The current debate about the state and future of higher education seems to center on the question of whether a college degree is a “privilege” or a “right.”  The loudest argument is that any high-school graduate who has followed a “college pathway” and has made decent grades should be admitted to a state institution of higher learning.  The assumed “right” is expressed in the phrase “any student”; the “privilege,” in “decent grades.”  Admission to college is only part of the process, though; financing college is another.  The lines are blurred when the capability to pay for higher education becomes a potential restriction of the student’s “right” to take advantage of the “privilege.”  At some point, the question of the “worth” of the whole process must come into play.

Fifty years ago, a university degree was the province of the wealthy and the upper-middle class.  Poorer (mostly white) students could attend college if they received merit- or talent-based scholarships or if they qualified for the G.I. Bill.  Students still try to “work their way through,” but it is almost impossible to pay for tuition, fees, books, and room and board for even a minimum course load with part-time wages.

Both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, responding to what was called the “Education Gap” and the “Brain Drain,” initiated financial-aid programs to enable any qualified high-school graduate to attend college.  Largely, these measures were designed to make education accessible to minorities; actually, they had their greatest impact on the working middle class.  The National Defense Student Loan program was joined by a number of others to ensure that no one was denied a college degree because of financial constraints.  The result was a flood of “first-generation” students whose parents never dreamed of a university degree for themselves and who probably did not think that their children would go to college, either.

In those days, though, a high-school diploma was a significant mark of academic achievement.  That notion rapidly faded as the secondary-school certificate was devalued to a stepping stone toward a college diploma, something that was then, in turn, degraded in favor of a graduate or professional degree.  Many professions that did not require a B.A. now demand advanced degrees or post-graduate certification.  Even today, a B.A. is not necessary for someone to be a contributing, well-informed, responsible member of society.  A high-school diploma should be sufficient for adult life and vocational qualifications, equipping most for any number of careers in which experience and craftsmanship count more than the ability to solve differential equations or recite a Shakespearean sonnet.

Many students—no one knows for sure how many, for there is no standardized test for it—truly do not want to be in college in the first place.  Some are not ready for it emotionally; some of those who think they are have found the experience damaging.  College has become the “next logical step” after high school; but no one is truly questioning either the logic or the necessity of taking it.  Those students who find themselves trapped in a college curriculum and realize that they have no commitment to it usually wind up flunking out or, more commonly, dragging themselves through the courses, earning minimally passing grades, learning nothing, just getting by.

Automatically marching high-school graduates into college and stigmatizing those who refuse to jump through this hoop is unfair; but the announcement that a child has chosen to forgo college is often greeted with dour expressions of sympathy, as if the youngster has a disease.  But if high schools did not have to concentrate on preparing students for advanced learning and to take standardized tests, their diplomas might yet be sufficient preparation for work and life.  This might also keep millions of students from taking on a burden of debt to pay for something they did not want or need in the first place.

Defaults on federally insured notes have become a huge problem.  Periodic economic downturns leave many degreed students unable to find professional employment and lead some graduates to decide that the money they have borrowed for their education was wasted, especially when they find themselves working in jobs they could have held without a B.A.  Many believe that they have earned the right to enjoy better lifestyles and higher-paying jobs with advancement potential.  When those rewards don’t come, they feel scammed.

No one in higher education ever said that a college degree guaranteed a job.  The point of attending college is to obtain a broader understanding of the world, a deeper comprehension of fields of study.  Certainly, those students seeking to enter a profession such as medicine or law recognize that such learning is a prefatory step; but astute students recognize that their collegiate purpose is not to be “trained” but to learn so they can later be trained or further educated, and then, maybe, employed.

The loan programs initiated in the 1960’s were effectively gutted by the Reagan administration when they were ended or privatized.  (State programs quickly followed suit.)  Before Reagan, a student who borrowed money for an education could defer repayment by joining the Peace Corps or enlisting for military service; those who became teachers were allowed to discount up to 50 percent of their debt.  That program ultimately produced a generation of career teachers.

