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Who Needs Higher Education

by Darryl Spencer

September 5,2006

As a university professor, I meet freshmen who are unprepared for college. Such students – I hear this from teachers at Yale, Chicago and Pennsylvania – neither write nor read so well as we did; PlayStations don’t improve critical thinking. Hand-eye coordination, yes; analysis of op-ed-page essays, no! Today in an honors composition course, two students out of fifteen said they regularly read a newsmagazine or newspaper. One of those, and another student, had a vague notion what’s going on with Iran right now. Most of them said they were familiar with MLA formatting.

Why do new college students, even if apparently intelligent, seem so ill prepared? To begin with, secondary education is not so good. Compulsory education, once designed to prepare everyone for work or higher education, isn’t as good as it was. The academic basics are not mastered by high school graduation. Students routinely promoted are unable to pass “outcomes” tests.

Many students go to college because of social expectations: any high school graduate can attend some kind of college, so they feel they should. Then there’s “The American dream”: a better life through education. The post-WWII G.I. Bill and postwar prosperity seemed to confirm its validity. There’s professional-qualification inflation: jobs not traditionally requiring college now do – or reward it.

There’s confusion of equality of rewards with equality of opportunity: if we’re “all created equal,” shouldn’t everyone go to college? Aren’t we intellectually equal? We also have the media-fuelled vision of “the better life.” Friends imported a French au pair who, inspecting her accommodations in their modest home, had her bags packed to return to Paris two days later: “This isn’t America. I know how Americans live. I’ve seen Dallas.”

Money’s available – forget eventual repayment: 80% of college students have federally-guaranteed loans. Not only medical students graduate with debts requiring decades to repay. There’s also some distrust of anything that’s free, even public education. So paid-for higher education must be more valuable.

By 18 years, most people’s learning habits are formed. Why are we educating people whose skills and abilities have not prepared them for university-level work?

Instead, imagine a higher-ed system that’s free for those who qualify. All graduates are assured of jobs. High achievers get “better” jobs. No one with a university degree goes jobless. I’m describing higher education in many foreign countries. Are these conditions ideal?

To enter these free public colleges and universities (interchangeable terms only in the U.S.), students must pass a qualifying exam. A certain number of applicants are accepted for some fields; students with high scores win places in desirable fields. This social planning – determining how many graduates in each field the national economy can absorb – ensures that graduates will have jobs; theoretically, there is no excess of graduates.

Openings for specific fields are awarded on the basis of the qualifying scores: in a university in which I taught overseas, the top scorers were assigned to pre-medicine; the next forty, to dentistry; next, to chemistry, then geology, physics, mathematics, etc. – “down the line.”

High school graduates there were not always prepared for the competitive college exam. If they didn’t pass, they studied their textbooks over – focusing on areas of weakness – or paid for preparatory courses. They repeated the exam until they passed for their areas of interest or became reconciled to “lower” fields – or gave up and took jobs not requiring higher education.

In many countries young people are separated into or university tracks implying an acceptance of classification – “class” – that Americans decry and deny. Abroad, students who fail the university entrance exams may attend private colleges/universities, at home or abroad if they can find the funds.

Here we accept that some fields of endeavor have qualifying exams: law, architecture, secondary (but not higher) education. Well-paying or prestigious careers screen applicants before university. And we have private universities for the wealthy and the not-so-bright “legacies” or academic dilettantes.

Which makes more sense – testing after education or before? Should we give up the idea of universal equality – admit that we have differences of interests and abilities – and intelligence? Reward all occupations more evenly so there’s less pressure to “go for the money-makers”? Relax our emphasis on “the pursuit of happiness”? Would we be the same nation?

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