22.4.11

LIFE'S ILLUSIONS.  It's college admission season, and The Boston Herald's Michael Graham claims the bad news comes in the thick envelope.
Higher education is one of those topics — like the current state of Islam, illegitimacy rates in the black community or Bill Belichick’s overrated reputation — that people in polite society are not allowed to discuss honestly. And the obvious, glaring truth is that too many parents are sending kids to college, kids who don’t have the academic firepower to make it through a round of “Jeopardy,” much less four years of university study.

You’re not sending Junior off to school so he can pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer. You’re sending him so you can brag to your friends. Meanwhile what Junior actually ends up pursuing is cheap beer and sorority girls.
He notes that Mummy and Daddy are unlikely any time soon to be opting out of the positional arms race.

Perhaps there are other options, but Frank J. Fleming's modest proposal shows its Swiftian roots.
Here’s an idea: You notice how everything is made in China? It’s illegal in the U.S. to pay kids ten cents an hour to manufacture goods, so we just do that overseas instead. That’s idiotic. Why not have our own kids work during the day building plastic trinkets and whatnot? They’d learn useful working skills, come home nice and tired, and they’d actually appreciate earning ten cents an hour, because kids are stupid.
So there’s our solution to the education problem: Instead of trying to make a lot of bad education for everyone when most aren’t even going to use it, let’s focus on making the absolute best education to give to the few who will. Everyone else gets to learn useful skills, and as a bonus we bring manufacturing jobs back to our country. 
At Future of Capitalism, Ira Stoll has the same suggestion, in a more serious form, in such a way as to anticipate the Chicago Tribune's discovery of mal-employment.
If producing a high proportion of college graduates were the secret to economic success, Belgium would be the world's economic powerhouse. Making college completion rates a priority does funnel taxpayer money to college professors, a reliable Democratic constituency. But as economic policy, it strikes me as at best questionable.
Mal-employment is a symptom. The root cause of mal-employment is a confusion of possession of a credential with possession of the capability.
When you believe, simplistically, that college somehow equals success, then vacuuming more people into college just makes sense. Yet you’re vacuuming in real people, not stimulus-response lab rats. And many of these real people are quite unprepared for traditional workloads, unused to academic discipline, and — worst of all — almost completely uninterested in the pursuit of knowledge.
But think of the work created for the hustlers in Student Affairs.

On the other hand, onetime regional economics great Paul Krugman and Cold Spring Shops's favorite former administrator Peter Wood find a reality check in common:
What does it mean when someone like Krugman jumps ship from the ideological consensus that usually rules in these matters? It means essentially that the jig is up. Even stalwarts of the left can no longer pretend with a straight face that “college for everyone” is a practical answer to our economic difficulties, or even a constructive step in that direction. Higher education as we know it currently produces a large surplus of “credentialed” graduates who cannot find work in fields for which a college degree is needed. Doubling the number of graduates is not going to change that. Rather, the very effort to jam through college a huge increase in the number of students will mean a lowering of the already derisory standards at many colleges and universities, and will make the college credential even less useful than it already is.
Read on:
What’s missing from this picture, however, is a crowd of factors that bear on how young men and women approach and make use of the opportunities at hand. Why is it that so many students enroll in college only to treat it as a four (or more) year vacation from responsibility? A college degree in the right subject pursued with the right level of intensity can still open the door to a good and prosperous career. But a very large number—an actual preponderance—of college graduates de-select that approach to undergraduate education. Some do so because they lack the motivation to begin with, and it is a fair question to put to social scientists, “Why?” Patterns of motivation (or its lack) are not arbitrary. They have something to do with the family, and a great deal to do with matters like religion, culture, and emotional maturity.

No one is “in charge” of factors like these and they are difficult if not impossible to reach by policy prescription. We can’t simply undo high divorce rates and single-parent families—although these are major risk factors for academic under-performance and social anomie. The trend of our culture towards mass banality is likewise something can’t be ameliorated by mere policy. Yet it isn’t entirely beyond reach. Higher education did its part in creating it and may have some capacity, if it chose, to push past it.
Or, to end its complicity in the social harm by recognizing the opportunity to undo that harm:
One of the favorite old saws on Wall Street is that the business was changed forever — and not for the better — by the influx of MBAs that flooded the place in waves, beginning in the 1970s. What once was a relatively benign business of raising capital for clients or providing them with helpful mergers and acquisition advice has been transformed forever by calculating MBAs, who first cleverly contrived the idea that Wall Street firms themselves could go public — thus providing firms access to vast amounts of other people’s money to replace the finite amount of partners’ capital — and then, with the unlimited capital, began designing all sorts of crazy products that ratcheted up exponentially the complexity of, as well as the risk in, the global financial markets. We all know the consequences of those decisions.
To repeat a frequent Cold Spring Shops theme: higher education is complicit in breaking the social compact its senior management accuses the politicians of having broken, in part by rushing to implement every new fad in such a way as to decouple the higher from the education.

And George Will gets to suggest to readers that the admissions frenzy, as is the case with any positional arms race, is college craziness
Still, the college-admission process occasions too much angst. America is thickly planted with 1,400 four-year institutions. Motivated, selective students can get a fine education at any of them -- unmotivated, undiscerning students at none. Most students love the schools they attend.


The admissions quest can have splendid moments. Last year, Wake Forest University asked applicants what they would title their autobiographies. One, obviously a golfer, answered: "Mulligan." Wouldn't we all?
The responsibility rests with faculties and administrations at the institutions less affected by the ratings frenzy to recognize that they are in the same business as the more visible universities, and owe their applicants the same opportunities to interact with other motivated people.

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