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Many Students Learn Little to Nothing in College. Surprise?

No kidding. The big surprise is that this is news to anybody.

by
Abraham H. Miller

Bio

January 20, 2011 - 12:30 am
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These are people who feel they deserve good-paying jobs. After all, the education establishment told them that having a college degree was worth millions. Well it is, if it is in the right subjects and you did well. A political science degree is not exactly equal to a degree in computer engineering, although the campus feminists are always grousing over how much less they are paid than males of equal rank and seniority. How convenient to forget that the liberal arts, which possess no competitive external marketplace, are dominated by women, and engineering, science, and mathematics are dominated by men.

The next financial bubble is out there. It is comprised of people like your son who are carrying enormous debt without any prospect of paying it off. They are going to default. It’s our fault, you say. Well, you say that now. But if we gave your son the grades he deserved you both would have screamed foul and due processed us to death. If your son is a member of some protected class, we would have had to defend against the accusation that we discriminated against him. Anyhow, he got more than he deserved, and the rest of us subsidized his education directly or indirectly with our tax dollars. Of course, you do know that we are going to have to pick up the defaults, just as we picked up the sub-prime mortgages.

Oh yes, if you think the statistic that half don’t learn anything in the first two years is terrible, how does this one grab you? After four years 36% did not experience significant educational improvement. And that statistic is worse than it appears, because at many institutions nearly half the students drop out after two years. So among the self-selected that continued, more than a third learned almost nothing in four years of college.

And if you controlled by academic major and prior preparation, you would find that these failures cluster. How? It’s easy enough to figure out, even if you never finished college.

But don’t worry. The system won’t change, not even after the defaults. There are too many vested interests that benefit from the system. Colleges are labor-intensive operations. They employ lots of people at all sorts of levels. In economic downturns, they expand their physical plants. And besides, parents want to see degrees, not failures. Students want the campus experience. Everyone needs to believe the myth, and we are as good as Elmer Gantry at selling it.

We continue to drain the intellectual capital of the rest of the world. That enables us to compensate for the abundance of people we produce who are without academic or economic skills. When the defaults come, we will print more money and maybe foreclose on a few for-profit institutions. There will be congressional hearings, a few scapegoats from the for-profit world, and a few horror stories about exploitative student loans. There will be an academic Enron and an academic Countrywide. When the smoke clears, the academic AIG will have bailed out the academic Goldman Sachs for one hundred cents on the dollar. And it will be business as usual.

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Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.
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