Historically, success in America has been gained mainly by individual achievement. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at our nations high income and geographic mobility, noting how bright and hard-working people could overcome poverty and rapidly rise up the economic ladder; Americans lacked titles of nobility, aristocratic pretensions, etc. For the most part, colleges were part of this tradition: higher education was and is a screening device that helps identify the smartest, hardest working, most ambitious young Americans with a talent for leadership in business, politics, the arts, etc. To be sure, even from the beginning, colleges were disproportionately attended by relatively affluent persons, and brightness and prior academic achievement were not always the basis for admitting and graduating college students. Still, collegiate success at the level of the individual student, faculty or even at the institutional level was largely measured by achievementknowledge gained, research published, vocational accomplishments of alumni, etc.
While aging has many disadvantages, that is partially offset by gaining a heightened sense of historical perspective. Speaking personally of my over 60 years of involvement with universities, I can say that academic achievement is increasingly being de-emphasized, although college remains a necessary but not sufficient requirement for vocational success.
The downplaying of academics has become apparent in two admissions legal contretemps of the past year. The Harvard admissions lawsuit has revealed that on purely academic achievement grounds, it appears Harvard has been significantly discriminating against Asian-American students. Amorphous non-academic qualities as determined through some holistic process appear to often trump academic achievement in determining who gets into Harvard. The Ivy League is dominated today by rich kids and seems perhaps more like an academic gated community than a promoter of the American Dream. And the Varsity Blues scandal shows ball handling skills are often more important for admission than brains and good grades at some top or wannabe top schools like the University of Southern California.
The downplaying of academics, of course, varies widely in magnitude across colleges and universities. But several trends are fairly clear:
1. A decreasing portion of institutional resources is going to fund academicsteachers and researchers. Spending on disseminating and creating knowledge is being crowded out by massive increases in administrative staff overseeing student affairs, new sustainability and diversity bureaucracies, intercollegiate athletics, etc.
2. Students on average are spending far less time on academics than they did a generation or two ago, and almost certainly are learning less from their schooling.
3. Americas clear global lead in research is rapidly ending as other nations, especially China, are vastly increasing research spending relative to that in the United States, where political leaders increasingly forfeit future investment and national greatness for immediate political job security.
4. The hallmark of a vibrant collegiate intellectual environment is campus debatethe non-violent but vigorous discussion of alternative perspectives. That is declining on many campuses where speakers are suppressed by protesters and faculty profess near uniform left-wing perspectives.
5. While students are learning less as academics are downplayed, the cost of creating and disseminating knowledge is actually rising even faster than standard cost measures (e.g. tuition fees) indicate. Students are learning less for more.
6. The notion that college is for all, along with federal government financial aid programs, simultaneously raised enrollments and college costs, leading to a glut of college graduates and stagnation in the earnings advantages of a college degree, as more graduates are now underemployed.
7. This is now leading to enrollment declines and falling public support. As a consequence, more colleges are failing. The creative destruction that Joseph Schumpeter said made capitalism so successful is finally coming to higher education.
In the competitive market sector, there is a well defined bottom line: profits, and business net worth as often manifested in stock prices. Market forces discipline firms to be efficient, lowering costs, and producing desirable products, increasing revenues. By contrast, a lack of market incentives along with a lack of well-defined goals and information needed to measure them, along with insufficient innovation, help explain higher educations drifting away from its core missions.
This has led me to write a far more detailed analysis, well over 100,000 words long, Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America, published today by the Independent Institute. If you enjoy my Forbes higher education posts but want more detail, read my book.