Phi Beta Cons

The Envy of the World — NOT

I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard someone say that America’s higher ed system is “the envy of the world.” At its best, American higher ed is superlative at a few notable things, such as educating top-level researchers. That, however, tells us nothing about the results at the great mass of our colleges and universities, which are not trying to train contenders for Nobel prizes, but just trying to impart some useful skills and knowledge to the masses of students who enroll. How do they do at that?

Not well, argues Kevin Carey in this New York Times piece published Saturday. While many of us assume that America’s colleges and universities are excellent (probably because we heard that claim repeatedly), that’s a mistake. “America’s schools and colleges and actually far more alike than people believe — and not in a good way,” Carey writes. “The nation’s deep education problems, the data suggest, don’t magically disappear once students disappear behind ivy-covered walls.”

The data to which Carey points is a recent international study of adult knowledge, the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Just as the well-known PISA shows that American school students mostly lag behind kids of similar age in other countries when it comes to language and math abilities, PIAAC shows that our college grads also, on average, are comparatively weak. Carey observes that American college grads “look mediocre or worse compared to their college-educated peers in other nations.”

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Our higher ed system has suffered from dumbing-down, grade inflation, students and parents with an entitlement mentality, and administrators who are far more interested in degree attainment than learning. Of course other countries where those pathologies don’t exist or are less pronounced are going to make the U.S. look bad.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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