12.6.06

DOING THE SAME THING, YET EXPECTING DIFFERENT RESULTS. Via University Diaries, an excerpt from the forthcoming The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities (talk about focusing on the wrong things) and an Inside Higher Ed column picking up the lament. The book excerpt, after reciting a number of left-Democrat talking points, begins to address the real problem.
There are other indicators that America’s leadership position is faltering. Relative to most other nations who are our economic competitors, significantly smaller proportions of college-age students are entering scientific fields. In 2004, China had six times the number of college graduates in engineering as the US. Combined, India and China produced approximately one million engineering graduates a year, with the US and Europe producing only 170,000 combined.
But the villain of the piece is ... reduced appropriations for the National Science Foundation??
This has led critics of shrinking state and federal funding for higher education in the US to argue that the nation is on the brink of losing its long dominance in basic science. For example, of the articles in the world’s top physics journal published in 1983, 61% were authored by scholars in American universities; in 2003, that proportion dropped to 29%.
The problem, however, might be elsewhere in the food chain, and the paper does address a number of possible explanations. This observation is inconvenient.

There are indications that students are now less price sensitive than in earlier decades, in part because the value of postsecondary education has increased, fueling a greater understanding and cultural acceptance that students and their families need to pay for educational services—and to plan for it. There is a great need for expanded research on the relationship between tuition levels and affordability and access.

Unfortunately, there are very few good studies focused on micro-economic questions related to pricing and student (consumer) choices in higher education within the modern context. For example, might an overall decline in resources for public institutions, and resulting reductions in academic staff and the number of courses offered, be a bigger threat to access than moderate increases in fees over time? Might access and equity be achieved best by raising the costs for the affluent to attend selective public universities and redirecting the resulting augmented resources to both improve the undergraduate experience and expand financial aid for the needy? It is a complex problem with many social and economic variables; nonetheless, there are economic models that could provide guidance. It is perhaps not an overstatement to say that we are entering a new era of moderate or high fees at public institutions without a strong sense of what may transpire.

Yes, if the return on investment is high enough, people are willing to make the investment. (Alternatively, might "the affluent" be engaging in positional arms races, bidding up tutions at the fifty "top twenty" institutions simply to avoid the watered-down degrees that are a logical consequence of admitting the unprepared and calling it "access?")

But there is an efficient matriculation rate. Nah, can't consider that.

Two other explanations for the leveling off and marginal declines in higher-education participation rates in the US are worth exploring. One explanation is that perhaps there is a point at which a national higher-education system serves all those capable of benefiting from a university or college education. As a national system approaches this thus-far inconceivable point, increases in participation rates inevitably slow down and eventually level off.

This model assumes a certain limit in the intellectual powers of the general population—an argument reiterated in historical debates over the purpose and proper scope of higher education.

Better to trot out the old bromides.
Society has a vested interest in generally encouraging a significant proportion of the population to go to college and gain a degree because college education creates a more flexible, talented, and productive workforce, encourages both social and economic equity, and reduces unemployment rates and welfare rolls. It places a downward pressure on crime rates, increases social tolerance, and correlates with high voter participation and rates of charitable giving. These are all general benefits that are now widely recognized by national governments and higher-education leaders and advocates.
Jerry Tarkanian basketball anyone? Although much of the rest of the paper is extensively footnoted, there are no references to support these claims, let alone an attempt to rebut the gripes from the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers about the quality of the college help. No discussion in the paper or in Inside Higher Ed about how some standards and some rigor, beginning in kindergarten, might develop those missing scientists.

It's not just a problem for the elite colleges. A poorly-trained English major can still make a decent mint mocha. A poorly-trained welder is a risk to public safety.
Timothy Sullivan, chief executive of South Milwaukee-based Bucyrus, used a business banquet in September to lash out at [Milwaukee Area Technical College] for a subpar welder training program.
This in yet another Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article about the coming skilled-worker shortage in Wisconsin. (Hint: it's not a teacher shortage or a literary critic shortage or a lawyer shortage or an economist shortage.) The story lines are related. Welding is unavoidably technical. So is steel-making, or gene-splicing, or software development. Without a proper grounding in math and the scientific method, our youngsters will be at a disadvantage on the shop floor or in the laboratory or at the design table.

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