I agree with much of the premise of Clay Reynolds’ piece “The Real Crisis of Higher Education” in the February issue (Vital Signs): Certainly, as he indicates, education at all levels in the United States is failing.  High schools no longer prepare students for life and work but “to take standardized tests” for advanced learning.

However, his solution to improve the quality of our colleges seems to be to throw more money at public institutions of “higher” learning.  This approach has not had any success at the primary or secondary level, and I have no confidence that it would fare any better at the college level.  The fact that, “Even today, a B.A. is not necessary for someone to be a contributing, well-informed, responsible member of society,” means that we should be concentrating on better secondary education and increasing the quality, rather than the quantity, of college opportunities.

Those opportunities should be available to those who can afford them, and to those whose abilities and efforts qualify them for genuine scholarships.  As in the efforts to make private- and parochial-school education available to children (in other words, to put competition into the system), provisions for higher learning should largely be a matter of private funding.  Students who successfully complete a serious college course will benefit more than those who do not, and, therefore, they should bear the cost of their education themselves.

        —Mary Kohler
Sheboygan, WI

Professor Reynolds Replies:

What I said was, “Whereas, it is true that ‘throwing more money’ into higher education won’t solve the problems, it is also true that the problems cannot be solved without more money; it’s a lead-pipe cinch that they won’t be solved by taking money away from it.  Education
 . . . requires constantly increasing contributions of large sums merely to sustain itself.”  Public education represents an intelligent social and political investment that cannot be held to the same standards of return that apply to a corporate model.  The problem with “throwing money” at education has been that it has not always been overseen and controlled by the people who were involved in the actual educational process (e.g., faculty), and it is not always applied where it is needed: more and better-qualified and better-paid faculty, better facilities, smaller class sizes, and increased resources.  Instead, “fiscal accountability” and glitzy image is the norm.  It is logical that a college diploma will benefit people; but if the accomplished learning that the diploma represents continues to be devalued by declining standards, eroding quality, and an incessant demand for measurable, quantified accountability (most of which is made up, anyway), then whatever benefits it might offer will soon go the way of those previously associated with a high-school degree.  A college diploma should not be a requirement for a successful, fulfilling life or for many professions that now routinely demand it, but that is the situation we have created, although we have not prepared ourselves to deal with the consequences.  In spite of constantly increasing enrollments and more and more outdated facilities, most state universities are teaching more students with the same (or fewer) resources and faculty that they had 20 years ago.  The painful fact is that many of the students simply shouldn’t be there; many just don’t want to be.  But they are told that they have to be.  Pressure to move students directly out of high school and through college, regardless of quality of learning, has resulted in generally poor preparation for professional or any other kind of life.  It is also responsible, I think, for the appalling high-school drop-out rate, particularly among minorities.  College is out of the financial reach of many middle-class families unless they borrow heavily.  Rising tuition costs create enormous personal debt, much of which will never be repaid simply because potential incomes won’t support it.

My argument is that more money is needed for schools to do their jobs and to avoid a diploma-mill mentality, in which demand for fiscal accountability has resulted in mass education through mega-classrooms, overtaxed facilities, overburdened and grossly underpaid faculty, and outmoded resources.  The only solution that I can see is to recognize the need for intelligently applied and vastly increased funding to ensure that higher education has the capability of fulfilling its mission of providing our nation with graduates well prepared and well educated to face an increasingly uncertain future.