I know of no college or university in the country that doesn’t have to offer most or all of its freshmen courses in remedial English, beginning mathematics, beginning science and beginning foreign languages. Consequently, we give two or three years of college [courses] and the rest is high school work.
Most people agree that this is a perfect example of the declining quality of our schools. The problem with the argument, however, is that Professor Greene uttered this statement about the poor quality of high school graduates in March 1946. And when he spoke, he became part of a long line of complainants. Thirty-eight years prior, a 1908 Carnegie report discovered that large percentages of America’s high school graduates were being admitted to elite colleges with “conditions,” i.e., in need of remediation. Further back, in 1900, when only the top 2 percent of high school graduates went on to college (compared to 62 percent today), 378 of America’s 450 colleges reported that incoming freshman needed remedial work. Eighty-four percent!
The full post is well worth a read. What it's missing, though, is perspective on the nature of work in the past compared to the present. Yes, schools may have sucked in 1946, but even after going through a remedial English class in college, virtually any graduate was assured a stable, well-paying job. A bachelor's degree was a ticket to the middle class, and even without one, any hardworking, moderately competent adult could secure a full-time job (unemployment was generally under 4% from 1945 through 1960, and sometimes dropped below 3%).
Things have changed- a B.A. won't get you a job without good problem-solving skills, decent writing, and aggressive hunting, and tutition rates and student loan regulation make college a dangerous gamble for some. Bad schools may be nothing new, but we have never needed to work on them more than we do today.