Let’s concede at the outset that many students find their college years enlightening and enriching. But something is rotten in the state of academia, and it is increasingly hard not to notice.

Cover.Fail-U-2-677x1024There once was a time when employers could be reasonably certain that college graduates had a basic sense of the world and, as a minimum, could write a coherent business letter. That is simply no longer the case, as some academic leaders appear ready to admit.

Harvard’s former president, Derek Bok, mildly broke ranks with the academic cheerleaders when he noted that, for all their many benefits, colleges and universities “accomplish far less for their students than they should.” Too many graduates, he admitted, leave school with the coveted and expensive credential “without being able to write well enough to satisfy employers … [or] reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, nontechnical problems.”

Bok noted that few undergraduates can understand or speak a foreign language; most never take courses in quantitative reasoning or acquire “the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy.” Despite the massive spending on the infrastructure of higher education, he conceded, it was not at all clear that students actually learned any more than they did 50 years ago.