Chris Lehmann has a pretty trenchant essay on American higher education in his book Rich People Things
that shows how far we've fallen in this area since the days of Horace Mann (1796-1859). In those days, says Lehmann, "public education was not intended to serve as a means of investment, or as a guarantor of enhanced life opportunities." Mann was the founder of the "common school" movement, the goal of which "was to educate Americans to be democratic citizens...to grasp and honor the value of education as a social practice in its own right." He wrote that the spread of this type of education would "open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand, and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society."
Fast forward to the present time. Lehmann writes: "The content of most curricula...rarely bothers any longer with the conceit of using the rare margin of leisure culturally programmed into the adolescent experience to bring students in contact with philosophic, literary, or spiritual traditions that would permit 'the social feelings to expand.'" His best example of this is the multicampus for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix. Billionaire founder John Sperling declared that UP is "a corporation, not a social entity. Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop [students'] value systems or go in for that 'expand their minds' bullshit." At least he was honest. Of course, given the value system of nearly 100% of Americans, UP has become the largest university in the country, with 420,000 students currently enrolled. So that the faculty doesn't have to do very much (which would drive up the cost to the university), students are encouraged to develop and administer their own learning programs (which meshes well with the chic and politically correct "we're all learners here" ideology that is very prevalent today). "The idea," writes Lehmann, "is clearly to herd as many people into Phoenix programs as possible, charge inflated tuition rates, and leave them to ford through an indifferently conceived and executed curriculum largely on their own."
How has this played out, in actual practice? UP graduates 16% of its students, as compared to the national average of 55% for public and private universities. 11% of graduates from schools such as UP default on their student loans, as compared to the 6% default rate among these other schools. In addition, UP is frankly crooked. Recruiters are given cash incentives (i.e., kickbacks) to enroll unqualified students, which they do by lying to them. They mislead them about the scarcity of enrollment space, about the amount of financial aid they are going to receive, and they falsely claim that their UP credits will be transferable to other 4-year institutions. In 2009 a whistleblower lawsuit resulted in a fine for the Apollo group, UP's parent company, to the tune of $67.5 million--which did not, according to Lehmann, result in any significant change in UP's recruiting methods. (They probably paid off the fine out of spare change.)
A sad story, the evolution of higher ed in America, but perhaps not very surprising. Hustling and commodification ruin everything; all content is eviscerated in the rush to profit, to get "ahead." When the entire nation is a con, there's no reason why any one institution, such as the university system, should not also be a con; the pressure is difficult to resist. It's possible that when the whole structure comes crumbling down, there may be a very small residue of Americans who will say, "This is a pile of crap! Has anyone ever heard of Shakespeare?" I'm guessing, however, that that day is a long ways off.