Under Reaganomics, the programs were drastically altered.  Government-insured loans were still available at modest rates, but they now came from private lenders, meaning students had no chance of negotiating if they were unable to repay.  Defaults soon reached a crisis point.  Today, obtaining a loan for college is an onerous business.  It requires pages of paperwork (in which the details of the borrower’s private life are disclosed) and a raft of difficult qualifications.  Repayment schedules are inflexible, even threatening; many loans require repayment to start almost immediately.  Some students emerge from college owing $75,000 or more, but unless they are “trained” for immediate and lucrative employment, they are exceedingly liable to default.  Many students fail to “qualify” for a federally insured loan because some number cruncher in a cubicle somewhere deemed that the “family contribution” is sufficient to cover the cost of college or because they are only marginally qualified in an academic sense—a determination usually made on the basis of the SAT.  These youngsters are then thrown on the mercy of private lenders who are not bound by federal guarantees; some of these are legal con artists who promise low interest and easy payback but demand collateral or garnish wages or even slap liens on the family home.

What would work would be a revival of a key element of the National Defense program, extending deferment and even partial forgiveness of debt beyond teaching or soldiering to other vitally needed professional areas: doctors and healthcare workers in rural communities and urban clinics, lawyers for the poor, social workers for straining public agencies, small-town city engineers, management assistance for small businesses, law enforcement.  Such a program might produce a cadre of highly experienced professionals.

All of this, though, avoids the larger issue: the declining quality of the education itself.  Like the question of financing college degrees, it also centers on money.  Most state legislatures, sensitive to the rising cost of higher education, are now committed to quantifying education.  The watchword is accountability, although no one is sure how to measure it.  The answer that is most often given is the standardized exam.

Even a part-time substitute teacher knows that all a standardized test measures is a student’s ability to take a standardized test.  Each student is unique, and each learning curve is particular.  No exam can measure what a student knows or has the potential to learn.  Some students are simply better at test taking than others, and some who are not so good at it may actually be smarter and have more potential than those who are.  Even ardent supporters of the college boards will admit privately that standardized testing is one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American public; regardless, from elementary school forward, standardized-test results are used as absolute measurements of learning.

The value of a higher degree lies in the student’s ability to apply what he has learned on a theoretical basis to a practical reality.  A college education is a learning process, one that encourages independent thinking, creative imagination, and the development of new and innovative ideas.  Unfortunately, the elements that help to ensure these features, tenure and academic freedom, are under attack; at the same time, student “rights” have become student “entitlements,” and many are enforced by the civil code.  The result is that the quality of higher education erodes, largely owing to the mandate that schools do more with less and do it regardless of actual learning.  All that matters is that the sheepskin is in hand after four years.  In the meantime, side effects, such as academic dishonesty, grow to epidemic proportions.

Sadly, most students don’t seem to care.  The grade-conscious assiduously avoid any course that might damage their GPA.  It’s the diploma that counts; that they might have to earn it is not a consideration.  You shouldn’t have to pay for something and earn it, right?  If universities merely opened a kiosk on the quad and offered degrees for so-many thousand dollars—“Diplomas printed while you wait!”  “On-the-spot financing available!”—the lines would likely be as long as they are at the registrar’s offices.

Much has been said in state legislatures about how to “fix” higher education.  Unfortunately, the repairs require a painful acknowledgement that we get what we pay for, and this is a reality that politicians simply will not face.  But the money has to come from somewhere, or the current erosion will become catastrophic.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the shortage of qualified faculty.

Increasingly, colleges are relying on part-time, adjunct faculty to staff burgeoning classrooms and to cover vital areas that would otherwise be neglected.  State budgets forbid permanent hires, and starting salaries remain so low in many cases, that, personal dedication aside, anyone who is qualified to do almost anything else probably will.  Even salaries for most tenure-track professors average less than one can make managing a fast-food restaurant or full-time bartending, jobs that do not require a diploma.  In most cases, salary ceilings are so low in higher education that the maximum professorial salary is less than the starting salary some college graduates expect.

