I recently had the opportunity to meet a remarkable man, Louisville, Kentucky’s Kenny Boyd (scroll down to the third profile). Raised on the streets of inner-city Nashville, he wound up homeless and addicted to drugs. After moving to Louisville, he turned his life around, finished a GED and a community college degree, and eventually started a mentoring program for urban youths called Youth Alive. While Kenny’s personal story is dramatic enough, his program is also achieving real successes in kids’ lives. When people hear that Youth Alive grads are currently enrolled in universities across the country, there is an almost palpable feeling of relief and appreciation. It’s as if we collectively think, “They’re in college now; they can make it in this world.”
Only two cultural institutions are widely perceived as having the power to turn around a person’s (secular) fortunes: universities and the military. When an audience hears that a struggling kid has gone on to college or to a career in the Army or Marines, they are immediately perceived as a success – as having made something of themselves. Unfortunately, while the military is maintaining its prestige and quality, there is a marked perception that higher education is rotting from within. It is still a ticket to (generally) greater economic success, but not so much because of the education itself. Indeed, some schools actually increase student ignorance in part because — as ACTA notes — the core college evaluation and accreditation process emphasizes “inputs” over actual results. A college education is increasingly considered a mere resume “bullet point” and students treat it as such.
At some point, the continued, massive output of uninformed, uneducated students will devalue higher education’s ability to transform lives, and the bar for programs like Kenny Boyd’s will be raised. We will hear stories of Youth Alive students going to college and think, “That’s nice, but did they get their M.A.?” Unless reforms are made, higher education will eventually squander its immense cultural and economic capital (accumulated over centuries), and the college education will become nothing more than the new high school diploma – necessary, yes, but hardly transformative.