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Many Students Learn Little to Nothing in College. Surprise?

The recent study of 2,300 college students showing that half of them learn nearly nothing in the first two years is generating a lot of conversation. As someone who spent more than three decades in the professoriate, what surprises me is why this is news.

Certainly the students know this. We know this. The college administrators know this. Maybe, it’s only the parents who are suckered into thinking that the tens if not hundreds of thousands they are shelling out for a residential college education is really buying that.

Look -- if your child did well in high school, got excellent SAT scores, and signed up for a demanding major, you have nothing to worry about, except the price tag. And if that’s not a problem, you can stop reading right here.

But plenty of you parents know you have children who rarely cracked a book, got mediocre high school grades, and really have no interest in the demands of a real college learning experience. They got into less demanding schools or curricula, or you’re paying out-of-state tuition money for the privilege of sending your kid someplace he couldn’t have gotten into if he lived in-state.

When you toured the campus and saw the surrounding bars and clubs, when you saw the campus shopping mall that was designed to look like Rodeo Drive, and when you toured the athletic facility that rivals an upscale sports club, did you pause to think that those were not assets to the pursuit of the life of the mind? Of course not! You were impressed. Did you forget that the monks preserved the learning of Western civilization?

I’ve been on the orientation tour with you, as the young man and young woman decked out in their school-spirit sweat shirts took you around the campus. And what kinds of questions did you ask? When you went to the library, you were inspired by the building. You asked not a word about the collection or the on-line computer stations. You wanted to know about the social life, the shopping, and how well the athletic teams were doing. When was homecoming, so you could plan your visit?

I remember when one set of parents asked how much people studied per class, what the intellectual demands were, and were there a lot of term papers in the liberal arts courses. The tour guides were dumbfounded, and the rest of you looked at this couple like they were the biggest bunch of party poopers. You kept some distance from these parents during the rest of the tour, as if they had a visible case of leprosy. Their son was an engineering major, and he did very well in school. By the way, they were sufficiently disgusted with the guides' lack of intellectual concern that they wrote a letter about it to the faculty.

Your son probably ended up in my class. He was the kid who slouched in his chair and sat in the back entertaining himself with his Nintendo or cell phone. At least, that’s how he behaved when he bothered to show up for class. Sometimes he disrupted class by coming late and being sure to walk across the front of the lecture hall to draw attention to himself. I wished that on such occasions he had the grace to have pulled his Levis above his underwear. But that was too much to ask.

Of course, he got a degree.

We have to sit through lectures by our incomparable elected officials and our distinguished administrators telling us how many people the state needs by such and such a year with college degrees. We know how to give degrees. We’re good at that. But an education? Even God could not compensate for the lack of skills, the lack of interest, and the lack of raw talent your son brought to us. Social promotion is not restricted to high schools any more. After all, somehow we have to pay for all those buildings, athletic facilities, and shopping malls that so impressed you.

Now your son is carrying a load of debt that he can’t pay off, and he can’t find a meaningful job because he really has no skills that translate into the marketplace. He never committed himself to the discipline, rigor, and fortitude it takes to get a meaningful education. He didn’t know what to do with himself; you didn’t know what to do with him, and you thought he should have a college experience. He did, in the sense that four years of recreational sex, hard drugs, and bars that are open late into the night provided him with a college experience.

You would have been better off giving him the cash to invest and sending him to the Caribbean or Vegas for several weeks every year where he could have indulged his sexual appetites and legally smoked ganja. Financially you would have both been ahead. So too would we.

Now, we have an overly credentialed population carrying an enormous debt.

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.