The United States has been considered a truly “exceptional” place because it excels in so many ways. It has the biggest output of goods and services. It has had the most powerful military presence on the planet for many years. Its technological advances have been the greatest of any nation. And, more relevant to this readership, surveys of higher education, conducted in such diverse places as London and Shanghai, say that America has a commanding proportion of the world’s greatest universities.

Yet, over the last generation, a remarkable and disturbing development has occurred: American universities are increasingly downplaying, ignoring, or even condemning their distinction in the production and dissemination of ideas that they have, historically, done so well. The genesis of this development goes back several decades. Around 1960, time-use data suggest that the typical college student spent around 40 hours per week in class, studying, writing papers, working in laboratories, etc., while earning a 2.4 or 2.5 grade point average—roughly one half “B” grades and one half “C”s. Fast forward to the present. Twenty-first-century data suggest a typical American college student spends under 30 hours per week on these activities (probably about 28), a 30% reduction from two generations earlier, yet the average grade point average is above 3.0—mostly “B”s, with a smattering of even higher grades.

Students are doing far less work for more recognition. If excellence associated with great achievement typically requires hard work and discipline, the present college-going generation is lacking, in large part because their professors are far less demanding than those in the past (grade inflation has been indirectly encouraged by the increasing dominance of an administrative staff contemptuous of academic values, a subject for another epistle.)

Colleges that, a half century or more ago, seemed eager to reward scholarly excellence with not only admissions but also generous financial aid are now obsessed with other things totally irrelevant to academic excellence, namely such biological characteristics as skin coloration, or even sexual preferences. I predict this will become embarrassingly obvious in the forthcoming Supreme Court cases involving Harvard and the University of North Carolina, leading the court to restrict the race-preferential treatment that currently exists.

There are still other manifestations of a near contempt for the pursuit of excellence. The widespread abandonment of required SAT or ACT test results reduces the ability of college admissions officers to assess the academic performance of applicants. The attempt by law and medical schools to suppress the rankings of their institutions by magazines trying to measure excellence is yet another manifestation of this worrisome trend. Medical schools which ease learning requirements while promoting “diversity” could literally cost lives through incompetent health care in future years.

The biggest single cause of this descent into mediocrity is the enormous federal financing of student financial aid. Unlike nearly all private scholarship assistance, there are virtually no minimal performance criteria to get federal student loans or Pell Grants. Indeed, just the opposite. If a student fails a number of courses, takes a relatively low course load, and therefore takes five and one-half years to graduate, he will probably have received at least one-third more financial assistance from the federal government than the student who graduates in four years, or even less, summa cum laude. The attrition rate of Pell Grant recipients is very high—there is no financial pressure to excel or even to persist in amiable mediocrity.

There are some early signs that America’s research excellence is being significantly challenged as well. The number of non-American schools in global lists of the top 50 or 100 institutions is growing. Aside from declining research spending in the U.S. relative to other nations, the diminishing emphasis on research probably in part reflects the current American academic obsession with promoting essentially progressive, woke agendas as manifested by swollen and increasingly powerful diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracies that have no interest in promoting academic integrity and merit—indeed, often the opposite.

The disdain for academic excellence recently hit home for me. My wife and I made a gift to modestly augment an already existing scholarship endowment fund we had created at my university. The university often provides additional matching funds from unrestricted gifts to enhance the impact of a donation, but it would not do so for our scholarship because we have a stipulation that the monies must go to a good student who is in the top 20% of his high school class. The university did not like that restriction, and therefore no matching funds were provided. At my university, scholarships to promote academic excellence are disfavored relative to ones available to prospective students with mediocre secondary school or collegiate performance. Mediocrity trumps excellence.

At zero net cost to the government or society, we could significantly promote improved student academic performance. If we restricted federal financial aid provision for poorly performing students, we would save billions each year. For example, deny aid for all students after five years of study. Deny aid to students with lower than a “C” average, and impose some anti–grade inflation standards on colleges accepting federal student financial aid.

Suppose we then used the funds saved by giving $10,000 graduation bonuses to roughly 400,000 students annually who graduate both in the top one-quarter of their college class and with scores above the national average on a new National College Equivalence Examination (NCEE), a 3–4 hour test required for graduation from any U.S. university. The NCEE would measure both general educational literacy and success in a major field of study (I have discussed that exam elsewhere, notably in my book Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America). This expenditure-neutral set of proposals would set us on the path to restoring and enhancing our reputation for educational excellence.