed a "Jewish Problem" and also enforced quotas to help solve it.
But by the late 1950s and early 1960s, such discrimination was seen for what it was—unjust discrimination—and class hierarchies began to topple. Brooks continues:
The campus gates were thus thrown open on the basis of brains rather than blood, and within a few short years the university landscape was transformed. Harvard . . . was changed from a school for the well-connected to a school for brainy strivers. The remaining top schools eliminated their Jewish quotas and eventually dropped their restrictions on women.
Those newly opened gates helped lead to an explosion in the number of Americans getting a higher education. Brooks cites the following statistic to make the case: "By 1960 there were about 2,000 institutions of higher learning. By 1980 there were 3,200. In 1960 there were 235,000 professors in the United States. By 1980 there were 685,000."
Brooks's theory, nicely expounded in his very readable book, is that, partly due to this rapid expansion of the educated class, America became a true meritocracy, Horatio Alger stories aside. Family connections mattered less. Brains and ability mattered more, as did the name of the college or graduate school on your resume.
Like the veterans who so enthusiastically and overwhelmingly took advantage of the opportunity to get a college education, Baby Boomers of varying stripes in their turn did the same. With a zeal to transform themselves and the world, they flooded college campuses across America.
If "passionate and eager" can be used to describe the attitudes of the Greatest Generation and their children towards higher education, what can be said of the grandchildren? In the past twenty years, the number of college degrees handed out annually has more than doubled. So certainly they are attending college in droves. But with what attitude and to what end?
Peter Sacks took up the question in his 1996 book, Generation X Goes to College. What Sacks found when he left journalism to become a college professor was an overarching lack of interest on the part of the students—what he identifies as a kind of disengagement. He describes a typical classroom scene:
Scattered mostly in the back and far side rows were young males with professional sports baseball caps, often worn backwards. Completing the uniform . . . was usually a pair of baggy shorts, a team T-shirt, and an ample attitude. Slumped in their chairs, they stared at me with looks of disdain and boredom, as if to say, "Who in hell cares? Say something to amuse me."
According to Sacks, today's college students have been "conditioned by an overly nurturing, hand-holding educational system not to take responsibility for their own actions." He blames a system that has become "customer-driven." Administrators want students to be happy so that enrollment remains high. And fearing lack of support from administrators, teachers have become reluctant to hold students to high standards. As Sacks writes, "Excellence wasn't really the point . . . [T]he real point was whether you kept students sufficiently amused and entertained."
One measure of the quality of a college education these days might be drawn from a list of some of the courses offered. Here are but a few of the more egregious examples in recent years: "Canine Cultural Studies," "History of Electronic Dance Music," "Cultural History of Rap," "Music of the Grateful Dead," "Taking Marx Seriously," "Sex Change City: Theorizing History in Genderqueer San Francisco," and "The Phallus."
With courses such as these, it's no wonder that today's college seniors score, on average, little or no higher than high-school graduates did fifty years ago, according to a survey commissioned by the National Association of Scholars. There are also these depressing results from a 1993 Department of Education survey of college graduates: 56 percent couldn't calculate a correct tip, and over 90 percent couldn't figure out the cost of carpeting a room—and they were allowed to use calculators!
In a piece written for The Boston Globe a couple of years ago, college professor Michael Kryzanek decried both the quality of education many of today's college students receive and the lack of interest they have in actual learning. He cites a study by the National Center for Education Statistics that found that only 31 percent of college graduates could read a "complex book and extrapolate from it." The same study also found that many students graduate from college lacking "the skills needed to comprehend routine data, such as reading a table about the relationship between blood pressure and physical activity."
Kryzanek, who has taught at the college level for more than thirty years, is not surprised by the study's findings. Based on his own experience and frequent discussions with colleagues, he concludes that
students today have little interest in what past generations of college students accepted as an essential education. Reading the literature of "dead white guys," studying the relevancy of a 400-year-old historical event, and thinking about the meaning of life's mysteries are not of great interest to a growing number of college students. Now it's all about focusing on a career path, studying narrowly about the skills required of that career path, and then crossing the stage on graduation day.
