U.S. Higher Education is Failing: Universities & Colleges Are Failing to Educate, Wrong Priorities, Wasting Money– Its Education Adrift…

A university…educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it. ~John Henry Cardinal Newman

The U. S. has over 5,700 higher education institutions, an average of more than 115 per state. As of 2010, the U.S. had 20.3 million students in higher education, roughly 5.7% of the total population. About 14.6 million of these students were enrolled full-time. The ‘2006 American Community Survey’ conducted by the ‘United States Census Bureau’ found that 19.5% of the population had attended college but had no degree, 7.4% held an associate degree, 17.1% held a bachelor’s degree, and 9.9% held a graduate or professional degree.

Only a small gender gap was present: 27% of the overall population held a bachelor’s degree or higher, with a slightly larger percentage of men (27.9%) than women (26.2%). However, despite increasing economic incentives for people to obtain college degrees, the percentage of people graduating from high school and college has been declining as of 2008.

According to Anthony Grafton; ‘much has been written about the state of the American university painting a chilling portrait of what the university has become and the results are sobering’. The ‘Collegiate Learning Assessment’ reveals that some 45% of students in the sample had made, effectively, no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years.

More depressing; vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. For most of them, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: A diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline…

In the article “Universities are Failing to Educate” by Kathleen Parker writes: We often hear lamentations about declining educational quality, but missing from the conversation is the quality of what’s being taught. Meanwhile, we are mistakenly wed to the notion that more people going to college means more people will find jobs. But there’s more to the story. Fundamentally, students aren’t learning what they need to compete for the jobs that do exist.

A study by the ‘Association of American Colleges and Universities’ found that 87% of employers believe higher education institutions have to raise student achievement, if the U.S. is to be competitive in the global market. Sixty-three percent say recent college grads don’t have the skills they need to succeed. And, according to a separate survey, more than a quarter of employers say entry-level writing skills are deficient. 

Something is wrong with higher education, and the consensus is growing that young adults aren’t being taught the basic skills that lead to critical thinking. Most universities don’t require the courses considered core educational subjects; e.g., math, science, languages, government, economics… The nonprofit ‘American Council of Trustees and Alumni’ (ACTA) rate schools according to how many of the core subjects are required.

A review of more than 1,000 colleges and universities found that 29% require two or fewer of these core subjects. Critics of ACTA’s findings insist that the core curriculum is outdated, and some also insist that such ‘old-fashioned’ curricula merely encourage memorization and rote learning, rather than critical thinking. A recent ‘Roper Organization’ study found that nearly half of recent higher education graduates don’t think they got their money’s worth. The problem with education isn’t money, but quality…

In the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa write:  More than a third of American college seniors are no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college: Four years of undergraduate classes make little difference in their ability to synthesize knowledge and put complex ideas on paper: We didn’t know what to expect when we began this study. We didn’t walk into this with any axes to grind. But now that we’ve seen the data, we’re very concerned about American higher education and the extent to which undergraduate learning seems to have been neglected said Richard Arum.

In the study the authors tracked a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 students who entered 24 four-year colleges in the fall of 2005. The scholars do not name those 24 institutions, but they say they are geographically and institutionally representative of the full range of American higher education. In the study, the students were asked to take the ‘Collegiate Learning Assessment’ (CLA), a widely used essay test that measures reasoning and writing skills; three times in their college careers– in the fall of 2005, the spring of 2007, and the spring of 2009.

Thirty-six percent of the students saw no statistically significant gains in their CLA scores between their freshman and senior years… David C. Paris at ‘New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning & Accountability’ says; “Many of our institutions really aren’t set up to make undergraduate education a priority. The organizational systems and structures that we have really aren’t set up for 21st-century challenges.”  

In the article The Failure of American Higher Education by Dr. Robert D. Atkinson writes: Attend any policy discussion in Washington that deals with education and the standard line you will hear is the American K-12 system is a failure, but thank God we still have the world’s greatest higher ed system. Let me suggest that this is fundamentally wrong. Higher education is failing almost as much as K-12. Strikingly, among recent graduates of four-year colleges, just 34, 38 and 40% were proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy, respectively.

Just to be clear, these are among 24 year olds who have graduated from college. As the report from the ‘Secretary of Education’s Spellings Commission, noted:There are … disturbing signs that many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing, and thinking skills we expect of college graduates. Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined”.  In our knowledge-driven global economy, high-quality higher education is an important driver of economic competitiveness.

Students need to know; how to think, how to write, how to speak intelligently, how to find information and make sense out of it, how to argue coherently, and how to do basic math. Most colleges aren’t interested in teaching these skills for the simple reason that most faculty aren’t interested in teaching them. A few years ago, the ‘Olin Foundation’ endowed a new kind of college to fundamentally change how engineering is taught. And by all accounts, it’s a great success. Let’s create new colleges focused on teaching the kinds of skills young grads actually need…

In the article Students Give Higher Education a Failing Grade by Carol Phillips writes:  Today the challenge of choosing and starting a professional career feels more like staring into an abyss.  If you know a college bound high school junior or senior, chances are that when you ask them what they want to do after college they will reply ‘I have no idea’. A lucky few say they have found their calling, but they are in the minority.

Recently, the Gallup Research revealed that less than half (44%) of Americans believe today’s youth are ‘likely or very likely’ to exceed their parents living standards.  The figure is a record for the trend since it started tracking in 1983, and for comparison the figure was 71% in December 2001. At the same time, the cost of an education continues to soar.  Relative to 1980-81, the cost of tuition at a four-year private school has nearly tripled, and the cost at a four-year public institution has more than tripled.

On average, four-year public schools graduate only 37% of their students within four years.  The story at community colleges, which account for 46% of all undergraduates, is even worse; just 25% of those at 2-year colleges graduate within three years of the time they start. In a study sponsored by the ‘Gates Foundation’s Get Schooled Program’ found that young adults do not think the education system is aligned with their wants and needs.

While 72% agree college prepares you ‘for a better life’, exactly how it prepares you for it isn’t as clear. In higher education costs have escalated rapidly, and 60% rely on student loans to fund all or part of the cost; nothing could be worse than getting ‘stuck’ with the wrong college education, while facing a pile of debt…

The U.S. is at a crossroads with respect to the future direction of higher education. It is imperative to recognize that the world and the labor force of today is much different from the one of a century ago when much of the traditional higher education system was established, or even several decades ago when the U.S. was the world’s manufacturing powerhouse.

According to the ‘World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report’, the U.S. has lost its number one competitive ranking in the world.  The U.S. higher education system is critical for the nation to remain competitive in a global economy and regain its standing as a leader in education.  Unfortunately, the country faces numerous challenges in achieving these goals. According to Professor Jane Robbins, who studies the development and societal role of the university in the U.S., “there’s just been enormous changes [in the structure of the university] – not [ones that were] necessarily chosen, but rather accepted, allowed, and evolved”.

She added that such reactionary change has led to higher education’s unmitigated, unexpected, and often unexamined growth. She says, this type of unintentional growth has led to a system that is both rife with inefficiencies and extremely powerful.  When several professors specializing in problematic areas in U.S. universities and colleges were asked  to identify the main problem with higher education and to offer a possible solution, they said that this was impossible – the system is too large and the complications too intricate to pare down to one cause.

The future is unfolding in front of us as companies in far less developed countries are beginning to outpace the U.S. in key technical fields. U.S. companies aren’t just leaving the country for cheap labor; they are leaving the country for skilled labor.

The U.S. must shift its educational priorities, quickly; or it will be buried by the wave of skilled laborers in China, India… who will possess the world’s great intellectual capital.  The U.S. education system doesn’t lack for good ideas, it lacks for the courage to get good ideas into action…  

The U.S. is grappling with the challenge of how to grow jobs, skills, and opportunity. The issue can’t be wished away by fanciful talk about higher education bubbles and whether college is still worth it. U.S. needs more creative college graduates – it’s the only route to economic prosperity for both individuals and the nation.