March 20, 1996 in City

Higher Edukashun Is Getting Bad

Stephen Balch And Rita Zurcher Knight-Ridder/Tribune
 

A few years ago, a highly selective Pennsylvania liberal-arts college notified parents and students that costs would increase the following year a modest 7 percent. Administrators justified the increase by saying it was approximately the rate of inflation.

The rate of inflation at the time, however, was less than 4 percent. So much for college math.

Actually, the story doesn’t say much at all about college math - because traditional mathematics courses typically are no longer a graduation requirement at most of America’s very best liberal-arts colleges. Nor is science, English composition, foreign language or history.

Forget, too, about literature or philosophy.

Indeed, all students seem to get for the $20,000-$25,000 per year it now costs to attend America’s prestige colleges and universities is a truncated academic year with a watered-down curriculum.

Don’t take our word for it.

The National Association for Scholars recently examined the graduation requirements for baccalaureate degrees at the 50 colleges and universities identified by U.S. News & World Report as America’s best. We looked at how those requirements had changed during an 80-year period, focusing on four years: 1914 (just before World War I), 1939 (prior to World War II), 1964 (the beginning of America’s decade of social upheaval) and 1993.

What we found was straightforward and disturbing: With few exceptions, the core academic requirements considered central to a liberal-arts education as recently as the mid-1960s have been eliminated. The school year has been shortened, as has the length of class periods. Comprehensive exams and theses, as a requirement for all students, are now rare. At the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of schools offering remedial composition courses, frequently for credit.

And these are America’s elite colleges and universities, the ones that allegedly attract “the best and the brightest,” feed our graduate and professional schools and mold America’s business and political leadership.

Here are the grim facts:

In 1914, 98 percent of the 50 schools now ranked by U.S. News & World Report as “America’s best colleges” had required courses in English composition, administered by their English departments. This slipped to 86 percent by 1964. In 1993, just 36 percent of “America’s best” colleges required such courses.

Math? Eighty-two percent of colleges we studied had specific mathematics requirements in 1914. This fell over the next half-century to 36 percent in 1964. By 1993 such requirements had almost disappeared - only 12 percent of the schools had them.

At a time when everybody is talking about the globalization of the economy, you would think every liberal arts college would emphasize foreign-language skills. Think all you want: You’d be wrong.

Until 1964, more than 90 percent of the institutions we studied had mandatory foreign language requirements. By 1993, however, 64 percent retained such requirements.

The story is the same in other disciplines. In 1914, 86 percent of U.S. elite colleges had specific course requirements in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics). This fell to 72 percent in 1939, but shot up during the “space race” days. By 1964, 90 percent of the elite liberal-arts colleges had science requirements. Three decades later? Just 34 percent of the schools still had such requirements.

The amount of time students are expected to spend in class also has declined dramatically.

For example, the average number of class days, from the beginning of the fall semester or quarter to the end of the spring semester or quarter, dropped from 204 in 1914 to 195 in 1939, 191 in 1964 and 156 in 1993.

For most of this century, America’s leading colleges and universities were strongly committed to providing undergraduates with a broad and rigorous education. During the last 30 years, this commitment has largely vanished. As a nation and as a society, America already is paying the price.

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