Gate to Harvard YardOnce upon a time I did honest work. I was an English teacher in a rural public high school. I was single, lived in a garret, worked 60 to 70 hours a week and made US$5,500 a year. I loved the classroom, but the nights and weekends haunted by the stacks of students’ papers were wearing me out. Towards the end of my fourth year of teaching, I decided to take a one year leave of absence and go to graduate school.

As with a lot of my decisions, I had mixed motives for going off to graduate school. Yes, I was tired of the one-way outflow of information, and, also, the spectre of uncorrected themes. However, I wanted to get serious about the hunt for a wife. That part was a smashing success. I captured a young woman and she has been heroically toiling on my reform for four decades now.

My decision to go back to graduate school for one year turned out to be more pivotal than I had suspected. Most of my fellow grad students were there to become professors and enter higher education. After several months of observing them, a thought ballooned up, "Why not me!" And, thus, I lemming-like got on the PhD track and proceeded to my first job in higher education.

Higher education, prior to the social spasms of the late 1960s, was a very different entity than it is today. Hardly perfect, having a "college degree" meant something then. It meant that you had undergone a passage, a set of experiences and to some degree had mastered important skills and knowledge. It set one apart. To announce you have a college degree today has all the heft of reporting that you have cable TV.

What happened to higher education? In the last 40 years, many aspects of life have improved, such as medical care, transportation, food, the economy, and leisure time opportunities. Meantime, a college education went south. At the same time, the costs of higher education have rocketed. Thirty years ago, a four-year education at an Ivy League university cost less that $40,000. Today, $40,000 wouldn’t pay for a single year. From 2000 to 2005 in the US, the average tuition cost at public university rose by 40 per cent.

Higher education is a classic example of an over-built business. Yes, it is very much a business as any college treasurer, faced with a faculty and staff payroll and huge expenses for keeping classrooms, offices and dorms heated and lit, will acknowledge. But like other over-built enterprises, it has itself to blame. It had a good product, the educative experience itself and the labelling, "college educated". The label, in particular, became attractive to the Post World War II baby-boomers. The roaring US economy following the war made the four-year college experience financially feasible for greater and greater lumps of the population. In the process of expanding, two ingredients of high education went through a profound change: students and professors.

First, the students. The uncomfortable fact that many of the potentially new customers were not equipped to "do" college work turned out not to be a problem. The "miracle-of-the-marketplace" stepped in and solved the problem. Higher education changed. It adapted. It "responded to market forces". It… ah-h-h… sold out. A question which once had meaning, "Is he (or she) college material?" evaporated as colleges systematically lowered standards, softened entrance requirements and transformed the college curriculum into a cafeteria of the masses.

In a recent series of op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal, the distinguished social scientist Charles Murray observed that higher education was designed for a relatively small percentage of the population, the 15 per cent on the top of intelligence distribution. This group has the cognitive abilities and intellectual problem-solving skills required for the work. To many moderns, this view seems elitist and undemocratic. And, indeed, it is.

Higher education was designed for the elite, to provide them with the necessary background and training for leadership positions in the profession [law, medicine, the clergy] and government service. But currently 45 per cent of all high school graduates attend a four year college. Elitism has been democratised! Now if one has an IQ above room temperature, there is a college admissions officer waiting to settle you into a dorm room.

Not many decades ago, higher education still had traces of its monkish origins lingering around: required chapel, curfew hours, and, believe it or not, Saturday classes! Today colleges and universities compete with one another in providing a Club Med environment with few or any classes scheduled on Fridays, so the weekend party can begin on Thursday afternoon. The dining services offer meals for every taste from vegan to junk food addicts. Any hint of its monastic past is stamped out by the sexual free zone of most college dorms.

Not long ago, students worried about the threat being "thrown out of college" for poor grades or speaking back to a professor. Now the brute economic fact has changed all that: an enrolled student represents to the college something in the neighbour of $160,000. Students, professors and especially administrators, know that each time a student is expelled (a word that has all but been expelled from the lexicon of higher education), a large chunk of cash goes out the door with him or her. This fact is not lost on professors who have responded by making course failures as rare as full solar eclipses. Students, in turn, have learned that modelling their behaviour on John Belushi’s Animal House has few, if any, consequences.

Then, there are the professors. Let’s face it. We professors are odd ducks. Most of us have lived our lives in splendid isolation from everyday reality. We’ve never had real, 9-to-5 jobs nor had tyrannical bosses. We’ve never had to meet a sales quota, meet a payroll or run a business. Few have been in the armed forces. However, that has never slowed us down developing deep convictions about bloodsucking capitalism or the warped nature of the military mind. Increasingly, however, we have left the dispensing of these wisdoms to our junior grade clones, teaching assistants.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that" college teaching is that activity away from which serious professors flee. In fact, a heavy teaching load is a sign of failure. The better professors teach higher level courses, which enable them to work on their specialty (ie, Edith Sitwell’s Blue Period or the Hegemonic Effects of the American Textile Industry on Peruvian Highlanders) and recruit future graduate students to their hobby. The best professors, however, teach few if any students and do (drum roll, please) research.

John Silber, one of higher education’s straight talkers and past president of Boston University, recently explained why the cost of college has so outpaced the rise in the cost of living. "Professors don't want to teach," he said. "If we had every teacher teaching at least two classes at BU, we could reduce tuition." Where once professors were seen as wise father figures, they now tend to be perceived as remote and shadowy "information dispensers", who deliver their lectures and scurry off to their offices. This is new and undoubtedly results from the pressures to publish, pressures exerted by college administrators in the hunt for ratings. The sea change in Academe has radically affected the connective tissue between students and faculty. My three offspring, who among them logged 12 years of higher education, report never having a sustained conversation with one of their professors and were only briefly in their offices to drop off or pick up a course paper. Perhaps that was a blessing.

What is happening to American undergraduate education is eerily similar to what happened to the US automotive industry. Not too many years ago, the Big Three automakers ruled the world like Titans. But gradually, they became fat and sassy, ignoring quality and craftsmanship and focusing on fashion, chrome and fins. They didn’t think their loyal customers would abandon them for those smaller, cheaper and sturdier imports from "over there".

American higher education, once considered our national jewel, is in danger of following the fate of other over-built industries. Already pragmatic voices are being raised about its value. "Why go deep into debt for an education that can be gleaned from so many other sources?" If it is acquiring the world’s knowledge, most public libraries have full courses of study on tapes and discs, taught by some of the world’s great teachers. The internet is an endless information dispenser. On the other hand, if it is four years of low stress, good times one is looking for, surely there are less expensive ways of achieving that goal.

While in the world of work college degree holders still have a substantial salary edge, will this last? Increasingly, employers are much less interested in "where you went to school?" and much more in "what can you do to fatten my bottom line?"

Emeritus Professor Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education.

Kevin Ryan is a retired professor, living at the edge of Boston and of sanity. He was once a high school English teacher, but found the work too hard and became a professor of education....