Here are two recent takes on the burning question: What in the hell is the matter with American universities?
According to University President John Simpson, the problem is that the "pipeline of education" is broken. What he means by that is some students, the raw sewage of education I suppose, don't leave high school with the skills they need to do well in University. This assumes, I think, that all high school students, ideally, can do college-level work, but, high school is failing them in some way. Possibly.
The ever-controversial Charles Murray, meanwhile, says the problem is that American society is too dependent on the university degree. After all, some people just can't do college work. In fact, if the average I.Q. is around 100, then at least 50% of the population really has no business being in a university. So, why in the world should a position as manager of Budget Rent-a-car require a college diploma? In other words, screw the pipeline- there are some students who are simply too dense to fit through it.
In a sense, I think they're both right, but Murray is more right. High schools really do need to get their shit together- if none of their students can read or write, then they're doing something wrong. But, maybe what they're doing wrong is refusing to let some students get left behind. And maybe that's what's devaluing the high school diploma, as well as the college diploma.
We live in a liberal, enlightened, egalitarian, and democratic society. So, this is hard to accept:
Intelligence is not egalitarian.
Neither is beauty, actually. But, plastic surgery and cheap makeovers have essentially democratized beauty. Beautiful people are a dime a dozen. But, one thing that's struck me every time I've taught is that some of my students just aren't ever going to understand history. Not because it's profound or brilliant stuff, but because they simply can't concptualize the information and organize it in time and space. They just can't do it. And I'm guessing it's the same in all of their courses.
And I think we know this. We basically tell them what to parrot on the exams. We give them review sheets, we repeat things again and again, and we ask fill-in-the-blank type questions. If they can remember "N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle's makes the very best!" they have the skills to pass our history class. If that doesn't work, we "bump the grades up". At least the professors do. But, often I think to myself that we're just lying. If I was told to pass only those freshmen who I thought were ready to do second-year, or even first-year university-level work... It wouldn't be more than 40% of them. No chance.
Maybe the problem with the pipeline is that it needs to be narrower.