By Brian G. Long, Ph.D., C.P.M.

For over 30 years, we have heard criticisms of universities “dumbing down.” Regrettably, here are the facts.  In a study of 125 universities across the nation, 77% of all grades given are A’s and B’s.  Some professors begin their classes by announcing that they “don’t believe in grades,” and that all students who regularly participate in the class will automatically receive an A.  Moving down the ladder, the same study showed that 15% of the grades given were C’s, leaving only about 4% of the grades being D’s and E’s.   Hence, the average University grade point average comes out to be about 3.3, resulting in well over half of the student body in today’s world graduating with “honors.”

But that is only half the story.  Among curriculums, the grades are not evenly distributed.  In general, the so-called STEM classes as well as classes in business administration are graded much more normal, whereas many of the humanities classes are far more liberal.  In one institution, about 90% of all awarded grades were A’a and B’s, and only 10% were C’s.  But it is also in the STEM classes as well as classes in business administration where the jobs are.

For most higher education institutions today, flunking out of school requires a concerted effort on the part of the student, AS LONG AS they have enough money to keep paying tuition.  By carefully choosing easy classes and showing any kind of an effort, almost any student can earn a degree from the University.  This may lead to another academic malady called “curriculum slide.” A student that can’t make it in a STEM curriculum slides over to a much less rigorous program in order to stay in school and obtain a “degree.”  In short, getting a college degree is easy.  Getting a college education is not.

The Traditional Days of Yore

At my freshmen orientations at Central Michigan University back in 1964, an ominous challenge was laid before us:  The rotund president, Dr. Judson Foust, declared that about 50% of our freshman class would not return for the sophomore year.  Granted, some would decide that college was not for them.  Some would transfer.  Others would drop out, and resume their education at another point in life.  A few would be forced out for financial reasons, but with tuition of only $250 per year, finance were seldom the core reason for leaving.  Overwhelmingly, the majority who did not return would simply be “asked” not to return.  In other words, they flunked out.  The University felt that taxpayer resources should not be wasted on students that were not ready to learn.

Much as we were warned, at least 50% of my new friends in my freshman class did not return the following year.  Some were simply swept up in the open-ended social environment of the University, and could not discipline themselves to study when others were having fun.  Some of the guys went girl-crazy, and I suppose some of the girls when guy-crazy.  Some just loafed.  What was to stop it?

The University tried, at least, to add some sort of order. But the rules we sometimes austere.  In those days, college women were required to be back in the dorm by 11:00 pm on weeknights, and 1:00 am on weekends.  It was called, in loco parentis, a doctrine that the University should act “in place of the parents.” In a discriminatory twist, there were no such curfews for the men.  From a legal standpoint, the age of “majority” was still 21 years old, and parents felt secure that the University was trying to look out for the good of the students. When the age of majority was dropped to 18, the “in loco parentis” doctrine was abandoned.  Many other rules were dropped as well.  I’m not sure that the relaxation of these rules made a huge difference in the educational outcome of the students, but they were exemplary of the changing times. For instance, at C.M.U.  in 1968, a male student found ANYWHERE beyond the lobby in a women’s dorm would be promptly suspended from school.  In a sharp reversal, by 1972, many of those same dorms were made coeducational. Guys and girls were now all living in the same dorm.

For most 18 year olds, the college routine was a big change from high school.  Most campuses are spread out, and going from one class to the next on a large campus could take as much as 30 minutes.  Like most universities, classes did not meet every day, and weekly homework assignments used to be commonplace.  At least half of the classes assigned one, two, or as many as three term papers or similar projects.  The professors carefully read and critiqued these papers, most of which required library research.  In class, good note taking was essential, and it was common practice for the serious students to “compare notes” by jointly discussing lectures of previous days.  Of course, some exams were the new-fangled “multiple choice” format for some classes, but study was still essential.  Philosophies and concepts were important, and essay exams would take the form of “compare and contrast.”  There were reading assignments from both the textbook and library reading lists, but they were really intended to be study assignments, i.e., you were expected to remember and understand what you read.   All of this rigor resulted in a skill set that gave a college graduate a huge advantage in the world after graduation.

