10.4.16

TO BREAK THE HARVARD CARTEL, BEAT THEM AT THEIR GAME.

A recent Ben Casselman column in Five Thirty-Eight proposes that observers of the collegiate scene Shut Up About Harvard, a proposition that Dean Dad heartily endorses.  (In White Sox terms, put it on the board ... Yes!)  The point is a familiar one, that most of the higher education goes on at the land grants and the mid-majors and it frequently involves the kind of economic and cultural diversity that the admissions boards at the name institutions struggle to achieve.  But, as is also a familiar point, what passes for higher education outside the ivy walls (and too often inside the ivy walls) is anything but.

An American Interest reaction to the enrollment feeding frenzy, as documented in The Atlantic, suggests that the credentials chase is a reaction to market forces.  (And yes, each spring the leading journals of opinion and the policy shops love to brag on the interns they've indentured for the summer, and predictably, you know where they're enrolled, and it generally isn't Northern Illinois or St. Norbert.)  But there might be some unappreciated talent at those job fairs at the land grants and mid-majors, and perhaps the recruiters ought to cast their net widely.
The good news is that there are better approaches for bringing admissions madness under control. The most important change would be to attack what Freddie DeBoer calls “the Ivy League premium”—that is, make it matter less where a person went to college. Part of this change would need to be cultural: elites, and the institutions they run, would need to put less weight on fancy degrees. But there are also policy steps that could help encourage this shift.
Perhaps, as a first approximation, we might have employers engaging in a different form of affirmative action: rather than recruiting diverse candidates from the same few institutions, start recruiting diverse candidates from a broader set of institutions.  The Spielberg Effect might be at work, and employers might be pleasantly surprised.  Or, we might have employers pushed away from recruiting at the same few institutions because the graduates are entitled, whiny, and clueless.

The article goes on to propose that the prestige institutions deal with the excess demand they have created by, oh, expanding output.
There is no reason why the quality of education offered by Stanford or Princeton should not be scalable, and yet the number of slots at most of these institutions has held steady for decades, despite the extraordinary resources they have at their disposal.

The horribleness of the Ivy League admissions for 17-year olds is just one small symptom of a higher education landscape that is distorted all around. To fix it, we will need to come up with more creative and ambitious solutions than simply asking colleges to put more emphasis on this or that character trait as they cull 95 out of 100 students from the pile. And those solutions won’t always be the same as the ones preferred by the gatekeepers themselves.
As long as anxious parents and striving students perceive the less famous institutions as offering defective education or a deficient college experience in some way, the U.S. News premium will exist.  And as long as U.S. News rankings depend in part on selectivity, it's easy enough for an institution to appear selective by quoting a low list price, underwritten as financial aid from hedge fund returns endowment income, thus generating a lot of applicants, and rejecting most.

Thus it may be up to the land grants and the mid-majors and the rest to lift their game, maybe dipping into their foundation income to strengthen a few solid programs in order to become more like Michigan or Stanford.  Alas, a Washington Post analysis of what's going on outside the pages of U. S. News suggests the highly regarded institutions are winning by default.
Half of the colleges and universities in the United States have become less selective during the past 50 years, according to research by Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby.
That perception helps generate the excess demand for the prestige degrees.
Even for students and parents who know the higher-education world exists beyond Amherst, Princeton, and Yale, the perception that success in life is tied to your undergraduate alma mater unnecessarily raises the anxiety level of high-school seniors every year. That idea is just plain wrong.
Wrong it might be, and the state flagships and land grants and mid-majors might, as the article argues, serve many students well.  And yet those institutions are not taking steps to poach students and faculty from the U. S. News leaderboard.
We tend to view all of higher education through the prism of private institutions (the vast majority of the top 25 national universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings are private). Yet, 80 percent of American students go to public colleges and universities.

This focus on elite privates during the past decade or so has masked the massive downward shift in taxpayer support for public colleges. Ten years ago, college students and their families paid for about one-third of the cost of their education at public colleges. Today, in nearly half of the states, they pay for more than half of their education.

Even among the publics, the state flagships seem to get all the attention, particularly in state houses. But 40 percent of all undergraduates in the United States attend regional public colleges. There are nearly 400 of them, many tucked into out-of-the-way corners of their states. By comparison, the better-known public flagship universities enroll just 20 percent of students.
Yes, the state legislatures have been stingy.  But expense-preference behavior by administrators, expanding the ranks of deanlets and deanlings while freezing faculty hiring or replacing tenure-line faculty with contract employees does nothing to loosen legislative purse strings or to compete for the U. S. News - reading potential students.

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