Too Many Go to College

by Thomas Sowell

Expanding opportunities.

Stanford, Yale, and Princeton are all in the process of considering whether to increase the number of students they admit.

Meanwhile, Professor Richard Vedder of Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, says that there are already too many people going to college.

My own experience in academia leads me to agree with Professor Vedder.

Wanting to be in college is not the same as wanting an education. Among the other reasons for wanting to be in college is that it is a social scene with large concentrations of people of the same age and the opposite sex.

It is also a place where immaturity is not the handicap that it can be in other places, ranging from home to the workplace. In college immaturity is the norm, accepted not only by peers but even to a large extent by those in charge.

An academic campus can be a refuge from the realities of the world, not only for students but even for members of the faculty. Max Weber referred to some of his fellow academics as “big children in university chairs.”

There are, of course, many students and professors who are in the academic world for the very serious purpose of acquiring knowledge and deepening one’s understanding of the world and oneself.

Most of my own academic career was spent in places like Cornell and UCLA, where there were scholars with distinguished reputations in their respective fields and where the student body was significantly above the national average.

Even so, there were still quite a few students, especially at UCLA, whose interest in the life of the mind was, to put it charitably, limited.

More important, the negative effect of students who are not serious can be detrimental to the education of those who are. I found this to be true in each of the five colleges and universities where I taught, as well as in each of the three universities from which I received degrees.

The sizes of the classes and the campuses can also have an impact. Too many people do not think through the consequences of admitting a larger number of students, including some who may not be as well qualified as the others.

When I taught an honors class in introductory economics at Cornell — a seminar with 15 students, compared to a couple of hundred students in the regular class — my department chairman urged me to expand the honors class to 30 students, “so that more students can get the advantage of the small class.”

It never seemed to occur to him that expanding the class would destroy the advantages of the small seminar.

At both Douglass College and Howard University, where I taught the full year course in introductory economics, the second semester classes were a sheer delight because the less serious students dropped out after their experience with my grading standards in the first semester.

It was not just that the remaining students were better than the ones who left, they were better than they themselves had been in a class atmosphere that was different when influenced by less serious students.

At Amherst College, one of the classes that I taught as a visiting professor was made compulsory for graduating seniors, against my wishes, and just a couple of students with bad attitudes managed to dampen some of the other students, who were outstanding in themselves.

A graduate seminar that I taught at UCLA was a great experience the first year I taught it, largely because of one outstanding student who raised the level of discussion for the others. But, when I taught it the next year without that student, the results were so meager that I never taught that seminar again.

At the end of one class session I told the members of the seminar: “I have a decision to make and you gentlemen have helped me to make it.”

With that, I went on leave for two years to run a research project in Washington.