How did liberal arts students in the 1960’s, with degrees in South American Art History, rise to become the leaders of their generation?  The key word: Rigor.  And the rigor was distributed across all of the subject areas of the university, including English, history, geography, math, science, and even the PE requirements.  They earned a college degree, but they also incarnated a college education.  This is the difference between what was ONCE a college education, and why it was synonymous a college degree.

As previously noted, typical liberal arts curriculum used to involve essay exams, term papers, presentations, and hours in the library.  By contrast, today’s liberal arts student can shop for classes where there are no term papers, no essay exams, no rigorous requirements, and in some instances, no exams. With a little more research, students can sign up for classes where the only grades are A’s and B’s.  It is worth repeating:  Getting a college degree is easy.  Getting a college education is not.

The Downward Path

How did higher education get “dumbed down?”  To describe it fully would take volumes.  But here are a few of the factors:  First, higher education in the 1950s and 1960s was on a “roll.”  The post-WWII GI bill educated thousands of students who would never have been able to otherwise attend.  The “baby boom” created a need for more and more schoolteachers and professors. American industry was expanding by leaps and bound, and trained managers, engineers, and scientists were in short supply.  Everyone wanted to hire the best and the brightest, which was usually ensured by hiring a college graduate—even if the applicant’s degree was not necessarily related to the ultimate job.  Most major firms and some government units had “training programs,” and new recruits were passed among departments for short stints until finally settling into the corporate bureaucracy, and beginning a climb up the corporate ladder.  A college graduate from a reputable college the 1960s was almost always guaranteed to be (1) an effective communicator, both oral and written, (2) a reasonable student, who could study, take notes, and remember information, (3) able to problem solve, “think outside the box,” and integrate concepts (4) knowledgeable in world affairs, politics, technological advancements, (5) access library and technical resources to dig for answers, and (6 be tenacious enough to stay up all night to get the job done, if that’s what it took.  As a result, when I graduated in 1968, someone without a job lined up was almost unheard of.

Forty Years Later

As noted, in 1968, many new college recruits at both public and private organizations entered a training program. In today’s world, most of the training programs are gone.  Firms, and even some government units, want to hire recruits that can “hit the ground running.”  Granted, not as much output is expected of a 22 year old as a 45 year old, but they are still expected to be effective in a matter of days or weeks.  Firms want to hire “experience,” even if it is limited experience.

Why did the training programs disappear? Cost was probably a consideration for some. But another major factor: Loyalty. Indeed, firms used to be loyal to their employees, and employees were loyal to their companies.  You expected to work for the same firm for forty years and retire.

Not so today.  Countless stories abound of firms that have dismissed good employees to meet short-term budget goals just because the firms had a couple of bad quarters.  On the other end of the spectrum, firms found that they would invest time to train an employee, only to have the recruit jump ship and take a job with another company—now that they have experience.  Firms today are happy to hire a bright young person that someone else has trained—and pay them considerably more money.

Staying with the same firms for a forty year career is now exceedingly rare—except for those satisfied with staying at or near the pay level of their entry level job.  Sad but true, in modern industry today, few firms have money to retain people they would like to keep but can’t easily promote or offer more money—even if it will take two people to replace them.   As the saying goes today, to get a raise or a promotion, you have to move to another company.  Again, sad but true.

The Pay Myth

The myth:  A college education GUARANTEES a higher paying job.  In today’s world, nothing could be farther from the truth.  However, in the 1950s and 60s, the assertion was valid for at least 90% of all college graduates.

Why this deception?   Over 50 years ago, Darrel Huff wrote a best-selling book entitled, “How to Lie with Statistics.”  Proponents of the four year college education are quick to cite statistics that baccalaureate degree holders earn 75% more over their lifetime than those with less education.  But as Darrel Huff points out, statistics can be manipulated to be very deceptive.  For instance, a survey of art graduates from an eastern University reported that their average graduate from the class of 1979 now makes $95,000 per year.  Fine. But the program had 46 graduates, and one of those graduates now makes about $3 million per year.  All of the others obviously make far less, but the average is $95,000 per year.  A little math tells us that the average for 45 of the 46 is about $30,000.  The $95,000 is an arithmetic average, not a median average. What’s worse, the “highs” are getting higher for many of the “average” calculations, so the exaggerations are becoming even greater.  A recent study shows that 25% of today’s “college graduates” are making $17 per hour or less.  Ouch.  The average student debt is now about $30,000.  Double ouch.  Oh, payments on the debt begin six months after graduation.

