What Do We Know About the Effectiveness of Higher Education?

August 26, 2020 Updated: August 28, 2020


Everyone knows that the nation’s colleges and universities now commonly promote “social justice,” which essentially means radical left politics. But what we do know about how well they still do all the other things we’ve expected them to do?

We invest much time and money in higher education. What are we now getting for all of that?

At college, students ought to be taught how to think productively, to reason, and to write cogently. But already by 2011, that was no longer happening, according to a study done by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and published in their book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”

They found that “an astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills.” The skills they’re talking about are critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. These shocking results of 2011 will have become even worse by today, with older professors retiring and being consistently replaced by younger, more politicized ones, a process that still continues.

Literacy, Employment, and Citizenship

Well, then: Are graduates being adequately prepared for the workplace? Not at all, according to a study done in 2006 by four organizations (including The Conference Board) that looked at the matter from an employer’s point of view. The 400 employers surveyed considered college graduates to be “deficient in writing in English and written communications,” and leadership skills: “The future U.S. workforce is here—and it is woefully unprepared for the demands of today’s (and tomorrow’s) workplace.”

Again, the situation today will almost certainly be even worse than it was in 2006.

How good are recent graduates at reading and comprehending complex books and documents? Not at all, according to a 2003 study done by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES study showed a sharp decline over the prior decade in college graduates’ reading and comprehension: Only 31 percent of college graduates could now be counted as “proficient” in this respect, and even the majority (59 percent) of candidates for higher degrees were not proficient—an astonishing figure.

What about preparation for citizenship? That’s going miserably, too, according to a whole series of recent studies by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. A typical result was that 4 out of 5 seniors at 55 of the most-prestigious U.S. colleges and universities were astonishingly ignorant of American history, and knew nothing of even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution.

And in a 2018 survey, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that 81 percent of under-45s failed a test based on the U.S. Citizenship test, while 74 percent of over-65s passed it—although the seniors had learned the material a long time ago.

But surely, one might think, the campus obsession with diversity ought to mean that minorities are doing better? No, the reverse is true. African American students enter higher education with College Learning Assessment scores significantly lower than their white counterparts (about 1,000 as against 1,170), but Arum and Roksa found that the gap got much larger, not smaller, during their first two years of college.

Instead of correcting a serious social problem that we badly need to fix, colleges make it worse.

What about academia’s preparation of elementary and high school teachers for their essential roles? Yet again, that’s a disaster. The independent reform organization Achieve found in 2005 that “large majorities of college instructors are dissatisfied with the job public high schools are doing in preparing students for college when it comes to writing quality (62 percent) and their ability to read and comprehend complex materials (70 percent).”

The college instructors who complain of these deficiencies are, of course, the same people who train the high school teachers who are responsible for them.

This is a catastrophic record. To be sure, STEM fields still function, but the recent push to conduct faculty recruitments giving politically correct attitudes to diversity a higher priority than technical competence makes one wonder how long that will last.

One Success

Is there anything that colleges and universities are good at? Yes, they do a splendid job of promoting radical politics. Recent Gallup polls find that almost exactly half of young adults (18–39) now have a positive view of socialism—another astonishing result.

The string of failures is related to this one success, because success in either one of the two areas means failure in the other. A first-rate college education means developing inquiring minds, analytical thinkers who look at all sides of an issue before reaching a conclusion. Radical politics needs the exact opposite: an unwavering commitment to an idea set in stone, with nothing allowed to erode that commitment.

“A cocoon of ignorance” may be a fine way to protect an enthusiasm for socialism, but it’s a disaster for education.

The buildings that house our major universities still look as imposing as ever, and the diplomas students receive look impressive, too. That helps to maintain the illusion that academia is just as it was—but it isn’t, because the defining feature of a university is its teaching faculty, and that has changed beyond all recognition. Open-minded explorers of ideas have largely been replaced by closed-minded political activists. It’s not just that the right kind of people are missing: Their replacements are the last people we should want for higher education.

The enormous sums of money that the nation devotes to higher education are being diverted to something completely different: The promotion of radical politics. In ordinary language, that’s called embezzling. In any other area of life, we’d not hesitate to withdraw funding that’s being used for an unauthorized purpose. It’s about time our society did just that.

John M. Ellis is distinguished professor emeritus at University of California–Santa Cruz, chair of the California Association of Scholars, and the author of several books, the last of which is “The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.