Faculty teaching the fundamental courses in many institutions—courses that fulfill state-mandated requirements in literacy, science, math, and social studies—are so overworked that it is a wonder students learn anything.  Desperately understaffed universities hire adjunct and part-time faculty to teach these courses; many of these people also teach full loads in local community colleges, as they need the extra work to supplement their low incomes.

Meanwhile, universities create “mega-sections,” classes where between 150 and 750 (or more) students are herded into large auditoriums and taught by a single faculty member (often assisted by minimally qualified “graders”) in lectures sometimes delivered via closed-circuit television.  Oftentimes, the professor never actually sees any students; in some cases, the professor isn’t even on campus.  Exams are given on a standardized basis, of course, and often graded by machine; students are shunted through a process of mass instruction with no regard for individual learning.  Even in classes where the focus and scope of the subject matter require concentrated discussion, enrollments are nearly twice what they should be.

Some colleges are under a mandate to show a profit.  The operative word is retention, and woe to the faculty member who fails too many.  Standards evaporate as administrators commit themselves to squeezing every dime they can out of every enrollee.  “Open Admission” is the policy at many state colleges, whereby anyone who shows up is signed up.  (“Our entrance requirement is a warm body and cold cash,” one registrar told me.)  The result is that the functionally illiterate and mathematically inept—students who often only got out of high school by the barest margin—sit next to students who may have been graduated in the tops of their classes.

At the same time, universities struggle with aging, overcrowded buildings, decrepit physical plants, deteriorating infrastructures, and inadequate labs.  Faculty labor under declining morale and a sense of fatalistic acceptance.  And while all these issues simmer in the background, administrators are required to devote much of their time (up to 80 percent, in some cases) to hustling private money to keep the doors open and classes running.  Ruinously expensive athletic programs chew up billions and bring in millions from alumni who demand entertainment.  All of this has produced the academic equivalent of the school kid going door-to-door selling junky products so his school can buy necessary equipment that should have come out of the school budget.

Past all of these graveyards of wasted ideals, state governments whistle along, happily consulting with “experts” in business and industry, some of whom may actually have been to college, ignoring the very people who know what the problems are and have meaningful solutions to suggest.  Professorial names do not make good headlines; the names of CEOs and millionaires do.  The attitude of legislatures seems to be that schools should be run like corporations.  To them, universities are “factories,” and graduates are “product,” and students are merely the “raw material” from which products are fashioned.  Faculty are assembly-line workers, affixing parts to machines in production as they roll by.  No one cares about quality.  A shiny coat of paint is far more important than performance, especially since there’s no warranty to worry about.

While “throwing more money” into higher education will not solve all of the problems, they cannot be solved without more money.  Education at any level is a costly loss-leader.  It requires constantly increasing contributions of large sums merely to sustain itself.  To grow, more is needed.  To improve, huge amounts are required.  The return isn’t visible.  You cannot put it on a spreadsheet or calculate it on a bar graph.  You cannot measure it or stand off and admire it.  The rewards may not appear for generations.  But the penalties will emerge if the problems are ignored and the imbecilic notion persists that a student’s learning can be somehow quantified and placed on a chart.

Ultimately, it is an issue of whether people honestly believe that a well-informed and intellectually developed mind is a better prospect than a robotic respondent who has gone through the motions but who has never learned to think, create, and devise independent solutions to problems others have not yet imagined.  Unless we are prepared to take that step, the question of whether a higher degree is a “right” or a “privilege” is a silly matter for debate.  The larger problems should be solved by people who do the teaching, however, not by a group moved by (often partisan) political impulses.  Asking a legislature to find such solutions is rather like asking people who seldom wash to solve the problems facing soap makers.