Flooding the Market: The 1:2:7 Rule

In 1960, about 60% of the jobs available at most firms were for unskilled workers.  A high school diploma was preferred, but not always required.  Today, that 60% has declined 10%.  For every occupation that requires an “advanced” degree, i.e., MD, Ph.D, JD, master’s degree or more, there are two jobs require a University baccalaureate degree,.  Of those two jobs, about seven support technicians are required.  These technicians may have associates degrees from a junior college, but are more likely to have other technical credentials such as “journeyman plumber,” “certified welder,” “CNC operator,” “Forensic Laboratory Technician,” “Paralegal,” or any of the dozens of other credentials that circulate in the industrial, business, or medical world.   The associate’s “degree” is far less important than the skill certification.  Sorry, but “certified figure nail polisher” does not fit in the high demand category, and doing some serious market investigation is essential before forking over time and tuition dollars for skills that have no viable market.  How does the 1:2:7 ratio fit it today’s world?  The simple fact is that there are too many college graduates (that’s the 2 in the 1:2:7) that don’t have the technical skills required by the marketplace (that’s the 7), and the junior and senior years of college spend studying South American Art History are wasted, even though the student may have found the subject to be “interesting.”

Where will all the technicians for the future come from?  Several places.  Some will come from union apprenticeship programs.  Some will come from rejuvenated high school vocational education programs. However, the overwhelming majority will come from the extensive network of junior colleges that have emerged over the past 50 years.  From a public policy standpoint, we have overfunded the four year institutions and underfunded the junior colleges.

The Easy Grade Revolution

Relaxation of the rigor that once characterized the University curriculum began to evolve in the late 1960’s.  During the Vietnam War, some professors were reluctant to give low grades because the loss of a student draft deferment could land the male student in the army overnight. Also, by the early 1970’s, demand had caught up with supply, and some overbuilt universities were scrambling to find enough students to fill the classrooms. Even today, “open enrollment,” i.e., most applicants are admitted with minor restrictions, is commonplace, except for a few elite institutions like Michigan Tech and the University of Michigan. Under open enrollment, most students are admitted, and deficient students are shuffled into remedial classes. At Michigan State, these enrollees were known as “developmental program students.” Of course, these remedial classes would generally not count toward graduation, but are billed at full tuition rates.  So with today’s liberal grading policies, many of the deficiencies are overlooked, as long as the tuition is paid.

In all probability, part of today’s problem rests with what some call academic freedom and the absence of administrative interference.  Professors who give all A’s are paid just as much as those who assign term papers and bestow difficult exams.  They may take the attitude that their job is to present the material, and if the students choose not to study, that is their fault. Furthermore, when giving all A’s, there are no hassles on grades, and parents who may be investing in books and tuition for their son or daughter are mesmerized by their son or daughter’s high grade point.  Since these charismatic professors are often the ones with the classrooms full of students at $2,500 per student per semester, the University administration looks the other way.  Do students still go to class? Of course, but the instructor is expected to make the experience entertaining.   Sadly, studies have been done that the basic skills for some students actually decline over the four year period.

High School Commencement Reality.

The big question at high school commencement: What do you plan to do with the rest of your life?  Altogether too often, the answer is to “start college and figure it out.”  That may be fine for the first few semesters of school, but at the price of higher education these days, delaying a decision too long can be very costly.  The same is true of just trying to get any degree in anything under the old assumption that any degree is marketable.

