We got into trouble with mortgages when the politicians decided that everyone should own a house. It didn’t matter how sizeable your income was, home ownership was such an unqualified good that the government decided to promote it. Being the lord (or lady) of one’s own manor increased individual responsibility; hence it was in everyone’s interest to expand its scope.
The way to get there, of course, was to make homes affordable, and that could only be achieved by reducing the cost. If down payments were eliminated and interest rates reduced, even the least privileged could enter the market. All that had to happen was for the government to guarantee loan repayment.
With education the impulse has been the same. Obviously higher education is a good thing. Everyone knows that people who have college degrees earn over a million dollars more during their lifetimes. Moreover, they become healthier, more moral, and better informed citizens. As such, everyone wins.
To this end, altruists from Bill Gates to Barack Obama have advocated universal college enrollment. Indeed, some are now describing a university degree as an entitlement. Every person born in the U.S. (as well as some illegal aliens), not just the rich or intellectually endowed, is said to have a right to a college diploma.
The way to make this happen is, of course, to reform the current system. According to the reformers, it obviously costs too much, takes too long to complete, and teaches irrelevant materials. If instead we get rid of professors dedicated to protecting their outmoded disciplines and replace them with cheaper adjuncts and even cheaper on-line courses, the results will elevate us to the forefront of international learning.
This may sound reasonable, yet it is fatuous. The only way to give everyone a college degree is to reduce the standards drastically. As a college professor I know — first hand — that not every student has the motivation or ability to handle college-level subjects. And this, while we still impose standards that deny some folks admission and force others to drop out for lack of performance.
For every potential student to pass, the bar has to be dropped lower than is now the case in secondary education. But if this occurs, what is learned will be so meager that college credentials will be worthless. All they will certify is that a graduate has applied for one.
What is more, the costs will be exorbitant. For the privilege of dumbing down our population, and making it more difficult to distinguish the competent from the incompetent, we will have to furnish trillions in student loans that the recipients will never be able to repay—because they will be unemployed. Sounds like a terrific bargain to me.
The fact is that a college education is not a right. Not everyone is entitled to a diploma. What people do deserve is the option to pursue a degree. We all, whatever our social origins, warrant an opportunity to prove what we can do. But then we must prove it. If we are admitted to an institution of higher learning, we must demonstrate that we have learned something.
Nowadays with many politicians attacking the integrity of college professors and some educators apparently intent on watering down what is taught so that it can be inexpensively packaged for the Internet, the soundness of higher education is being compromised. If this comes to pass, an institution that has taken generations to create will be lost.
So let us celebrate those who have learned something in college.
We must continue to strive for high standards without opting for the privilege of bankrupting our country both financially and intellectually. Democracy is a privilege. It shouldn’t be an excuse for seeking the impossible.
In the Wizard of Oz the scarecrow received a piece of paper that confirmed he was a college graduate. As portrayed in the movie he was wise, yet in the final analysis his head was still filled with straw. Let us not choose only to be empty-headed.
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.