The Corner

Education

What Needs to Reform — Colleges or Students?

The “progressive” mindset always looks for top-down solutions (which when tried they invariably make things worse) rather than thinking how people might solve a problem from the bottom up if they had the opportunity. That cast of mind is evident in former Harvard president Derek Bok’s latest book, The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges.

I discuss his book in this week’s Martin Center Clarion Call.

Bok’s big worry (like Obama’s) was that the U.S. isn’t putting enough people through college and will therefore lose its economic edge in the world. The trouble is that colleges aren’t doing their part — far too many students drop out. That’s the fault of the schools, you see. They aren’t trying hard enough to find ways to make remediation work and to keep bored and lazy kids engaged with their studies. At least he admits that many students coast through college without learning much, and that so long as the money continues to roll in, most college presidents are content.

According to Bok, the nation needs “higher educational attainment,” which is to say, more people holding college credentials. The problem is that credentials are largely positional goods, and if more people get BA degrees, then there’s pressure to go higher in order to separate yourself from the pack. We are already seeing that and the problem of credential inflation will just get worse if we were to somehow manage to scrape the bottom of the barrel to get more students into college and get them through to their degrees.

The real problem here is that a great many young Americans don’t really want an education. They want college fun and they want a degree as long as it doesn’t put much of a burden on them. And since other people are paying for their schooling, why put much effort into it? The education system is giving them what they want. If and to the extent that Americans start wanting education and having to pay for it, things will change from the bottom up.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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