Doing it right requires some serious research.  In today’s world, a potential student should have at least some up-close and hands-on experience with the job that they think they are seeking.  They should make some kind of assessment of their ability to actually do the work and the limitations that the job may hold.  Some years ago I spoke with a welding student who was attending a local junior college.  I asked how it was going, and to my surprise, he said that the course was not going well.  It seems that he had some kind of physical limitation that caused him to sweat profusely when near sources of heat.  While trying to weld, his eyes would fill with water, and he could not see what he was doing.  Unfortunately, he went on paying tuition for two more semesters to obtain a junior college credential for a job that he really could not perform effectively.

In another instance, I spoke with a student studying international marketing.  His shortcoming:  Despite counseling and tranquilizers, he was still afraid of flying.  This limited the usefulness of his credential to Mexico and Canada – by rail or car.  A similar problem:  A future nurse that can’t stand the sight of blood.

I also encountered a student majoring in communications, and asked how it was going.  “Great,” he replied.  But he also said that he was working part time at a local AM radio station, and was helping to edit short news segments, reading the copious new releases, and even sweeping the floor at the end of the day.  That was ten years ago.  He is now a news and weatherman for a TV station in Illinois. He wasn’t doing a degree just to “do a degree,” he was internalizing it.  However, if he had simply earned a degree with no experience, his job prospects would have been very limited.

My final degree was from Michigan State back in 1975.  At the time, a new program call “supply chain management” was evolving.  The program has been an overwhelming success, and about 95% of the graduates have job offers.  What about the other 5%?  I received a resume from a “5%” student from a friend’s parents wondering why their son had not succeeded in landing a job.  Aside from the resume being unimpressive, the big shortcoming was the absence of an internship.  In today’s world, internships have become a major component of many professional programs.  In the summer following his junior year, this particular student decided to go backpacking across Europe rather than seeking an internship.  Poor choice.  It would now take him several years to work his way into a professional position.

So how does a student majoring in history end up with an unconditional acceptance to a major law school?  Simple of you think about it.  They probably made sure that they actually received a college education, not just a college degree.  Of course, they had to score well on the entrance exam, but they also had to show evidence that they could speak and write effectively, and that they could do the work that the curriculum required.

Can’t find a job?  Do a masters’ degree!  But for some less-than-optimal college graduates, completing a master’s degree only compounds the problem.  In gambling, it’s called “doubling down.”  Almost all graduate level tuition is higher than undergrad rates, an available financial aid and grants are far less.  So it is no surprise that nearly 40% of the current $1.2 trillion dollar debt is attributed to graduate programs that often take the student nowhere.  Students are left struggling to pay off a student debt working for a few dollars ahead of minimum wage.

Like most students in my generation, I graduated with no student debut, partially because there was no such thing as “student loans” back in the late 1960’s.  Of course, tuition was also a tad less.  My tuition was $1,100—for the whole four years.  And don’t forget:  Everyone had a job either before or within days of graduation.  Granted, in those days, the State of Michigan paid the majority of the expense for funding the University.  Tuition for four years at C.M.U. is now $46,200.  Ridiculous. But tuition inflation is a topic for another day.

I few conclusions are now in order. Despite my pessimistic tone, the fact remains that a significant number of four year college graduates achieve their goals and acquire the skills and knowledge to accomplish many things. In fact, with all of the new technologies available, many are actually able to accomplish more in four years that their counterparts of 40 years ago.  But simple fact remains that a four year degree is no guarantee of success, and given the number of college level jobs actually available, many of the four year institutions are vastly overbuilt.  In order to maintain enrollment, these same institutions are over-promising outcomes.  In order the fill the classrooms, many are dumbing down the classes and curriculum so that getting a four year degree is easy.  After $100,000 in expenses comes the realization that a college degree and a college education are not the same thing.

On the other hand, a simple high school diploma is no longer adequate for success in the 21st century.  In the last thirty years, the world has been flooded with multiple waves of technology in almost every vocation.  According to one study, 57% of all jobs now require some kind of post-high school education which often culminate in a professional certification.   The best system already in place to provide this training is the extensive network of junior colleges that already exist throughout the United States.  It is time to redirect our resources in that direction, and it is time to redirect our high school graduates in that direction as well.