22.12.06

THE EXCESS DEMAND IS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION. The New York Times states the obvious. Public Universities Chase Excellence, at a Price. The article opens with the University of Florida's efforts to become as well thought of as California or Michigan before the state went broke or Wisconsin before the place went nuts. But quickly the carping begins.

Like Florida, more leading public universities are striving for national status and drawing increasingly impressive and increasingly affluent students, sometimes using financial aid to lure them. In the process, critics say, many are losing force as engines of social mobility, shortchanging low-income and minority students, who are seriously underrepresented on their campuses.

“Public universities were created to make excellence available to all qualified students,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, an advocacy group, “but that commitment appears to have diminished over time, as they choose to use their resources to try to push up their rankings. It’s all about reputation, selectivity and ranking, instead of about the mission of finding and educating future leaders from their state.”

Look at it from a different perspective. These missions do not have to be mutually exclusive, but too many public universities, and more than a few private universities, have fallen into the trap of access-assessment-remediation-retention as College Lite, and ambitious students and pushy parents have figured it out. The obsession with reputation and selectivity is one that can easily be countered by university administrators, whether at Flagship State or Compass Point State or Jesuit Basketball Power or Saint Somebody, credibly committing themselves to offering higher education. Abolishing all remedial classes might be the place to start that commitment.

The article goes on to note,
The demands on such universities are growing, too, particularly with many states questioning their spending on higher education. Increasingly, these colleges are expected to bolster their states’ economies by attracting research grants and jobs. To do that, they say, they must compete with elite private universities.
Put another way: the university that treats its faculty as interchangeable parts, and has an "if you can get a better offer, we'll consider raising your pay" personnel policy is likely to stagnate, no matter how many fine words come from the president or how many "business models" the trustees crow about.
So the universities face a tough balancing act: should they push for higher status and higher tuition revenue by accepting more top-achieving, out-of-state students, or should they worry about broadening access for low-income, in-state students? Is their primary goal to serve the people of their state or to compete nationally with private research universities? Can they leave the less prestigious state colleges to serve the bulk of in-state students?
Omitted: any suggestion that some tough love directed at the common schools might have a salutary effect on student performance. There's enough excess capacity in access-assessment-remediation-retention that many high schoolers have the attitude that they don't have to work hard because some college will take them anyway. That's where the social waste is.

Administrators at Florida grasp some of these points.

[Florida president J. Bernard] Machen said the university needed the surcharge to supplement its inexpensive tuition and bring in 200 new faculty members.

“How can I tell parents that the education their children can get here is on a par with Michigan or North Carolina,” he said, “when my student-teacher ratio is 21 or 22 to 1, and Michigan’s is 15 to 1, Chapel Hill’s 14 to 1?”

Observers, however, are notoriously tone-deaf. Here's College Affordability, commenting on the article.
There will be no real solution to this dilemma until the "bottom line" changes. We need a new, much utilized ranking of educational excellence that stresses outcomes, incremental learning, vocational success of recent graduates, and other similar measures of accomplishment. Or, we need more for-profit education, where the bottom line is simple: profits.
There is a subtle point under this formulation: putting small cohorts of already-educated, motivated people together might be an expensive way of producing small increments of learing. Vocational success is a bit more difficult to measure. It's not clear, however, who the "we" in that formulation is. I have been using a derived demand argument all along: employers are not interested in hiring graduates they have to train ab initio, and students are not interested in enrolling in universities of little reputation. And the pursuit of higher rankings for their own sake might not be all bad: the market for genuine higher education is large enough that if fifty or sixty universities can claim to be in the top 25 in one way or another, that serves employers (a final demand) and students (the derived demand) more effectively than if administrators allow the historic top 10 or 25 or 50 to hold those positions without competing for their faculty or enticing their students to enroll. As Joanne Jacobs notes,
Top-scoring students seek the most selective colleges and universities. Getting in establishes their status.
The push for selectivity and research visibility simply provides additional credible markers of status.

Think about it this way: would diners be better served if only 20 restaurants earned a five-star rating, or if (with no dilution of standards) they had a choice among 50, 100, 200 five-star restaurants?

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