Poor education in the Great Society

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, May 14, 2014

by Joseph Bass

Our 50-year effort to build a “Great Society” through welfare has failed, dramatically raising the cost of an education, while dramatically lowering educational results. This is true in elementary and secondary schools and universities.

About half of the students accepted into universities cannot afford to enroll in them. Most of these students enter less expensive community colleges instead, hoping to eventually transfer to a four-year university.

What has caused university costs to rise so dramatically, and what can be done to improve the situation? The changes can be seen by looking at how universities functioned in the past and how they function today.

I enrolled in the University of Oklahoma in 1960, a few weeks after graduating from high school. This, of course, was before the War on Poverty began. There was no application process. Any student with a high school diploma could enroll, regardless of race, color, culture, etc. Of course, only a few black Americans were able to enroll, because they had been oppressed and kept poor for generations.

A semester hour cost $9, but the next year it went up to $11. I graduated in the spring of 1964. My total undergraduate education, including 127 semester hours, books, room, meals, health care, and associated fees cost about $12,000. Today that amount of money will not cover a year in most universities.

Attending the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s was a Darwinian challenge. Freshmen and sophomore classes were intentionally very difficult. About 25 percent of the freshman class did not re-enroll the next year. By the beginning of the junior year, a third of the beginning freshmen were gone. But nearly all who survived to enroll in the junior year graduated in the usual four years.

The university published a booklet for each major academic area that included the required number of hours to graduate in various fields of study. Each student mapped out his four-year course of study and got a sign-off from a professor in his major study area. I graduated in 1964 from OU but continued to take university courses until I completed my third degree in 1982. So I was an eyewitness to what happed in universities during “Great Society” efforts.

Beginning with the War on Poverty, the federal government started suing schools if they did not graduate a percentage of minority students equal to the percentage found in the general population. This ignored the lasting negative impact on minority cultures after generations of oppression, intimidation and lack of equal funding for segregated minority schools.

Universities took three approaches to avoid being sued by the government. They created new academic areas focused on minority issues. Course work in these areas was intentionally made easy. Remedial programs were started attempting to overcome poor academic preparation from poorly funded segregated schools. And new counseling departments were added to university staffs focused on helping minority students.

Counselors steered minority students away from historically difficult areas such as engineering, mathematics, physics, chemistry and so on and helped students keep on track to meet graduation requirements. This got universities off the hook with the government but represented a serious disservice and unequal treatment of minority students.

All of the expansion of staff, services and course work took money away from traditional academic activities and resulted in the greatly increased costs we see today. Maybe we should re-examine how we are going about providing university educations for our students. Our future depends on them.

Joseph L. Bass is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Suffolk. Email him at ABetterSociety1@aol.com.