05/23/2012 12:02 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Educating for Democracy: How "High" is Higher Education?

In a recent program on 60 Minutes, Peter Thiel, self-made billionaire and founder of Pay Pal, claimed that for most students college was a waste of time and money. He paid 24 students with promising ideas for entrepreneurial ventures $100,000 each not to go to college. Although I would not go so far as to advise all high school graduates to forget about going to college if their main -- if not sole -- objective is to get a good-paying job, there certainly is a serious problem today facing higher education that is not being sufficiently addressed, and that concerns what "higher" education is all about.

Since the post-War period, the college population in the United States has ballooned from a little over 2,000,000 in 1960 to 17,000,000 in 1990 and is approaching 20,000,000 today. This increase in college enrollment is five times the rate of population growth that was about half of what it is now: 150 million in 1950 and over 300 million today.

A 2011 survey of 3800 US colleges reported in the New York Times indicated "that despite decades of steadily climbing enrollment rates, the percentage of students making it to the finish line is barely budging." The Times article indicated that the graduation rate in some states was even more dismal than the national average which is about 60% for a degree within six years:

In Texas, for example, of every 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 79 started at a community college, and only 2 of them earned a two-year degree on time; even after four years, only 7 of them graduated. Of the 21 of those 100 who enrolled at a four-year college, 5 graduated on time; after eight years, only 13 had earned a degree.

Although there are many reasons for these figures, one of the chief concerns is that even students who have a degree may not be sufficiently educated to be competent in their area of study, most significantly, "global competence" since, according to a report on the subject: "Enrollment in foreign languages has fallen from 16 percent in the 1960s to less than 9 percent today; and between 1965 and 1995 the share of 4-year institutions with language-degree requirements for some students fell from roughly 90 percent to 67 percent."

I would argue, however, that there has been a significant shift in emphasis of the purpose of a "higher" education which seems to be moving toward an exclusive focus on what I would call "higher vocational skilling" rather than "higher level thinking."

When I attended Queens College (CUNY) in the early 1960's, tuition was free and other than books, the only expenses I had were a registration fee -- $23.00 -- and the costs of transportation. But what, in retrospect, seemed most significant in contrasting the education I received with that of the students attending many schools today were the "Core" graduation requirements. Among the requirements for all students, regardless of their major, were: two semesters of math, the first being integral calculus; four semesters of a Columbia University program in "Contemporary Civilization" which combined a Western history course and an intellectual history course; two semesters of art history; two of music; seven semesters of a foreign language if starting a new one (although as few as four if you were deemed proficient enough in the language you learned in high school); a composition and two literature courses; five PE courses, in one of which I learned to fence; and, finally, and I'm embarrassed to admit this, only one general science course. That adds up to about 60 "Core" credits of a 128-credit degree.

Since I was an English major and a creative writing minor, I was encouraged to take several foreign languages -- Latin and German -- as well as to complete my French requirement. I also took several courses in classics, philosophy, social psychology and anthropology. I felt that I had been given the kind of education that not only equipped me in my chosen field but for many other areas of knowledge which helped me have the intellectual curiosity and flexibility that allowed me to adopt my specific area of knowledge -- Modern Drama -- to the many different courses I have taught over the years.

I don't believe "higher" education is for everyone, although Mr. Thiel's suggestion that it is a waste of time and money would not be helpful for many students who don't happen to be geniuses as entrepreneurs. But to give him credit for some of his criticism, higher education is not accessible to many students who, try as they might, are unable to master the requirements for graduation, watered down as I believe many of them are. These students should be able to get a decent-paying job, regardless of whether they have a college degree or not, and to use as an excuse that it is somehow their "fault" for not getting one is to mask the sad fact that our economic system is losing the capacity to provide a decent-paying job for everyone who wants one or needs one with a college degree, a high school diploma or no "certification" at all.

In any case, college should not be an advanced vocational high school as, or so it seems, politicians and some so-called educators consider it. It should be a place in which students are trained for high-level thinking by exploring -- not just being exposed to -- a variety of disciplines and cultures that would enable them not merely to "compete" in a global economy, but flourish in it. If too narrowly trained in a specific subject with little attention to any other, they will be unable to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of our "knowledge economy," which should also be a culture in which the arts, philosophy, history, and citizenship have a place of honor in "higher" education.