Have our colleges failed the United States?

Millions of college students are now returning to school. U.S. News & amp; World Report has just released its latest, much-heralded ranking of America's best colleges. Amid all this activity and fanfare, we might ask how our system of higher education is faring.
The system is failing, according to a less-heralded study conducted by the American Institutes for Research earlier this year.
Its survey of college literacy indicates that most college students can't perform an array of "common but complex" assignments: like balancing a checkbook, understanding simple charts or comprehending this article. Only 38 percent can do the latter.
Leaders in all areas of society must ask "why?" "What's wrong?" I ask why such dubious performers are in four-year colleges to begin with. What kinds of institutions have colleges become and what is their proper place in a pressure-packed 21st century that seems to require higher education of all Americans?
In the last 60 years, colleges have taken on a multiplicity of purposes and meanings, most of which are not central to the historic function of the college as an educational institution.
First and foremost, college has become a big business, as have most other aspects of education and training. There are 18 million college students. They are customers, or consumers of educational services. Program offerings are profit centers. The all-important appropriate "market share" is sought by clever public relations campaigns and through the purportedly unbiased annual ranking surveys. Every college wants to top out its own targeted market share of students. If, during their stay, students are educationally short-changed, who cares? We know they can't balance their checkbooks anyway!
The big business culture in education can inhibit academics and can debilitate programs, which, though necessary, may not be profitable in an economic or public relations sense.
Pre-professional sports
For the big colleges, especially the NCAA category, the intrusion of pre-professional sports dovetails well with the economic model of college as a big business. For example, the Bowl Championship Series football games produce $150 million in revenue for participating teams and conferences. TV revenues are enormous. Cable and TV network sports programs are ubiquitous. Big name coaches are usually the highest paid employees on campus.
The money, hype and lure of big-time athletics send the wrong message to our society -- and to the world community -- as to what college is all about. In particular, the televised world of sports-crazed fans ties in with what is perhaps the most insidious function of contemporary colleges: the extension of adolescent dependence in millions of young people. The public should never underestimate the role of parties, drinking bouts or spring break hijinks as portrayed in the print, media, movies, TV and beer commercials.
For far too many individuals, college has become an adventure in hedonism. In this mode of operation, college keeps our youth occupied and out of the economy, which has no place for them anyway. For a growing number, adolescence continues even after college graduation -- witness the post-baccalaureate migration home!
The most important new social function colleges have acquired in the post-World War II period has been career preparation. Go to college so that you can get a good job. Of course, preparation for a productive life, for example in the ministry, has long been an aim of higher education, but the narrowing vocationalism and economic imperative of it all is something more recent. The globalizing, high-tech service economy demands post-secondary training. The American Institutes for Research survey suggests that only about 38 percent of ready-to-graduate students can "perform complex tasks" across the board. Thirty-eight percent is a failing grade.
Dismal findings
What is impressive is that the United States has done so well in the world politically and economically, given the dismal findings of the survey. The only explanation for this must lie in those students in various colleges, not just the elite institutions, who possess the mandatory creative, analytical and critical reasoning skills. These students MUST BE in college where such skills are developed, expanded and refined, or the U.S. fails utterly.
For America to continue its world leadership colleges must first and foremost be about learning. Students must develop their creative powers, which foster new ideas and technologies.
Students should cultivate analytical abilities in order to understand complex issues; and they should know how to apply critical reasoning to the various problems of our age. We must seek to increase the required number of potentially talented students drawn from every class and sector of society.
But to accomplish any fundamental change, we must first be able to read the handwriting on the wall.
Silvio Laccetti is a professor of social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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