The Collegiate War on Excellence and Descent into Mediocrity

The United States has been considered a truly “exceptional” place because it excels in so many ways. It has the biggest output of goods and services. It has had the most powerful military presence on the planet for many years. Its technological advances have been the greatest of any nation. And, more relevant to this readership, surveys of higher education, conducted in such diverse places as London and Shanghai, say that America has a commanding proportion of the world’s greatest universities.

Yet, over the last generation, a remarkable and disturbing development has occurred: American universities are increasingly downplaying, ignoring, or even condemning their distinction in the production and dissemination of ideas that they have, historically, done so well. The genesis of this development goes back several decades. Around 1960, time-use data suggest that the typical college student spent around 40 hours per week in class, studying, writing papers, working in laboratories, etc., while earning a 2.4 or 2.5 grade point average—roughly one half “B” grades and one half “C”s. Fast forward to the present. Twenty-first-century data suggest a typical American college student spends under 30 hours per week on these activities (probably about 28), a 30% reduction from two generations earlier, yet the average grade point average is above 3.0—mostly “B”s, with a smattering of even higher grades.

Students are doing far less work for more recognition. If excellence associated with great achievement typically requires hard work and discipline, the present college-going generation is lacking, in large part because their professors are far less demanding than those in the past (grade inflation has been indirectly encouraged by the increasing dominance of an administrative staff contemptuous of academic values, a subject for another epistle.)

[Related: “The Case for Admissions Selectivity”]

Colleges that, a half century or more ago, seemed eager to reward scholarly excellence with not only admissions but also generous financial aid are now obsessed with other things totally irrelevant to academic excellence, namely such biological characteristics as skin coloration, or even sexual preferences. I predict this will become embarrassingly obvious in the forthcoming Supreme Court cases involving Harvard and the University of North Carolina, leading the court to restrict the race-preferential treatment that currently exists.

There are still other manifestations of a near contempt for the pursuit of excellence. The widespread abandonment of required SAT or ACT test results reduces the ability of college admissions officers to assess the academic performance of applicants. The attempt by law and medical schools to suppress the rankings of their institutions by magazines trying to measure excellence is yet another manifestation of this worrisome trend. Medical schools which ease learning requirements while promoting “diversity” could literally cost lives through incompetent health care in future years.

The biggest single cause of this descent into mediocrity is the enormous federal financing of student financial aid. Unlike nearly all private scholarship assistance, there are virtually no minimal performance criteria to get federal student loans or Pell Grants. Indeed, just the opposite. If a student fails a number of courses, takes a relatively low course load, and therefore takes five and one-half years to graduate, he will probably have received at least one-third more financial assistance from the federal government than the student who graduates in four years, or even less, summa cum laude. The attrition rate of Pell Grant recipients is very high—there is no financial pressure to excel or even to persist in amiable mediocrity.

There are some early signs that America’s research excellence is being significantly challenged as well. The number of non-American schools in global lists of the top 50 or 100 institutions is growing. Aside from declining research spending in the U.S. relative to other nations, the diminishing emphasis on research probably in part reflects the current American academic obsession with promoting essentially progressive, woke agendas as manifested by swollen and increasingly powerful diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracies that have no interest in promoting academic integrity and merit—indeed, often the opposite.

[Related: “Scholars Weigh In on DeSantis’ Higher Education Reform”]

The disdain for academic excellence recently hit home for me. My wife and I made a gift to modestly augment an already existing scholarship endowment fund we had created at my university. The university often provides additional matching funds from unrestricted gifts to enhance the impact of a donation, but it would not do so for our scholarship because we have a stipulation that the monies must go to a good student who is in the top 20% of his high school class. The university did not like that restriction, and therefore no matching funds were provided. At my university, scholarships to promote academic excellence are disfavored relative to ones available to prospective students with mediocre secondary school or collegiate performance. Mediocrity trumps excellence.

At zero net cost to the government or society, we could significantly promote improved student academic performance. If we restricted federal financial aid provision for poorly performing students, we would save billions each year. For example, deny aid for all students after five years of study. Deny aid to students with lower than a “C” average, and impose some anti–grade inflation standards on colleges accepting federal student financial aid.

Suppose we then used the funds saved by giving $10,000 graduation bonuses to roughly 400,000 students annually who graduate both in the top one-quarter of their college class and with scores above the national average on a new National College Equivalence Examination (NCEE), a 3–4 hour test required for graduation from any U.S. university. The NCEE would measure both general educational literacy and success in a major field of study (I have discussed that exam elsewhere, notably in my book Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America).  This expenditure-neutral set of proposals would set us on the path to restoring and enhancing our reputation for educational excellence.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

    View all posts

4 thoughts on “The Collegiate War on Excellence and Descent into Mediocrity

  1. The rise of the college was due entirely to two things: the Baby Boom and the SCOTUS decision in Griggs v. Duke Power Company, 1971. Prior to 1971, companies routinely used IQ tests during the interview process. SCOTUS said that was discriminatory and outlawed the practice.

    Since most colleges used the ACT and/or SAT (i.e., IQ tests) to approve admissions, business switched to using a college degree as a replacement for the outlawed IQ tests. A college grad had already been pre-screened for IQ, so…

    This switch meant everyone in the high-competition job arena resulting from the Baby Boom era now needed a college degree in order to get employed. The politicians bought citizen votes by feeding federal money into the colleges and encouraging everyone to go. The college got addicted to the cash.

    Then America’s total fertility rate (TFR) returned to the status quo ante. Look at American TFR from 1800 to now. It is nothing but a steady decline, interrupted only by the post-WW II baby boom. But, between SCOTUS and the politicians, colleges had become used to high attendance.

    As the number of available rear-ends for seats dropped, standards HAD to drop, or there wouldn’t be enough warm bodies to pay the layers of administrators who had appeared during the last few decades to suck at the federal teat. Colleges couldn’t make it obvious they were diluting standards, so they changed admission requirements. “Woke” is the college attempt to maintain admissions in the face of dropping student population (dropping TFR). It’s how colleges save face about the need to drop standards to keep the same number of students in classrooms.

    Business has responded by dropping college degree requirements and moving to a new proxy for IQ – the “certification” test. Most industries are moving to job certification test requirements now, not college degree requirements, because certs serve as an IQ test proxy and SCOTUS can’t ban job certification tests.

  2. Part of the problem was the notion that developed rapidly during the 70s that Suzy HAD to go to college. Parents starting saving for Suzy’s college while she was an infant. Some even took out 2nd mortgages. Suzy simply would never, ever be successful unless she went to college. Period. This was drilled into her from childhood.

    Well, sorry, but everyone is not college material. There used to be what was known as “college prep” courses in high school. These course sequences were designed to prepare kids for college.

    No matter. Everyone had to go to college. This became not debatable. And the colleges loved it. More tuition dollars. As expected, tuition increases rapidly outpaced inflation.

    So what do we do with Suzy who is not really college material? She has to major in something. No problem. Pseudo-academic disciplines appeared (e.g., womens studies, black studies and now race/gender studies) to provide majors for non-college ready students. These disciplines, by definition, increase mediocrity because they have no rigor. Anybody can pass classes in these areas. The notion of “research” in these fields is laughable and, to society at large, utterly meaningless and useless. But they serve a purpose.

    Unfortunately the push for everyone to attend college has now affected STEM. It used to be the case that students entering engineering disciplines were expected to have taken algebra and geometry in high school with trigonometry highly recommended. No longer.
    Standards were lowered because, well, everyone should go to college, right? Doesn’t matter if they’re not prepared.

    Now there is this push to get “under represented minorities” into STEM majors. Admission standards have to be lowered to achieve this, but equity is now uber alles. Courses standards are being lowered to ensure “student success”. Well, now we see the inevitable outcome in STEM: mediocrity.

    1. ” There used to be what was known as “college prep” courses in high school. These course sequences were designed to prepare kids for college.”

      Yes, “tracking.” Technically known as “homogeneous grouping”, it consisted of grouping students of the same ability level together — and over the past 40 years, that has increasingly been abandoned and replaced with “heterogeneous grouping”, also known as “mixed ability level grouping.”

      Take my field — US History — this means that an 11th Grade teacher literally can have a student able to argue (both sides) of the issues involving Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland literally sitting next to a mainstreamed SPED student who thinks that it’s really cool that you can see Lincoln on the back of older pennies if you look closely. And the class gets taught at the level that the level the latter student can keep up with…

      While Math isn’t my field, I understand that a lot of engineering programs expect the applicant to already have had Calculus in high school — and that requires taking Algebra in 8th Grade which means that you can’t have heterogeneous grouping because many students aren’t ready for Algebra in 8th grade — in many cases, it and Geometry is as far as they will manage to go in math.

      In the ’80s & ’90s, the Advanced Placement (AP) courses essentially were the old homogeneously grouped “College Prep” courses in a new package but those have now been watered down at both ends — they are now required to be heterogeneously grouped and the exams have been both watered down and filled with garbage.

      I haven’t seen the curriculum for the brand-new AP Black History course, but it’s already made national news with Florida’s Governor DeSantos publicly objecting to much of it.

      So it’s not just that Suzi goes to college regardless of aptitude (or ability) but that Patti, who *has* the ability and aptitude not only spends six years bored out of her mind waiting weeks for peers to learn stuff she figured out the first day, but also isn’t taught the stuff that she really needs to know as a college freshman, particularly if she wants to go into certain fields.

      And both Suzi and Patti show up in Engineering 101 and the poor professor wants to scream…

      And this is what happens when you let the radical left control K-12 for 50 years, which is what we have done — this is what happens when STEM professors ignore what’s going on across campus in the School of Education. (Particularly in a state university where the state’s 9th graders are the freshmen you will have in four years.)

      After Sputnik, a lot of the STEM folk went to K-12 and told them what needed to be taught in high schools in order to be properly prepared as college freshmen. There was the Physical Science Study Committee that created the PSSC Physics curriculum which was more rigorous than AP Physics is today, and it was taught through the 1960s & 1970s — only to be abandoned in the name of “social justice” as not everyone could do it.

      And that — and the rush to heterogeneous grouping — led to it being abandoned….

  3. “Around 1960, time-use data suggest that the typical college student spent around 40 hours per week in class, studying, writing papers, working in laboratories, etc., while earning a 2.4 or 2.5 grade point average—roughly one half “B” grades and one half “C”s. Fast forward to the present.”

    There’s more to it than this, and it’s not just the students whom I fault.

    Circa 1960 (and definitely before it), classes were held *six* days a week — with today’s Tuesday & Thursday classes also meeting on Saturday. Professors not only wanted their weekends off but (increasingly) to only be on campus twice a week and hence 25 minutes of the Saturday class was tacked onto both the Tuesday and Thursday classes.

    As an educator, I can say with certainty that one learns more in three 50 minute classes than in two 75 minute ones — and that 5 minutes reviewing each of three classes will go much further than 7.5 minutes reviewing two.

    Furthermore, circa 1960 the semester was 17 weeks long, exclusive of final exams. Depending on when Labor Day falls, the fall semester can now be as short as 12 weeks. Fall finals were *after* Christmas, which gave students a whole week to study for them, and I think a lot of at-risk freshmen would do better if they had that extra week.

    But the professors wanted to be done sooner so the semesters got shortened — it was the Faculty Senates who did this — and it is not possible to learn as much in fewer class meetings. It simply isn’t possible.

    Circa 1960 — actually circa 1980 in some places, classes met on holidays. When the Monday holiday law came around in the mid 1970s, professors wanted their three day weekends so the Faculty Senates voted to have holidays off — which led to even less instructional time. And less learning…

    And where the professor circa 1960 was teaching 8 classes a year (4 & 4), that got reduced to 3 & 3 circa 1980, 3 & 2 circa 1990, 2 & 2 circa 2000, and now often is even less, particularly with “release time” for administrative duties. (Not mentioned in the administrative bloat are the faculty getting release time to be administrators as well.)

    IHEs responded by increasing class sizes, particularly in introductory classes (where a good professor could do the most good) with the circa 1960 class of 50 becoming a class of 200 circa 1980 and a class of 500 today. And there is no way for students to have similar outcomes in these large classes — if this wasn’t known, IHEs would advertise the average class size a student attends and not the average of class sizes.

    Now gradflation was initially caused by the dramatic expansion of higher ed in the ’70s and the hiring of a lot of new (inexperienced) professors. It’s simple statistics, the “best” student you have *ever* taught will be in your first class because you’ve never taught before. If class size remains the same, there is a 50% chance that the “best” student will be in that class instead, and the odds go down dramatically from there to where if you’ve been teaching for 50-60 semesters, the mathematical odds of the “best” student being in this class aren’t very good.

    And that’s strict mathematical odds — there’s also the human aspect of mistakenly believing that past students (who you may now know as professional peers) were better than they actually were years back.

    The other statistic I’d love to see is hours spent in paid employment per week — there are undergrads now with THREE jobs and I doubt that was happening back in the 1960s.

    All of this said, the other reality is that institutions had to inflate grades because otherwise parents would be asking questions that they can’t answer. Questions like how, exactly, is one supposed to learn in a class of 500 students, particularly when there are students forced to sit on the floor. Questions like how, exactly, can one learn in 12 weeks what used to be taught in 17 weeks? And why, exactly, are you charging so much money?

    If Junior doesn’t flunk out, daddy stays out of the dean’s office….

    It’s easy to blame the Millennials, and I’ve openly referred to them as a bunch of spoilt brats more than once, but this is not their fault — it’s the fault of generations of professors who sat in Faculty Senates and voted their own interests, and not that of their students.

    And if — say — half of the financial aid (mostly loans) is eliminated and with it the students currently receiving it — and with that, half of the faculty jobs that currently exist — what do you think that said Faculty Senates will say then? If you think that DeSantos and DeVos were/are unpopular now, wait until this happens….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *