1.6.09

GETTING THE MISSION RIGHT. David Frum contemplates the popping of a higher education bubble.

Between 2000 and 2005, the average wages of college graduates declined after adjusting for inflation.

From an economic point of view, in other words, a college degree costs more and more and returns less and less. Kind of like a hot stock with a price-to-earnings ratio of 32, it’s a prelude to a crash.

Why are the wages of the college-educated declining? A big part of the answer is that the pool of college graduates is rapidly expanding. It’s not surprising that as college becomes more universal, the return on a college education falls.

As the number of job applicants with degrees rises, employers become more sophisticated in assessing the value of any particular degree. The degree itself matters less than the institution that granted it, the subject areas of concentration, and the grade point average earned. A 4.0 math degree from Cal Tech is a very different thing from a 2.8 communications degree from San Francisco State University.

Now the next question is: Will consumers become more sophisticated too? Tuition, room, and board at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill cost about half what they cost at nearby Duke. Is a Duke education really twice as valuable as one from UNC?

He goes on to note that some of the hot universities have abdicated their responsibilities.
Intellectually, spiritually, and morally, American higher education is in crisis, with the worst damage manifested at the most expensive institutions. At Duke, racial politics whooped up a faculty lynch mob against student lacrosse players who were falsely accused of rape. It’s often at the costliest universities that students are able to graduate with a degree in English without ever having read Shakespeare, a degree in history despite ignorance of the Civil War, or one in art history without ever having encountered the Renaissance.
He suggests that higher education get out of the vocational certification business. (That will be difficult with colleges of business, education, and engineering, but I digress.)
Maybe tough high school exit exams would serve the needs of employers who currently insist on a BA not for its own sake but as proof that a student was not too lazy or aimless to get one. Indeed, it could be that when the job market attaches less value to a piece of parchment, universities will at last lay aside their often ugly political preoccupations and rediscover their true mission: the pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself.
To move in that direction will require the community colleges, mid-majors, and land-grants to recognize that they are in the same business as Harvard or Northwestern. Perhaps the market will send that signal. Mr Frum's essay is a reaction to a Chronicle of Higher Education essay suggesting a higher education bubble (nothing new to regular readers) in which the recession is leading some people to rethink the value of a prestige credential.

Consumers who have questioned whether it is worth spending $1,000 a square foot for a home are now asking whether it is worth spending $1,000 a week to send their kids to college. There is a growing sense among the public that higher education might be overpriced and under-delivering.

In such a climate, it is not surprising that applications to some community colleges and other public institutions have risen by as much as 40 percent. Those institutions, particularly community colleges, will become a more-attractive option for a larger swath of the collegebound. Taking the first two years of college while living at home has been an attractive option since the 1920s, but it is now poised to grow significantly.

But, as I've noted before, this new clientele is neither more access-assessment-remediation-retention fodder nor likely to be pleased with College Lite. Therein lies the potential for mission creep.
But research expectations have grown at many institutions where the missions -- at least until recently -- have been primarily focused on teaching. And as Dahlia K. Remler and Elda Pema note in a provocative new paper, the emphasis extends beyond research that pays for itself.
Left unsaid in the column is whether the research emphasis is genuine -- pick a challenging topic, analyze the hell out of it, and take your chances on the reviewers -- or symbolic -- find an archival journal and write something good enough to pass muster.

It matters. The students who avoid the priciest options deserve the same level of intellectual challenge and the same level of faculty preparation no matter where they go. There are plenty of good faculty at places you've never heard of: this is their chance to show their stuff.

No comments: