At Reason Magazine, Nick Gillespie voices a reactionary point of view.
What actually sets institutions of higher learning apart from high schools, barbers’ colleges, online academies, and various universities-in-name-only is that they are centers of knowledge production. That is, they revolve around faculty scholars who are actively expanding, revising, and remaking the received wisdom in their given fields. Active researchers, whether in astronomy or zoology or cultural studies or good old American literature, are the folks that make college worth a damn.
This is part of a symposium on higher education, which includes several other contributors. I think Gillespie touches on an important point: not all colleges are the same. If you drop from the 100th most prestigious school down to the 300th, somewhere along the way you will have hit the level where one must shed one’s idealistic illusions about “higher learning.”
How should we term these non-elite schools? Perhaps we should call them institutions of lower learning. At many of these, you will find a handful of highly capable students. But they are diamonds in the rough.
The cost of attending institutions of higher learning has increased, but I do not think that is where the crisis lies. Students at those schools tend to get what their parents are looking for, which is confirmation of their membership in the upper strata of society.
My guess is that the real crisis is at the institutions of lower learning. Cost have gone up there as well, and so have the hopes of progressives for results. But they are not wildly successful, to say the least.
By Richard Vedder’s count, close to half of college graduates, including over 100,000 janitors, hold jobs that do not require a college degree. This makes perfect sense, given that more students attend institutions of lower learning than institutions of higher learning. Vedder says that the default rate on student loans is 12 percent. I would bet that at least 2/3 of those defaults come from institutions of lower learning.
That is not to say that institutions of lower learning are bad. It is possible that they teach more effectively than the elite schools, with the latter simply enjoying the halo effect created by being able to reject anyone who is not sufficiently prepared and motivated.
Lisa Snell points out that many students enter college requiring remedial education. For the most part, these students get sifted into the institutions of lower learning.
I do not see the majority of students at institutions of lower learning becoming affluent professionals or articulate intellectuals. In that regard, I think that the potential for online courses taught by elite university professors to penetrate the institutions of lower learning is rather low.
Pundits and policy makers tend to ignore the reality at the institutions of lower learning. They need to give it more consideration.