Higher Education Erodes

Simon Sarris
9 min readSep 4, 2017

College is the new High School and that should terrify everyone.

Three headlines from this year:

Cal State to overhaul remedial education, replace no-credit with credit-bearing classes (March, LA Times)

For example, about 38 percent of last fall’s 61,757 CSU freshmen were found to need remediation in either English or math

Algebra is the most failed course at community colleges across the country. Is it time to nix the requirement? (July, NPR)

That’s the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel.

… only 48 percent graduate from California community colleges with an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution within six years.

Cal State will no longer require placement exams and remedial classes for freshmen (August, LA Times)

At Cal State, about 40% of freshmen each year are considered not ready for college-level work and required to take remedial classes that do not count toward their degrees.

The hope is that these efforts will also help students obtain their degrees sooner — one of the public university system’s priorities. Cal State has committed to doubling its four-year graduation rate, from 19% to 40%, by 2025.

We’re in a lot of trouble.

Higher education erosion is a continuation of a long trend. College graduates, we know, are not what they used to be. In 1970's, 1-in-2 college grads aced the Wordsum vocabulary test given by the General Social Survey. Today 1-in-6 do. Using that as a proxy for IQ of the median grad, in the 70’s it was ~112, now its ~100.[1] College degrees are increasingly expensive and may increasingly signal nothing at all. The only similar good that explodes in cost while at the same time loses value is the American wedding. Black or white, selling hope means getting into the gown business.

Cal State is setting an example for the re-definition of “college readiness” towards “willingness to sit tight and pay the cash.” They are announcing college credit for courses that 9th graders should have completed (The typical grade for Algebra 1). The pessimistic take is easy to formulate: A reduction in academic rigor, pushing what were once high school expectations into college, happening in the largest college system in the US. If anyone can explain why we should be happy with a future of thousands of college grads with high school reading skills, I’m all ears for the optimism.

What’s the point of higher ed if you lower the expectations? Degrees become diluted and expensive. One can pay more money than ever to show that they are of average intelligence. At what point does writing it on the resume become a black mark? The reason for Cal State’s changes, as EdSource bluntly puts it, is to raise graduation rates. More kids in and out the door. Better graduation numbers, more dollars. (Who’s paying, anyway?[2])

Graduation numbers give a hint at what’s going on. Before we get to why, just to make sure we’re not in a California bubble, lets detour to the east coast.

Is California the only one?

No. CUNY, the largest urban university system in the US, is on the same path. From NYT in March: CUNY to Revamp Remedial Programs, Hoping to Lift Graduation Rates

Dr. Rabinowitz said that about 80 percent of freshman entering community college in the CUNY system require remediation in reading, writing, math, or some combination of those subjects. […] But at the end of one year, only half of all students in remediation have advanced out of those classes. The need for remediation is a chronic problem at community colleges around the country as students graduate from high school without the skills they need for college.

High schools are producing incapable students and CUNY’s solution, like Cal State’s, is to give college credit for high-school level courses. Hard to complain if you’re an administrator, it raises the rates, and the numbers define success, don’t they?

CUNY administrators acknowledged that there has been some resistance, particularly from some members of the math faculty who believe algebra to be foundational, something all educated adults should master.

I hope “some resistance” is an understatement. The math professors at least can still count, and if salaries are to be believed they know they are becoming less and less of the equation relative to administrative salaries. You’d think if professors were only there to navigate High School 2.0 then you could get away with just abusing a bunch of adjuncts instead of paying full professor salaries.

Oh yeah, that happened too.

What’s going on here?

These stories are the latest in a long and slow change to the role of higher education.[3] At some point in the past college was for those students who demonstrated some bona fides, enabling the higher part of higher education, but as colleges become an expensive extension of high school, they must mold themselves, even if that means degrading their mission into re-teaching the basics or in the case of algebra, skipping the high school level requirements entirely.

While part of this might just be a money grab, much of this is probably a reaction to events elsewhere in the pipeline. Both college systems here are dumbing down in an effort to raise graduation rates. If it sounds familiar, its because that’s whats been happening with high schools across the US.

Graduation Rates

About those. They’re up! When do we phone in success to HQ?

Historically the US has done very well in expanding education access. This is a great achievement, but at some inflection point this changed from making sure everyone gets into high school to making sure everyone graduates. The pathway is obvious: Raise graduation rates by passing people who should not be passed. The result, which already happened, is that more people are leaving high school totally unfit for college, and we know this because the colleges already told us so, why is why they’re shifting their mission in the first place. It’s a lazy solution of course, effective teaching is not trivial, effective teachers and good students (with good parents) are more rare than 100% of them. All systems can eventually be gamed, and it’s already happened with graduation rates from high school. We’re seeing the effects, and the response so far is applying the same gaming to colleges.

I don’t blame the colleges too much, I’m sure they see the pipeline and know who their clients are, but I do think we should take the implosion of collegiate rigor as a cry for help. Unlike high school and college, job descriptions and society do not have the luxury of dumbing themselves down too much. If we want to indict colleges of something, instead of for concealing the shame of their state’s failing education systems, it should be for fleecing their students along the way.

At some point, the high school graduation rate went from a way to evaluate and quantify the effectiveness of education to becoming the goal itself, rather than the measure of the goal. Today HS graduation rates no longer the measure the original intended goal, educated children. That is the real problem, that high schools aren’t preparing some students for college. Schools are playing politics, not education.

What can we do?

Good Q. Sadly, diagnosing and treating are two different things. I don’t have a grand or even clever answer so I can only leave you with some parting thoughts.

I want to repeat that expanding access to education is a good thing that I think everyone can agree on. This shift, lazily expanding graduation by any means, is distinct in its capacity to end in catastrophe. It is also possible that high school is not totally to blame, that the goal-ification of high school is only due to the goal-ification of college, once a college degree became seen as a mandatory ticket to the middle class. This alone might have put a lot of pressure on high schools to graduate their students. Maybe the thread is being pulled from both ends. It’s a somewhat harder case to piece together.

But we do know that the push for college at all costs is not helping everyone. Paying tens of thousands, split between their own debt and taxpayer money, to complete “high school but with more drugs and on a slower timeline” should be revolting to anyone, but it doesn’t seem to have that effect. How could we change those minds? What would it take? Maybe it would take a catastrophe, anyway.

I for one humbly suggest we do the opposite of what we’ve been doing. Don’t make college a requirement for relatively pedestrian jobs. Make education at any level free or inexpensive if and only if the students demonstrate a serious will and aptitude. Much education, including some amount of high school education, may be completely wasted on students and communities that do not value it. If a high school diploma is to be useful, it has to measure something.

And there must be some cost to locking kids into a system they do not wish to be in when they could be, you know, learning a skill. Learning! If they don’t get algebra going on 5 years, stop trying to force them into academia. Let them try something else. Anything else. Really, truly anything else. The famous pastry chef Pierre Hermé began his career at 14, as an apprentice. If your kid hates academia, the solution isn’t to extend his pain, the solution is to ask yourself: What else could he be learning instead? It doesn’t have to be sheeting pastry dough, but you owe it to him and yourself to think about it.

Stop repeating anything resembling the sentiment that “College degree holders earn more than those with high school diplomas, therefore any increase in graduates is a good thing.” If that in itself were true, California should pass a law granting all citizens a bachelor’s degree upon graduation from high school. It would be cheaper for everyone and wouldn’t waste years of youth.


I welcome corrections, refutations, suggestions, etc.

[1] The GSS is a survey that began collecting data in 1972 to act as a historical record of concerns and experiences over time. The data is freely available here: http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss16

[2] Cal State cost a little over 6 billion a year to run. Tuition pays for 2.8 billion of that. Other Californian taxpayers pitch in 3 billion and lottos + the federal gov (people in other states) top off the rest. From here.

[3] By that I mean this isn’t exactly new, it’s just an acceleration of a long trend. See Inside Higher Ed 2005: Graduated but Not Literate:

Fewer than a third of college degree recipients are “proficient” in everyday literacy, U.S. study finds, and rate is falling.

Or NY Times from 2011: In College, Working Hard to Learn High School Material. The first paragraph is enough:

In June, Desiree Smith was graduated from Murry Bergtraum High. Her grades were in the 90s, she said, and she had passed the four state Regents exams. Since enrolling last month at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, Ms. Smith, 19, has come to realize that graduating from a New York City public high school is not the same as learning.

Or Cal State in 1998: Education: Freshmen who had to relearn math, English were above-average performers in high school. Some hint grade inflation.

The Times reported in March on data from the California State University system showing that roughly half of the freshmen at the Fullerton campus failed basic-skills placement exams and had to enroll in remedial math and English courses. New statistics released Wednesday show that those students had a mean high school grade-point average of 3.1, or a B.

“How can it be that students can be getting Bs in English and not pass a fairly basic test and end up having to take a remedial class?” Klammer asked… “We cannot afford, as a state, to be reteaching high school classwork at the university,” he said.

“For some reason, one that I don’t think is well-understood, students’ grades do not predict performance on these basic skill tests,” said Thomas Klammer, Cal State Fullerton’s associate vice president of academic programs.

Well, associate vice president, it’s been almost twenty years. Do you have an idea by now?



Simon Sarris

Sacred things and making things. Literature, Food, Web Development. — In labouring to be concise, I become obscure.