for all!" is the battle cry of many higher education
administrators, reacting to President Obama's apparent
endorsement of every American going to college.
To be fair, the President didn't quite say "college"
only. To quote his Tuesday night address to a joint session
of Congress: "And so tonight, I ask every American
to commit to at least one year of more of higher education
or career training. This can be community college or a
four year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship."
But he also said: "We will provide the support necessary
for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020,
America will once again have the highest proportion of
college graduates in the world."
Sadly, good intentions and a sports competition-like drive
to move from tenth to "Number One" in college-going
25-34 year-old adults can have bad consequences. The same
bad consequences as the Kansas Board of Regents' pressure
on Kansas universities to retain more students. Neither
the feds nor the state is recognizing that not everyone
can or should pursue college coursework. Apparently we
believe we are a nation where all of our children are
above average, the overused but so appropriate "Lake
So far, the United States still is considered to have
the best university system in the world. We have provided
research universities where our best minds interact with
our best young students, and we lead the world with over
270 Nobel Prizes. Our Liberal Arts Colleges also mix old
scholars with young, and provide a large number of students
with access to the arts and humanities. We already spend
three percent of our gross domestic product on higher
education, double that of other developed countries.
So why not haul the rest of our youth into colleges to
pump up the numbers?
There are many students who cannot or will not do college
level work. This empty cheerleading adds pressure to schools
to give A's-for-effort, inflate grades, and deflate content.
And it gives legitimacy to cheap schools that are give
credit-for-life-experience or operate under pay-your-money
and get-your-degree. There is plenty of evidence that
our general level of K-12 education is slipping. Foreign
exchange students come here to find they can coast for
several years, while our student at the same grade level
goes there to find himself or herself several years behind.
Other countries know that not every student has the skills
to be a doctor, and that it takes more than heart to be
a nurse. They know that some students do not have the
talent to complete bonafide college level work. Some have
not developed the necessary work ethic. And some simply
do not desire to pursue classwork.
But beginning with the "self-esteem" movement,
Kansas public schools have been under pressure to make
every student above average. Some schools have ZAP programs
(zeros aren't permitted). One major suburban school still
uses mastery learning where students repeat work until
all have As or Bs. Another big district has an "Upstart"
program where students with a D in a prerequisite course
can enroll in advanced courses, thus watering down the
courses for truly advanced students.
Funding economically poor students who are academically
deserving-is good. Encouraging folks with brains and study
ethic to return to school-is good. But unleashing a competition
to be "Number One" in college-going is not good,
because it continues the grade inflation and content deflation
prevalent in the K-12 system. And it cheapens the meaning
of a degree, especially for hard-working and talented
students who accomplish bonafide degrees.
The U.S. university system is the best in the world, and
it isn't broken yet. But this call to educate everyone
when not everyone is college material may end our world-class
Both Presidents Clinton and Obama have stated that the
college degree has become as necessary as the high school
diploma used to be. Under a mandate to provide it to everyone,
a college degree may indeed come to indicate that same
level of high school knowledge.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives