As parents pack their youngsters off to college, they might ask themselves whether it's worth both the money they will spend and their children's time. Dr. Marty Nemko has researched that question in an article aptly titled "America's Most Overrated Product: Higher Education (www.martynemko.com)."
The U.S. Department of Education statistics show that 76 out of 100 students who graduate in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class do not graduate from college, even if they spend 8 1/2 years in college. That's even with colleges having dumbed down classes to accommodate such students. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million students who took the ACT college entrance examinations in 2007 were prepared to do college-level study in math, English and science. Even though a majority of students are grossly underprepared to do college-level work, each year colleges admit hundreds of thousands of such students.
While colleges have strong financial motives to admit unsuccessful students, for failing students the experience can be devastating. They often leave with their families, or themselves, having piled up thousands of dollars in debt. There is possibly trauma and poor self-esteem for having failed, and perhaps embarrassment for their families. Nemko says that worst of all is that few of these former college students, having spent thousands of dollars, wind up in a job that required a college education. It's not uncommon to find them driving a taxi, working at a restaurant or department store, performing some other job that they could have had as a high school graduate or dropout.
What about students who are prepared for college? First, only 40 percent of each year's 2 million freshmen graduate in four years; 45 percent never graduate at all. Often, having a college degree does not mean much. According to a 2006 Pew Charitable Trusts study, 50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, and compare credit card offers. About 20 percent of college seniors did not have the quantitative skills to estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station. According to a recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the percentage of college graduates proficient in prose literacy has declined from 40 percent to 31 percent within the past decade. Employers report that many college graduates lack the basic skills of critical thinking, writing and problem-solving.
Colleges are in business. Students are a cost. Research is a profit center. When colleges boast about having this professor who has won a science award or that professor who has won the Nobel Prize, very often an undergraduate student will never be taught by that professor. It is a "bait and switch" tactic, and very often your youngster will take classes not taught by a professor but taught in large classes by a graduate student. Faculty who bring in large grants are more highly valued than faculty who teach well. Teaching excellence is so often undervalued that the late Ernest Boyer, vice president for Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, quipped that, "Winning the campus teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure."
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.