23.12.10

CATASTROPHE IS WINNING. The Superintendent has reacted favorably to shorter observations by Rutgers sociologist Jackson Toby, and Book Review No. 40 commends his The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance. That's his policy proposal in a nutshell, and in the concluding chapter he suggests that on balance it is not a policy that encourages whining and grade-grubbing by entitled but underprepared students. He provides ample documentation, with proper endnotes properly placed at the end of each chapter. That's so refreshing compared with the slapdash or non-existent documentation so many publishers provide allegedly in the interest of economy.

Cold Spring Shops management must endorse a book that includes chapters titled "How Colleges Undermine High School Education" and "Maximizing Access to College Maximizes the Enrollment of Underprepared Students" and a subsection headed "Low Admission and Retention Standards Encourage Goofing Off". Professor Toby recognizes that the effects of the various G.I. bills, Sputnik, and the baby boom include excess capacity in higher education. He neither rebuts nor proposes that at least some of the less-highly-regarded institutions respond to the excess demand for slots at the institutions heading the league tables by raising their academic profile. That might be material for another book, his own Rutgers having slipped up in the academic rankings and missed the brass rings in football and basketball. In Lowering, he's nailed the problems with access-assessment-remediation-retention. Turn to page 52.
Colleges sometimes talk about "high-risk admissions," which shows their intellectual recognition of the lower chances of success for underprepared students. But the colleges have, by and large, recoiled from the implications of high-risk admissions: low "retention" rates. "Retention" is a peculiar word that suggests the college rather than students bears the responsibility for students leaving before graduating.
It's a bit of misplaced business thinking: a repeat customer is a good thing. But the business thinking neglects something else: the wrong kind of customer depresses the value of the business. (Did you ever notice that the businesses that warn customers "no shirt, no shoes, no service" don't offer much by way of service, and if the business is a so-called convenience store you're queued behind multiple people buying lottery tickets and Marlboros? Information content. So it is with lowered higher education.
Yet the evidence is clear that the worse the academic preparation of admitted students at a college, the lower the college's retention rate on the average.
Milepost One on the road to subprime party school land.
Once they have given remedial courses to underprepared students, colleges feel obligated to graduate them even though they may not have corrected their initial weaknesses. Graduating such students exacerbates the problem, because other underprepared students infer from their graduation that everyone can make progress toward a degree without committing himself or herself to repairing weaknesses in preparation. They lack a strong incentive.
That's an incomplete evaluation. On one hand, students assigned to more remedial courses have a higher propensity to drop out. On the other hand, students who complete McDegrees are less likely to face the highest marginal tax rates. Rising income inequality coexisting with rising collegiate enrollments is a statement of inadequate supply of people with ability.

Professor Toby contemplates a number of other influences on higher education's slide, including the role of third party payments in wishful-thinking enrollments (there's an entire book waiting to be written on the effect of third party payments on tuitions and amenities), the role of grade inflation in producing unemployable majors, at the same time that some departments are able to find jobs for all their graduates, and he recognizes that apprenticeships to the trades are not for intellectually disengaged men and women, particularly men and women who lack proper life-management skills.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

No comments: