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Today's college: Mission or business?

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It was not that long ago that the nation's colleges and universities were the jewels in our nation's crown. They were the envy of the world. But in a few short decades, all that has changed. They have lost their way.

Kevin and Marilyn

Many of us television watchers saw unsettling scenes in recent weeks. Between the human toll spreading by this ravenous coronavirus and economic destruction to jobs and savings, there were disturbing reports of American college students on spring break in the South.

Squeezed in between the clips of hedonistic beach partying and a general atmosphere of debauchery were interviews with students about why they were ignoring the dangers to themselves, their families and the rest of the nation. Most memorable were those who insisted it was their right to party and who smirkingly looked into the camera with claims that the threat of COVID-19 was nothing compared with global warming and world hunger.

It is too easy to castigate a generation of students by the behavior of what is a slim segment of today's college students. Many more are experiencing a disappointing rupture in their attempts to get an education. One such student is our granddaughter, Mary Foley, who has been working since she was 14 to pay the freight for her college room and board. Two weeks ago, she, like the rest of her dormmates, was told to clear out and go home for an indeterminate time. No mention has been made of reimbursing her for the hard-earned dollars she has paid to her university for her housing and meals. Justifiably, Mary's "Irish is up," and presumably, that of many students across the country.

These two examples are the latest evidence of a larger issue: the corruption of higher education in America.

It was not that long ago that the nation's colleges and universities were the jewels in our nation's crown. They were the envy of the world. But in a few short decades, all that has changed. They have lost their way. It's ironic in our present climate, but most of the countries great private universities began as seminaries. And irony of ironies, sometime in the 19th century, Harvard shortened its motto ''Veritas in Jesu Christo'' (Truth is in Jesus Christ) to simply ''Veritas'' (Truth), a word the current faculty would have great difficulty explaining.

Higher education has undergone a major case of "mission creep." In the past, it was widely understood that its mission was to expose young people at the time of their intellectual awakening to the best of human thought and creation; to introduce them to the idea that there are better and worse ideas about the ways of living, of spending their life force; that there are grades of difference in the work of humans; that there are standards of human excellence; that there are paths available to them to become better human beings, beings that not only have a chance to contribute to those around them, to society, to our democracy, but to achieve higher levels of human happiness for themselves; and finally to realize that they can "pass" in college but fail in life and vice versa.

In addition to its intellectual mission, there was character formation. In the pre-Animal House world, administrators and faculty realized that students coming out of high school were not "finished adults" and college had a responsibility to create an environment, a setting, where the good habits of self-discipline, responsibility and concern for others would flourish.

That was then. This is now. What has changed? Then, colleges and universities were revered institutions of learning. Now they are entities run on a business model by administrators with little or no training in business. And then there is the faculty whose core responsibility is to provide answers to one essential question: What is most worth knowing? Once faculty wrestled with this question, and their answer was in the curriculum, the array of courses they taught. Now the question is, "What sells? What does the customer want?"

Customer-driven education has radically changed higher education. But so has the customer. A few years ago, the idea of college-for-everyone, that a college education was the ticket to a lucrative job in business, burst on the scene. The question "Is Finn or Tiffaney college-material?" disappeared to "What will it take to lure them to our campus?"

Now, colleges, both public and private, are in deadly competition with one another to provide a bread and circuses environment for potential customers. Thus, dorms now are like hotels, with workout rooms, cable TV, and food service that makes coming home on vacations to mom's dinners a major letdown.

Higher ed went from mission to product -- a product for sale. And, indeed, how it has sold! Today, there are 6,000 government-certified colleges and universities in the U.S., producing nearly $500 billion in yearly revenue and "serving" over 20 million students, an increase of more than 30 percent from just 15 years ago. Today, fully 70 percent of our high school graduates march off to college each September. This is occurring at a time when the nation's high schools' educational standards have never been lower.

This is why higher education is spending huge amounts of tuition money and students' time on "remedial education," on teaching basic grammar, reading skills and elementary math -- things that should have been learned in elementary school.

This is why colleges' standards have collapsed and colleges have given in to students' demands for "safe spaces" and objections to professors and speakers who challenge them with "uncomfortable ideas."

And this is why business recruiters and executives are complaining about "the product," so many of whom have spent four years in a play-pen environment, with little discipline, easy courses, few real demands, acquiring "progressive" attitudes and an "empowered mentality."

Our nation needs an educated citizenry and a trained workforce. Today, whether brought on by COVID-19 or deep economic disruptions, we are again at a moment of change. Stand by for massive disruption and reform of higher education.

- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.

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