The Declining Prestige of Higher Education

In the New York Times, Bret Stephens decries the decline of higher education. He cites a familiar litany of leftist presumption and abuse:

Anyone who has followed the news from college campuses over the past few years knows they are experiencing forms of unrest unseen since the late 1960s.

Now, as then, campuses have become an arena for political combat. Now, as then, race is a central issue. Now, as then, students rail against an unpopular president and an ostensibly rigged system.

Unpopular president? I guess he means Johnson. Nixon was re-elected in 1972, carrying 49 states. That is perhaps a useful reminder.

Unlike the campus rebels of the ’60s, today’s student activists don’t want more freedom to act, speak, and think as they please. Usually they want less.

Yes, that is because they are leftists. No one who knows anything about leftism should be surprised.

Most strange: Today’s students are not chafing under some bow-tied patriarchal WASP dispensation. Instead, they are the beneficiaries of a system put in place by professors and administrators whose political views are almost uniformly left-wing and whose campus policies indulge nearly every progressive orthodoxy.

Colleges and universities survived the 60s and early 70s in part because most of them were seen as resisting the insanity that prevailed among many students and some faculty. That isn’t true today.

Stephens correctly describes today’s campus activism as a pro-mediocrity movement:

What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, [Anthony] Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.

Well, not all are included, equal or special–conservatives aren’t, members of the military aren’t, religious people aren’t, pro-Americans aren’t, in some cases whites aren’t. But the broader point is correct.

Stephens identifies Yale as “ground zero for recent campus unrest.” Perhaps, but it has a lot of company. At this point, I think most Americans have contempt for Yale, Harvard, and their ilk. If they don’t, they should, and I think most do. Higher education in its traditional form may be necessary to learn some skills–engineering and the life sciences that prepare one to be a doctor, for example. Otherwise, what is it good for? Why bother to be an English major when you will be “taught” by professors who desecrate great literature with nonsense about race, class and gender, and often assign mediocre literature in its place? You can read Jane Austen and George Eliot on your own. Similarly, there are few things I would rather do than study history, but why do it in college, if your professor is a Marxist? You will only be misinformed.

The main reason why most Americans historically have supported higher education is that they have seen college as the ticket to a good-paying job. But that is no longer true, apart from a few occupations that do require training that is both intensive and specialized (again, like engineering). For the most part, good-paying jobs do not require college degrees. My organization, Center of the American Experiment, has for the last several years promoted a project that we call Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree. We commissioned research by a labor economist on projected career earnings in selected fields that require technical skills but not a four-year degree–occupations like carpentry, CNC programming, welding, and so on. The economist compared the projected lifetime earning curves in twelve such occupations to the lifetime earnings of the median college graduate. The data were specific to Minnesota, but I am sure one would get similar results in other states. The findings surprised even me.

Most of these technical fields–CNC programmers, millwrights, plumbers, electricians, electrical power line installers, and so on–earn significantly more than most college graduates, normalized for a 2,000 hour work year. (Including overtime would probably increase this advantage.) And they do it without incurring crippling student debt.

If a four-year degree is no longer, for most young people, the best path to a high-paying and satisfying job, and if much of what is taught is useless or worse, why should parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their kids to college? Or, worse, incur hundreds of thousands in debt?

University administrators are making fools of themselves and their institutions and subjecting themselves to well-justified contempt. I don’t think they begin to understand how precarious their position has become.

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