21.8.08

SELLING THE OPPORTUNITY TO DISENGAGE? In the Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray claims For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time.

The BA acquired its current inflated status by accident. Advanced skills for people with brains really did get more valuable over the course of the 20th century, but the acquisition of those skills got conflated with the existing system of colleges, which had evolved the BA for completely different purposes.

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

The Pope Center's George Leef concurs.

Throughout our whole educational system, we are “asking too much from those at the bottom, asking the wrong things from those in the middle, and asking too little from those at the top,” he maintains. From kindergarten to college and from the smartest students to the dullest, our education system underperforms.

What is the matter with higher education in America? The main problem is that most students go to college because they think it’s the best or only path to a good job. Unfortunately, Murray argues, it hardly ever makes sense to go to a traditional four-year college simply to acquire vocational skills: “For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator, farmer, high school teacher, social worker, journalist, optometrist, interior designer, or football coach, four years of class work is ridiculous."

I dissent in part from this line of thinking. I will not go so far as to concur with two dissenters Inside Higher Ed retained to rebut Mr Murray. First up, Kevin Carey, very much of the deaducationist establishment, as evidenced by his internally inconsistent piece. Here's what might be the peroration.
It’s wrong to say that too many students are going to college. Too few are going, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. The history of American education is one long series of decisions to open up the halls of academia to students who, at the time, were looked down upon as undeserving. The naysayers have been disproven, over and over again. More broadly, our nation has long had an usually open economy and education system, one that puts a premium on second and third chances and shies away from giving the government power to shut citizens out of educational opportunities based on some imperfect estimate of “ability.” Again, the wisdom of this philosophy in hindsight seems clear.
That language about disproving the naysayers fails to convince in the face of the high proportion of matriculants in remedial classes, the high attrition rate, administrative handwringing about retention, and the replacement of the B.A. with the M.A. as the credential for more responsible jobs. (Is there any other business that gets away with selling a defective product and then selling an upgrade in the same way that education has allowed the high school diploma to become a ticket for time served, the baccalaureate to become all too often the new high school diploma, and the master's degree possibly producing what the baccalaureate once represented?)

Concurrently, the deaducationist establishment has helped keep the disadvantaged communities disadvantaged, by turning Habits of Effective People into socially-constructed technologies of control. When lottery winners blow through their winnings in a short time and return to their poor state, it's a habit of mind, not a lack of money, that has put them there.

Robert Perry of the South Dakota Board of Regents (nothing like trolling the bottom of the academic food chain to refute Mr Murray, who is questioning the privileges at the top) continues.

  • The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the country needs more graduates if we are to keep up with, let alone lead, other nations in the global economy.
  • By the end of the next president’s first term, there will be three million more jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees and not enough college graduates to fill them.
  • 90 percent of the fastest growing job categories, including software engineers, physical therapists, and preschool teachers, 60 percent of all new jobs, and 40 percent of manufacturing jobs will all require some form of postsecondary education.
I'm skeptical of those "compete in the global economy arguments," thanks to some careful work by Paul Krugman in Pop Internationalism. There's no necessary connection between U.S. employers wanting to hire more degree holders and degree holders from U.S. universities filling those jobs; indeed the brain drain from underdeveloped to developed countries is pushed by the corruption and political incompetence of the source countries and pulled by the failure of the host countries' education system to do the job. Consider also the possibility that those elementary school teacher shortages reflect the horrible working conditions and poor pay for people who haven't already walked away from what passes for teacher education these days.

Continuing in a less polemical vein, that third point concedes ("some form of postsecondary education") Mr Murray's main point. The same is true of the elaboration in the paragraph that follows.
We need more, not fewer university and community college graduates, even in rural states like mine. South Dakota’s aging population will require 30 percent more health care workers in the coming decades — and those workers will require degrees. We’re also facing a teacher shortage; educators of all levels need postsecondary education to successfully command and manage a classroom, let alone impart wisdom on elementary and secondary students. Our state also lacks accountants, and the industry has informed us that tomorrow’s professionals will require 150 hours of postsecondary education to successfully complete the Certified Public Accountant’s exam.
I wonder, also, whether Mr Perry's assessments of South Dakota's higher education square with this expectation.
Higher education allows people of all backgrounds to hone their writing, reading, cognitive and critical thinking skills that enable them to actively participate as citizens. Not everyone who completes a four-year degree will be able to write like William Faulkner — and some may argue that’s a good thing. But the papers students have to research and write in college are valuable and marketable experiences to future employers who need workers who can craft memos, reports and strategic plans, all valuable skills in the knowledge economy. Moreover, people with postsecondary degrees also tend to be healthier, are more productive throughout their work lives, are more engaged in their communities, more philanthropic and are less likely to be involved in crime.
All true, at one time. Many of those writing, reading, cognitive and critical thinking skills used to be the responsibility of the high schools. Thirty or forty years of access-assessment-remediation-retention has taken the onus off the high schools, and the universities' efforts to do the high schools' work are uneven at best.

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