George Leef is radical, in the sense of getting to the root cause of higher education's underachievement.
Moral decay and academic decay spring from the same root. That root is the federal policy of trying to ensure “access” to higher education for almost everyone. The supposedly well-intentioned Higher Education Act with its manifold subsidies transformed higher ed. What had formerly been a good that a few Americans saw as worth striving for and saving to afford, was turned into a near entitlement, mostly paid for by government money and easy, cheap loans it made available to all. (That’s the same story as with the disastrous housing bubble.) Over time, the percentage of weak and disengaged kids who just want to have fun has steadily increased, and most colleges decided to accommodate their desires (watered-down courses, lax discipline, lush amenities) rather than risk losing tuition dollars.
His Pope Center comrades recently filed a report from the University of Georgia.
Athens is the quintessential “college town,” a place where partying is a professional endeavor. Underground fake ID syndicates? Check. Ever-flowing cheap beer and mixed drinks at bar after bar after bar after bar? Check. The religion of SEC football and its concomitant tailgating, which is treated like a high class social affair rather than the glorified redneck debauchery that it is? Check. Vacuous sorority girls and frat boys? Check.

My profile of the average UGA student—which jibes with most of the depictions in the article above—is not a flattering one. The booze-addled matriculants who populate the otherwise quaint town of Athens seem to have no real interest in doing challenging work. Spending every penny on their prepaid credit cards at nearby bars (thanks, Mom and Dad), finding every shortcut to make it through their coursework (and then whining about the slightest encroachment of academic rigor), and dutifully cheering on the football team—which is worshipped on campus—appear to be more pressing matters.

Yes, there are always exceptions, and yes, there are no doubt bright students doing really good work on the campus. But I’m describing what, to me at least, seems pervasive. I’m describing a chunk of the student population comprised of the lowest common denominator, of students too smug and incurious to ever enhance their university’s educational atmosphere, and who do a big disservice to their more earnest classmates. They’re shuffled through the system in four or five or six years, having gleaned nothing but a few hazy memories and a framed piece of paper. It might be hyperbolic to say that such students and their ilk are now the majority at American colleges and universities, but I doubt it.
In that excerpt, author Jesse Saffron might be riffing off a recent Chronicle of Higher Education report that apparently in all earnestness aggregates Athens with Eugene or Ann Arbor or Chapel Hill.  Leave that aside.  Mr Saffron correctly identifies what higher education might do to defund the bars.
Institutions of higher learning should be places where students are intellectually and ethically prepared for adult life and professional careers, not sequestered from one vice or another, or sheltered from society’s more nefarious elements. With that said, however, there is a role for colleges and universities to play in terms of discouraging the moral bankruptcy which now seems so widespread on campuses.

By adopting a more selective admissions process and strengthening academic rigor, schools would help to weed out at least some of the aforementioned problems, and would send a signal to applicants (including the parents and  K-12 schools molding them): we demand more here.

In a recent article titled “If Students Have Time to Get Drunk, Colleges Aren’t Doing Their Job,” the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey writes that “the most effective alcohol abuse prevention policy is to be a better college: a place where students are continually challenged, provoked, and engaged by the difficult work of learning.”
It may not be for me to finish the task, and yet I will not give it up.


Dave Tufte said...

I live in what a colleague calls the only college town in the country where you can't buy a beer and a pizza at the same place.* Cedar City, Utah is the home of Southern Utah University.

I'm not going to claim that drinking and tailgating don't happen. But to say they are curtailed is a huge understatement.

And we have all the classroom/rigor problems described elsewhere.

This makes me think that alcohol, football, partying, and so on ... are symptoms rather than causes.

Further, if the stats are to be believed, we're already modestly more selective than other schools around the state (BYU excepted).

In the end, I think it all comes back to the ease of getting decent grades. Reflecting on my own experience of the early to mid 80's, I didn't transform from someone who got good grades while partying, to someone who worked at it and delayed partying until failing out became a serious concern in the first year of graduate school.

* That's not quite right anymore. We now have an upscale wood-fired oven pizza place where you can buy pizza and even wine together ... as long as you're willing to drop $20 per person.

Stephen Karlson said...

Was I a tough professor in part to kill the slacker in myself? Perhaps so, although I had to figure out pretty quickly that college wasn't a replay of high school. Fortunately, that served me well in graduate school, when some of the trustafarians in my entering class, who had done well at everything up to then, discovered that everyone else was at least as good as they were.

Perhaps, though, the beer-'n-circus is, as you suggest, the effect, and not the cause.