Declining by Degrees:  Higher Education at Risk premiered on PBS in 2005; I watched it for the first time this week, intrigued by this Netflix summary.

Debunking commonly held notions about the rite of passage known as the college experience, this PBS documentary follows 30 students and their teachers along the path of higher education, from admission to graduation, and exposes the disappointment, disorientation and deflation many students feel—in both public and private schools. This revealing study also addresses the quality and readiness of America's future work force.

"Disappointment, disorientation, and deflation" fairly describes how I felt watching the show.  Here's what I learned:

  • A college degree is absolutely necessary for anyone to get into and stay in the American middle class.
  • Administrators, and consequently professors, are under great pressure to retain students; it is very difficult to fail.
  • Grade inflation is rampant; only an extraordinarily terrible performance will get you a C.
  • Many classes are huge, and often taught by graduate students or part-time faculty.
  • Professors are rewarded for research and publication, not teaching.
  • Whether because they need their time for research or for working several part-time positions, professors resort to true/false and multiple-choice exams, and assign few papers, essays, or anything else that requires much time to grade.
  • Students have discovered that they can "sleepwalk" through college, doing just enough to get by, and still receive the degree that is the reason their parents sent them to college.
  • Hence they have plenty of time for the real reason they're in college:  to party.  To get drunk, to get high, to indulge in as many fleshly temptations as possible.  "I don't want to be 40 or 50 years old," one student proclaimed, "and saying, 'I wish I had partied then, because I can't now.'"
  • Other students are holding down full time jobs while attempting to attend school full time.  Like the partiers, they are ruining their health while gaining little from their classes.
  • There is an unspoken agreement between professors and students, each to help the other "get by":  You don't expect much of me, and I won't expect much of you.
  • Students whose lives have been bounded by home and high school quickly become lost in a world of little oversight, no restrictions, no rules, great freedom, and low expectations.
  • Professors are demoralized by students who come to college without the needed skills and habits, who can't think, don't work, don't pay attention, don't respond, don't show up, don't care.
  • Employers, who control the jobs for which most students are purchasing their degrees, are increasingly complaining to the colleges that the graduates come to them ill-prepared and under-educated.
  • The cost of a college education has risen out of sight, and most students—or their parents—come out of the ordeal with a massive debt load.
  • This is the sad situation with respect to our state schools.  The small minority of fortunate students who can afford $40,000/year attend private schools where classes are small and interesting, professors care about and work individually with their students, and their fellow-students are bright and devoted to intellectual pursuits.  [I do hope no one was drinking a hot beverage while reading that last point; I'm only reporting what I learned from the show.]
  • When Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill providing educational benefits to WWII servicemen, the United States entered into a social contract to provide all its citizens with a college education.
  • Beginning in the 1980's, we have reneged on that contract by not providing enough state and federal scholarship money.
  • Merit-based scholarships are bad, because they "help those whom God has already helped."

In summary:

  • College is where high school graduates go to ruin their physical, mental, and spiritual health, waste their time and their talents, and emerge four years later unfit for employment, let alone a responsible, mature place in society.
  • Therefore we should make this experience available to everyone at no cost.

I could confirm several of the points made by Declining by Degrees, and refute others, but I'll content myself with standing in awe of its logic. 

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 10:06 am | Edit
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This made me laugh (your presentation of it, that is.)

Posted by joyful on Saturday, April 04, 2009 at 8:41 am

Good. That was at least part of the point. As Grandma would say, we need our daily internal exercise.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, April 04, 2009 at 9:03 am

Let me take this opportunity to thank you for your link to "dorm brothel". Great article.

Posted by Phil on Sunday, April 05, 2009 at 12:49 pm

You're welcome. I had forgotten Dorm Brothel, but it is relevant to this topic. The post to which Phil refers is here.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, May 05, 2019 at 11:27 pm