11.12.08

RESTRUCTURING HIGHER EDUCATION. The American Prospect's David Kirp reviews Charles Murray's Real Education, and finds much to object to.

Because Murray thinks that innate differences in cognitive ability guarantee that most people cannot do the intellectual heavy lifting that serious higher education demands, truth No. 3 -- too many children go to college -- inescapably follows. "No more than 20 percent" of students can do college-level work, says Murray, and "10 percent is a more reliable estimate."

Putting aside the faulty statistical analysis that leads Murray to that dour conclusion, this "truth" is rebutted by the fact that about 35 percent of young adults, not 10 percent, have a bachelor's degree. To Murray, these figures show that standards in higher education have been debased, but most undergraduates are learning something of value. University College London economist Pedro Carneiro concludes that "even if we take the most pessimistic estimates for the return to education for those outside the elite (who economists would call the marginal students), they are probably above 7 percent per year of college, and they are not lower for a year of a B.A. as opposed to a year of any other type of post-secondary schooling." Employers aren't dumb. If high school graduates were just as productive, companies would hire them and save boatloads of money.

High school graduates are not just as productive, however, in part because the high schools have allowed postsecondary education to offer no-penalty do-overs.

In Phi Beta Cons, Robert VerBruggen notes,
As anyone who actually read the book knows, Murray knows full well that lots of people can get degrees in today's system. His point is that today's system is too lax, and passes people through without truly teaching them.
Identifying that excess ten percent is a challenge. Perhaps it's general studies majors at Intercardinal Compass Point State, but perhaps it's humanities doctorates at Harvard.

In recognition of the difficult job market facing current graduate students, the deans also mentioned plans yesterday to develop a new position “akin to a teaching post-doc” for the University’s crop of newly-minted Ph.D. recipients.

The deans also asked that recent Ph.D. recipients, along with faculty from local institutions, be favored in situations where searches for non-ladder faculty instructors and visiting faculty are authorized as essential.

Perhaps the knowledge that Harvard will not be doing any external hiring will have a knock-on effect on graduate program enrollments at the 20 institutions claiming top-five status.

The result, however, is social waste, as Donald Downs notes for Minding the Campus.
A prescient friend of mine recently related a thought he had while teaching a few years ago at a "third tier private school" that had high tuition. At "job fairs" at the school, most of the positions being offered involved jobs as low-level managers at Target, McDonalds, and similar businesses. My friend surmised that students had to wonder why they or their families had depleted their bank accounts to pay for an educations that led to positions that simply did not require the pedagogical preparation the school offered. To be sure, a liberal education is a precious thing in its own right. But its preciousness has a way of declining when its costs put middle class citizens in a vise---especially when those citizens are already living in the vise of the new economy.
Heck, graduates of Cardinal Compass Point State often have the inside track for such jobs: their degrees are as good, and their experience working their way through college running the cash registers or stocking the shelves produces networks and references.

Professor Downs continues,
And perhaps fewer young adults will attend college. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for the growing gap between aspiration and reality, and between cost and benefit is not a healthy phenomenon. Millions of young adults might be better off attending schools or apprentice programs that train them to perform such important and responsible jobs as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and mechanics. Charles Murray presents a forceful argument for such change in his new book, Real Education. When I asked my same friend what the students were like at the expensive liberal arts college discussed above, he replied, "Many of them had no reason for being in college." I have heard similar comments from numerous colleagues across the country.
Mr VerBruggen makes the same point.
Murray says that fewer people should go to traditional colleges, but more should go into training programs, and mid-level jobs should respect that training the way many will now only respect a BA. Bearing in mind the second half, it's not a counterargument to point out that college is right now a good investment even for people of average ability.
Mr Kirp does not disagree with the sentiment, althoug he suggests the argument is misplaced.
To be sure, college isn't for everyone. That isn't a put-down, since not all good jobs require a college education. Workers in high-demand fields such as machinists and electricians earn a fine living. But colleges aren't filled with overmatched 20-year-olds who'd be better off in trade school. Carneiro's research shows that "individuals for whom a B.A. degree is truly a bad idea are just not enrolling in college anyway."
Now that the grading is done, I will investigate the research and offer an evaluation. My sense is that the disengaged 20-year olds, many of whom might electrocute themselves in their first week at trade school, are not at University College London or at the Establishment institutions that provide writers for The American Prospect.

I've raised objections to Mr Murray's work (apparently extensively and at great length: keep scrolling). Let me repeat this.
That's part of Mr Murray's larger complaint, actually: the common schools have failed to do that work, which leaves it to the colleges. High schools that do a better job could mean less access-assessment-remediation-retention for college faculty (and many of us who work at the mid-majors, or "fourth-tier" institutions in Professor Soltan's ordering, would like to do less of that work and do more for our eager students who might be optimizing under constraints that place George Washington University outside their feasible sets).
Perhaps the tighter economic circumstances facing higher education will induce a return of elementary education to the elementary schools and secondary education to the secondary schools, returning the responsibility for post-secondary education to the baccalaureate programs, which ends the graduate school scam wherein people who are not served well in a four-year program buy a few extra years to pick up that content. Tim Burke sees the value in focus.
Clarity about purpose and approach was largely found in institutions that had to be clear about what they were doing because of limited resources. The need to economize can be an opportunity to clarify, intensify, focus. It can be undertaken as a positive project–but only if some conflicts and disagreements are brought out into the open and worked out as honestly as possible.
I'm fine with that. Perhaps I'm mistaken in identifying waste in beer 'n circus and access-assessment-remediation-retention. Let's have a serious conversation about it.

The dean at Anonymous Community also sees the changes coming.
First, I don't see a way around a shakeout. The nothing-special private colleges that subsist on high tuition and high discount rates are going to have a tough time surviving much longer. In a national market, many of them don't really have a compelling reason to exist. The elites will be fine; they sell exclusivity, and there's always a market for that. The publics serve a clear purpose, and as more upper-income kids are priced into the publics, they're losing some of their historic stigma. Colleges with clear and specific religious identities or programmatic niches can at least answer the question of why they exist. But the older, fair-to-middling private colleges and universities charge premium rates for average product.
Perhaps it's my Midwestern upbringing: there's no "stigma" in a Wisconsin or Minnesota or Michigan or California degree, and a lot of us at the cardinal compass points have held our own in the classroom and in the journals with our flagship counterparts. If there is a "stigma," it's probably not for being insufficiently exclusive.

A greater challenge comes from Spengler at the Asia Times.

Americans really, really don’t have a clue what is coming down the pike. The present shift in intellectual capital in favor of the East has no precedent in world history.

"Chinese parents urge their children to excel at instrumental music with the same ferocity that American parents [urge] theirs to perform well in soccer or Little League,” wrote Jennifer Lin in the Philadelphia Inquirer June 8 in an article entitled China's 'piano fever'.

The world’s largest country is well along the way to forming an intellectual elite on a scale that the world has never seen, and against which nothing in today’s world - surely not the inbred products of the Ivy League puppy mills - can compete. Few of its piano students will earn a living at the keyboard, to be sure, but many of the 36 million will become much better scientists, engineers, physicians, businessmen and military officers.

Whether this will happen for good, evil or neither is impossible to predict. Classical music is beautiful, but it is not necessarily good.

I fear that a near collapse of the professional job market for U.S. born collegians, perhaps in the form Spengler is threatening, might be necessary for the education system to get the message.

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