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The Latest Indictment of Colleges

If colleges were not already feeling enough heat about the education they provide students, a new book adds fuel to the fire. In The Five-Year Party (BenBella, 2010), Craig Brandon maintains that ten percent of the nation's 4,431 liberal arts colleges are essentially party schools. Although he never provides a list of names, he explains why these schools are education-free zones.

Brandon cites diluted curriculum and grade inflation as evidence of the predictable consequences of wooing applicants who are not capable of doing college-level work. He places the blame largely on administrators who are more interested in numbers than in education. But by implication he also takes to task trustees and faculty. Many of these same points were made in Higher Education (Times Books, 2010) by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, which I wrote about in my post on Aug 4 ("Do Colleges Deserve Diplomatic Immunity?). Nevertheless, they are worthy of further examination.

Although what Brandon writes is disturbing, it is not new by any means. In The Chosen (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), Jerome Karabel reminds readers that Princeton at the beginning of the twentieth century was known as "the finest country club in America." When a Princeton administrator was once asked how many students were on campus, he famously replied: "About ten percent." It's interesting to note that Brandon maintains the same percentage applies today to all liberal arts colleges.

But what is new is whether part of the problem of excessive partying at the expense of studying stems from counseling too many students to apply to college in the first place. In Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), Charles Murray argues against the notion that college is for everyone. He calls this belief "educational romanticism." Many students would be far better served by advising them to go to a community college where they could earn a certificate in a trade that would result in a well paying job and great personal satisfaction.

I think Murray is right. Despite efforts by the Obama administration to convince more students to go to college, the advice is questionable. The cost of tuition and fees is out of sight. This saddles students with debt that they often cannot pay back. The default rate is greatest at for-profit colleges, which enroll more financially needy students with family responsibilities. According to a report released by the Government Accountability Office in early August, default rates are about three times higher at for-profit colleges than at private, non-profit colleges.

There are many well-paying jobs that do not require a four-year college degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently named carpentry, for example, as one of the 20 jobs expected to see the largest growth in the next decade because of the demand for more energy-efficient buildings ("Careers That Require Only Two-Year Degrees," Aug. 11). But the U.S. persists in the fiction that without a four-year degree opportunities are bleak. This message does a terrible disservice to young people, particularly in light of the recession and the offshoring of work.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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