KATHLEEN PARKER: What makes college worth it?

KATHLEEN PARKER

KATHLEEN PARKER

President Obama is correct in wanting to make higher education more affordable and accessible, but Americans would also be correct in wondering just what they’re paying for.

The need for a better-educated populace is beyond dispute. Without critical thinking skills and a solid background in history, the arts and sciences, how can a nation hope to govern itself?

Answer: Look around.

The problem isn’t only that higher education is unaffordable to many but that even at our highest-ranked colleges and universities, students aren’t getting much bang for their buck.

Since 1985, the price of higher education has increased 538 percent, according to a new study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group.

Although the council confined its research in this study – “Education or Reputation?” – to the 29 top-ranked liberal-arts schools in the nation, where tuition, boarding and books typically run more than $50,000 per year, the trends highlighted are not confined to smaller, elite institutions. These include an increasing lack of academic rigor, grade inflation, high administrative costs and a lack of intellectual diversity.

One need only be reminded of the recent scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where a whistleblower revealed that phony classes and fake grades have been offered mostly to athletes since the 1990s.

UNC, one of the historically great institutions of higher learning, quite apart from its legendary basketball team, is scrambling now to repair its damaged reputation.

On the flip side, ACTA proposes that many schools, rather than offering the educational quality that earned them a golden reputation in the first place, often depend on public reverence for the past rather than on present performance.

Of great concern is the diminishing focus on core curriculums – the traditional arts and science coursework essential to developing critical thinking necessary for civic participation.

Instead of the basics, students might look forward to more entertaining fare, such as Middlebury College’s “Mad Men and Mad Women,” an examination of masculinity and femininity in mid-20th-century America via the television show “Mad Men.”

I confess I’d enjoy a dinner discussion along these lines, but as an education consumer, I’m not sure a semester-long investigation is worth even a tiny percentage of the tuition. ACTA President Anne Neal acknowledges that such courses may be interesting and even valuable.

“What we do question, however, is allowing such classes to stand in lieu of a broad-based American history or government requirement,” she said, “when we know how severely lacking students’ historical literacy can be.”

Other findings of the 46-page report are equally compelling but too lengthy for this space. Summed up: American students are paying too much for too little – and this, too, should concern Obama as he examines ways to make college more affordable. Getting people into college is only half the battle. Getting them out with a useful education seems an equal challenge.

Kathleen Parker‘s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

  • TWBDB

    I would have to agree. In my experience, even in the ‘core mandate’ curriculum, classwork was included which didn’t bring much, if any, value to the enrichment sector and certainly didn’t contribute to anything remotely applicable in the work place: an MBA program. Lacking in this program was instruction on issues of personal finance, professional enrichment, networking, time-management, etc. – – skills essential in the professional world.