9.4.04

CLOSING THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT? Joanne Jacobs picks up a Debra Saunders column ridiculing a proposal by the president of San Francisco State University (at one time presided over by the incomparable S. I. Hayakawa) to cope with budget cuts by closing the College of Engineering. One commenter to the post recognized the strategy.

While you're visiting Joanne's site, read and understand The Awful Truth. The various admissions counselors, protectors of the eligibility of the unprepared, and hand-wringers about "retention" would do well to grasp the following:
The vast majority of high school seniors say they plan to get a college degree. Yet less than 40 percent will earn a two- or four-year degree in 10 years. Success is linked closely to high school performance: While 64 percent of A students with college plans earn a two-year or higher degree; only 14 percent of college-bound seniors with averages of C or lower earn any sort of degree within 10 years. Half of the C and D students will not earn a single college credit. They'll take remedial classes and then give up.
Ms Jacobs links to sound advice that high-schoolers who aspire to a degree ought to read and understand. Go there now.

Welcome back. James E. Rosenbaum spells out the bad news.
Every year I ask my college class how many students have seen a high school teacher cry, and most students raise their hands. When I ask what provoked the crying, most stories are about teachers who threaten to give students bad grades and students who do not care. When I ask my colleagues the same question about their high school teachers from one or two generations ago, virtually none can recall such tears. This is not a systematic survey, but it suggests a big change.
A hint to teachers: don't threaten. Just. Do. It. The kids will thank you later.
Beyond the negative effect that the college-for-all push has on individual students, there is the broader negative effect it has on high schools? academic climate. Seeing that college access is guaranteed, some students believe that they can challenge teachers? authority and suffer no penalty; some teachers may respond to their diminished authority by leaving the profession or by reducing their demands on students (Sedlak et al., 1986). While these changes have their greatest impact on low-achieving students, even high-achieving students will be in classes where teachers? authority is questioned, and such students may wonder if they could prepare for college with less effort.

Those looking for justice may see it in the finding that unmotivated students will end up worse off--stuck with remedial classes, fewer college credits and degrees, and lower earnings. But this is not a happy ending. Students waste their high school years, disrupt high school for others, drag down the standards in high school, and force colleges to provide high school courses as an increasingly larger segment of their curriculum.
What's that cliche? If you think education is expensive, try ignorance? The preceding spells out some of the costs of that ignorance. Add to that the lost output as teachers and professors move from work they'd like to do and would do well, if only given the opportunity and the support from their principals, superintendents, deans, and provosts, to other work where they might be as well (or better) paid but less enthusiastic. Add to that the losses taxpayers bear in the form of prison for some of the kids the education system failed, and in relief payments to workers whose work is outsourced owing to their own lack of technical competence. (Ms Jacobs has a lot of stuff on bad algebra skills and diminished prospects. Just keep reading.) Add to that the losses consumers bear in the form of incompetence taxes (the forklift driver breaks the goods, the picking clerk misreads the form, the order-taker at McDonald's is surly, the checker at the convenience store can't make change.) Life after college may be the Revenge of the Nerds, but the rough justice Professor Rosenbaum alludes to in the second paragraph supra does not come for free.

On the other hand, San Francisco State's president might be able to more effectively threaten to close the Washington Monument by closing down everything that's remedial: the not-for-credit classes in lieu of high school classes, the tutoring and retention bureaucracies for so-called "at risk" students, and some of the dubious centers Ms. Saunders singles out.

There is one part of Professor Rosenbaum's essay that calls for a bit more commentary, particularly if Cold Spring Shops wishes to move up in the Economics B. C. S.
The past 40 years brought three radical social transformations that together have dramatically increased the percentage of students who want to attend college. First, the earnings advantage of college graduates has grown (Grubb, 1996). Second, college--especially community college (a minor factor in the prior generation)--has become much more accessible. In the past four decades, while enrollments at four-year colleges doubled, enrollments increased five-fold at community colleges (NCES, 1999). Third, and perhaps most remarkably, virtually all community colleges adopted a revolutionary policy of open admissions. Unlike many four-year colleges, virtually all two-year colleges opened their doors to admit all interested high school graduates, regardless of students? prior academic achievement. Even high school graduates with barely passing grades are routinely welcomed because almost all two-year colleges offer a wide array of remedial courses. Indeed, in many cases, students do not even have to be high school graduates because most two-year colleges offer these students access to some non-credit courses, including GED courses.
The first of these developments is more subtle than Professor Rosenbaum lets on. Ceteris paribus an increase in the production of college graduates depresses the premium to a degree. If the demand for degreed professionals simultaneously increases, the premium will increase provided the demand increase exceeds the supply increase (professors are reluctant to ask students to diagram such things as there is much room for confusion.) There might be some increase in the demand, but the controversy over work permits for immigrant engineers and computer programmers suggests something else is at work. One possibility is the defect rate in higher education. Under this hypothesis, the premium to a degree is higher because although more people are entering colleges, fewer are completing degrees, particularly the technically demanding (if boring) ones that command the highest salaries.

The second and third transformations are not necessarily for the good, either. Consider in particular the opportunity to earn a high school equivalent degree at community college. Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman has been doing some work on the effectiveness of the GED (among other things, scroll around) that suggests the equivalent degree is not in fact equivalent to a standard high school diploma ... but whether that is a consequence of the people who leave high school being in some way different from those who finish on time remains a topic of interest.

Is there, somewhere, a senior university administrator who will stand up and say, "We will no longer spend any money doing the things the high schools ... nay, the kindergartens ... failed to do, and we will no longer offer admission to anyone who is not sufficiently prepared?"

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