When syndicated columnist Walter Williams wrote about the sorry state of higher education, many readers responded with telling tales of their own. An English professor shared this anecdote, which Williams included in a follow-up column:
One of the items that I assigned was a two-page essay that described a favorite vacation or holiday. One student turned in two pictures drawn with crayon depicting the beach. When I gave her a failing grade, she was indignant and said that she put a great deal of work into the pictures. When I told her that she did not do the assignment and that she was supposed to write an essay, she said, "But I don't know what an essay is!"
Students who are ill-prepared for higher education have become the subject of serious concern. According to a US Department of Education study, nearly half of college students have to take remedial courses in reading and math. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 80 percent of colleges provided some type of remedial services in 2000.
In an address to North Carolina State University last year, US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings spoke about some of the findings of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. "Less than half of all [high-school] graduates are prepared for college-level math and science," she said. "As a result, college students and taxpayers spend over a billion dollars a year on remedial education just to teach students the basic skills they should have learned in high school."
And speaking of billions of dollars, there is also the issue of college costs, addressed by Secretary Spellings in the same speech:
Over the last 25 years, college tuition increases have outpaced inflation, family income, even health care. In the past five years alone, tuition at four-year colleges has skyrocketed by 35 percent. . . . The reality is that as costs skyrocket, it becomes increasingly difficult for middle-class families to afford college. And for low-income, mostly minority students, college is becoming virtually unattainable.
According to statistics cited by The New York Times in 2006, annual private-college costs 30 years ago equaled 21 weeks of average pay for an American worker. Now that figure is 53 weeks. In other words, on average, it takes more than a year of work to pay for a year at a private college. The business of going to college has become just that—big business. Colleges need students, and as Peter Sacks writes, they have become "customer-driven" as a result. Absurd course offerings and lower standards attest to that.
And then there is the parent factor. Baby-Boom parents have been famously accused of over-scheduling their kids from toddlerhood on up, in effect building their resumes starting with preschool. Proof that parents want their kids to get into good colleges and will do almost anything to make that happen is evidenced by what one educator calls the "multi-billion-dollar industry of SAT prep courses, tutors and college-visiting weekends." And as one high-school guidance counselor working in an upscale suburban community put it, "For many parents, it's all about the right college sticker on the back of the Lexus."
The sheer cost of college brings parents into play in other ways, too. The same high-school guidance counselor explains:
Many parents aren't willing to shell out $45,000 a year so their kids can explore Greek literature or major in medieval music. In previous generations, college was more about the free flow of ideas, as opposed to being purely a path to a career.
At current prices, parents can hardly be blamed for wanting to see some bang for their buck, so to speak.
One educator with more than 30 years' experience, split between teaching at the graduate-school level and serving as a high-school guidance counselor, thinks that there's a lot to be said for kids coming up with their own college plans. Many, he believes, would be better off working part-time and completing college in six years. He also thinks that there is a "significant under-utilization of community colleges." In the Midwest, there isn't a stigma attached to going to community colleges such as there is in the Northeast and elsewhere. "And frankly, I think it makes for healthier kids in some ways," he says.
It's difficult to quantify how many students attend college just because it has become the thing to do, a kind of entitlement, a rite of passage, something parents push for and orchestrate. There can be no question that there are far too many college students who are ill-prepared and who have little desire to do more than make it to graduation day. One wonders whether they would even comprehend—much less be able to write an essay on—Thomas Jefferson's vision of higher education as expressed in his plan for the University of Virginia. The purpose of college, according to Jefferson, is
to develop the reasoning facilities of our youth, enlarge their minds, and instill in them the precepts of virtue and order; to enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts and administer to the health, the subsistence and the comforts of human life.
Unfortunately, the chief "precept of virtue" that the current college generation seems never to have learned—or been taught—is to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Perhaps this is why, lacking such discipline, so many students these days experience college as a business transaction or a means to an end—a mere quid pro quo—rather than as the heady privilege that both Jefferson and their own forebears held so dear. •
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