Here's one message that college seniors won't hear from graduation speakers: "higher education" is a mess. We have plenty of superb colleges and universities, and many students get excellent educations. But on the whole, our colleges are educationally undemanding and economically wasteful. They are a symptom of low educational standards -- and a main cause.

Consider:

The attrition rate among college students is enormous. Of entering freshmen at four-year colleges, only 41 percent have earned a bachelor's degree after six years. At community colleges, the dropout rate appears to be even higher.

Two-thirds of college faculty members say their schools increasingly teach what students should have learned in high school. Students don't disagree. About 40 percent of incoming freshmen say a main reason for going to college is to improve "reading and study skills." In 1971, 22 percent said so.

The value of many degrees is suspect. Nearly 30 percent of bachelors' degrees are in "business" or "communications" -- double the rate of 20 years ago. In general, these degrees don't make significant intellectual demands on students or provide important technical skills (such as engineering).

Our college and university leaders are aware of their problems, but few discuss them candidly. Derek Bok, the president of Harvard, recently wrote a 15,000-word report on U.S. higher education without mentioning any of the facts listed above. College leaders see themselves as the victims of poor high schools. This rationalization is at least half backward.

Lax high school and college academic standards feed on each other. In our society, the badge of successfully completing high school is not just a degree but the ability to go to college -- and almost anyone can go to college. We have about 3,600 colleges and universities (about 1,500 community colleges and 2,100 four-year institutions). Of these, perhaps 200 are truly selective in the sense that they reject applicants. So why work in high school? Small wonder that the average high school senior does less than an hour of daily homework.

"Adolescents are like adults. They do as much as they have to in order to get what they want," writes Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers. "The young people who want to go to elite {schools} ... must meet high standards, and they work hard. But the rest of high school students know they can get into some college no matter how poorly they do."

In trying to give more Americans more education, we have made college into a heavily subsidized entitlement. About 60 percent of high school graduates go on to some college. Roughly three-quarters of these go to state schools, where tuition covers only about 20 percent of educational costs. State legislatures provide most of the rest. Federally guaranteed loans and grants broaden the subsidies. In 1988, these totaled about $19 billion.

Most colleges are obsessed with surviving. They subtly lower academic standards to ensure the flow of students and subsidies. Paradoxically, this abets tuition inflation at better schools. People who want quality (or the image of quality) have fewer choices. Not surprisingly, tuitions at prestige universities have risen much faster than inflation in the 1980s.

We could easily change this situation. A federal loan is the ticket to college for many students. We could require loan applicants to pass a test showing they can do 12th-grade work. Only students who can handle college should go to college. States could shut down 10 to 20 percent of their colleges and universities, so schools wouldn't continually scrounge for students. States could also sharply raise their tuitions and couple the increases with big boosts in scholarships. But to keep scholarships, students would have to maintain a C average.

I guarantee that these measures would instantly improve high schools. Perhaps the top (or bottom) 10 to 20 percent of students wouldn't be affected. But students in the middle would react to the threat of not being able to go to college; they'd study more. Parents would also take more interest in schools. We'd see real pressure to overhaul school bureaucracies and rules. In the end, the number of college graduates wouldn't drop, and it might rise. Fewer freshmen might be admitted, but they would be better prepared, and the attrition rate would fall.

We will not, of course, do these sensible things. Any politician brave enough to suggest them would be accused of making colleges too elitist and restrictive. We prefer to maintain poor schools -- high schools and colleges -- that everyone can attend rather than have good schools that might benefit most students. We prefer to complain about "underinvestment" in education rather than face the harder question of why our massive investment in education produces such poor results.

Higher education now accounts for 40 percent of all U.S. educational spending, $359 billion in the current school year. We'd be better off in countless ways if less were spent on colleges and more on helping the poorest students in our public primary and secondary schools. But the basic problems of our educational system can't be cured by more money, educational reorganization or new teaching theories. No matter how worthy, "reforms" can't succeed unless students work harder.

The casual attitudes toward learning discourages serious students and dedicated teachers. The trouble is that most students won't work harder unless they think they must. If most colleges have low standards, so will most high schools. Students will perform as poorly as we expect them to. How poorly? Of young Americans (21 to 25) with only a high school degree, less than 60 percent read at an 11th-grade level. Of those with a college degree, only four-fifths read at an 11th-grade level.

We are engaged in a costly charade. We pass out more and more degrees (including many graduate university degrees) with less and less meaning. The ultimate victims of this charade are our children. The pretense that they're learning won't do them any good later in life when they will either know it or they won't.