The Injustice of US Educational Attainment
Religion & Liberty Online

The Injustice of US Educational Attainment

As commencement ceremonies once again are being celebrated around the country, I was reminded again of the moral crisis of US education.

Elise Hilton recently surveyed the dismal employment rate among young adults in the US, writing that we have moved in twelve years from having the best rate in the developed world to being among the worst, following the path of Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

She highlights two possible solutions. The better one is from Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg:

Gregg says we must rely on free markets rather than redistribution of wealth, economic liberty, rule of law, entrepreneurship and the ability to take risks economically – all things that have made America great in the past.

The second comes from David Leonhardt, who, among other ideas, suggests, “Long term, nothing is likely to matter more than improving educational attainment, from preschool through college.”

Notice the language he uses? Not educational quality, nor even job-training, but “educational attainment.” With no intended disrespect to Mr. Leonhardt, it is precisely this well-meaning, widespread, but ill-informed mentality that has led, in large part, to our current educational crisis.

As I have recently explained,

By championing the virtues of higher education as the universal means to prosperity, we have pushed many people who did not need it, want it, or have the capacity for it — into it. By doing so, we have changed the student population, increasing the number of people who would not score high enough to get by under current standards. As a result, the standards were lowered to accommodate. As the standards lowered, higher education became a more realistic option for a greater number of people, always with the empty promise of a better life. As more people enrolled, the average achievement dropped and standards were soon to follow.

The good, but hopelessly naive, intentions behind the push to put more students through higher education is one important factor that has contributed to the erosion of its quality. Not only are graduates unprepared, but many still do not even graduate in the first place, because they never should have been encouraged to enroll in the first place.

Educational attainment? Forgive me, but “attainment” of what? Attainment of debt ($1 trillion and counting)? Attainment of worthless textbooks that can’t be resold? Attainment of a degree that only represents the education level of a high school diploma thirty years ago due to grade inflation?

Personally, I would rather we had a nation of high school drop-outs whose eighth grade educations were what they would have been sixty years ago than the state we are in now. They, at least, would be employable. They, at least, might have gained some critical thinking skills, an appreciation for the value of art and literature, some invaluable moral formation, and in short, a well-rounded education — precisely what colleges today promise but too often do not deliver. People do still gain these things now, of course, but more often in spite their schooling than because of it, and less commonly than our society needs.

US higher education is in crisis. Yes, a big part is financial. As Alan Jacobs has recently noted,

colleges and universities have invested more strenuously in amenities than in education, with the assumption that students absorbed in the delights of their dining halls and climbing walls won’t notice that their teachers are largely underpaid adjuncts who have to jump from course to course and college to college to try to get something close to minimum-wage levels of pay.

He goes on, “colleges borrowed heavily to create [these amenities] at a very bad time to go deeply into debt, and in the naïve belief that their amenities would be uniquely wonderful.”

But the financial problem, as Jacobs implies, is not the only problem or the worst. Financial mismanagement is hurting the quality of education. Yet, it is not the primary problem but a symptom of a more serious disease: intergenerational injustice.

Education, in essence, is a moral duty of stewardship. Each generation is given an inheritance of the best aspirations and achievements of human history — no single generation can claim to have originated them — with the duty to learn them, critique them, contribute to them, and pass them down to the next generation in a better condition than when they received them. This is a twofold duty: one of justice to our fathers who passed them on to us, and one of justice to our children who can only receive them from us.

Instead, as Jacobs indicates, the current generation seems to think that their children would be better served by climbing walls than calculus, amenities rather than education. Children may want to play with toys all day, but it is a parent’s duty to train them, despite their desires for unending entertainment, to be mature, intelligent, and responsible adults.

Jacobs continues with a radical idea for the future of higher education, how colleges can set themselves apart from others, and one that I cannot praise enough:

How about this? Maybe someone could have the imagination to say: By the quality of our teaching. I am waiting for some bold college president to come forth and say, “You won’t find especially nice dorms at our college. They’re clean and neat, but there’s nothing fancy about them. We don’t have a climbing wall. Our food services offer simple food, made as often as possible with fresh ingredients, but we couldn’t call it gourmet eating. There are no 55-inch flat-screen TVs in the lounges of our dorms. We don’t have these amenities because we decided instead to invest in full-time, permanent faculty who are genuinely dedicated to teaching and advising you well and preparing you for life after college. So if you want the state-of-the-art rec center, that’s cool, but just remember that the price you’ll pay for that is to have most of your classes taught by graduate students and contingent faculty, the first of whom won’t have the experience and the second of whom won’t have the time to be the kind of teachers you need (even when, as is often the case, they really want to be). Our priorities here are pretty much the reverse of those that dominate many other schools. So think about that, and make a wise decision.”

While I am open to ideas about education for a digital and globalized age, many of which may lower costs and add convenience in the future, Jacobs gets the most important thing right: if colleges want to survive, they need to excel at their raison d’être, i.e. educational institutions simply need to excel at educating, first and foremost.

Standards of quality (≠ standardization) need to be raised (graduation rates be damned!). Raise the bar, administrators, I dare you. True, many who only “get by” now will be forced to drop out, but that only means that they simply won’t get a degree of rapidly declining value but will be spared thousands of dollars of debt and several wasted years of their lives. And with increased educational quality, at least they won’t consider the time and money they spent at your school a total waste. At least someone will have been honorable enough to expect more of them.

Raise the bar, and many others who for so long have resigned themselves to mindlessly jumping through hoops to meet life’s milestones will finally be challenged to live out their potential, to endeavor to rise to expectations truly worthy of the inheritance we have received and worthy of their dignity as human beings endowed with reason, understanding, and the capacity for virtue. You may be surprised how many would rise to the challenge.

And I will say this, as I have before, Christian educational institutions, who acknowledge that all we have is given to us by the grace of God, ought to be the first to do so. This talent, our educational inheritance, has been buried for far too long through mismanagement, disordered priorities, and in some cases, simple greed. Dig it up, I say, and earn some real interest before the Master returns and demands an account of the investment he has entrusted to your care.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.