30.7.18

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE DEFLATING?

It has long been my position that the powers that be in higher education have broken the social contract with the populace they're supposed to serve, and a year ago I noted even people who might be sympathetic with higher education's ethos walking away.  "What good does it do to stay one micro-aggression ahead of the most easily triggered matriculant, if none of the graduates can rebut an argument or re-stock a coffee house?"

More recently, National Review's George Leef recommends an essay by a recent community college graduate.  "Graduate students as instructors are extremely rare at community colleges and faculty get paid to teach, not to conduct research." There aren't graduate programs in the research university mold to provide the cheap labor, although without further information, we don't know how many Wake Tech (or Milwaukee Area Tech, or Kishwaukee College, or Henry Ford Community) faculty lines are filled by Ph.D. students or recent graduates of the local universities on contingent appointments.  Furthermore, what you get out of community college might depend on what you put in.  "They are hardly educational havens populated entirely by dedicated students and excellent faculty."

But a matriculant might be getting something, and here the institutions riding the top of those U.S. News league tables might be adding no value at all.  Again, it's about getting out what you put in, not in the sense of simply reading and highlighting the book and noodling at a computer screen, but in making connections and asking questions, and sometimes getting into arguments.
Some authorities still insist that colleges, even if they teach no specific knowledge, at least improve “critical thinking.” But this contention is not borne out by a test designed to measure such thinking, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). Since the 1980s the improvement in students’ CLA scores during their four years of college has dropped by about 50 percent, and such improvement now averages just 7 percent over the first three semesters.

Even that small gain is very unevenly distributed: the top 10 percent of students average a creditable improvement of 43 percent, but about 45 percent of students show no significant improvement at all. Another test of academic proficiency given by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) found that between 2006 and 2011 the number of students who were “proficient” in “critical thinking” rose during four years of college only from 3 percent to 8 percent; those “proficient” in “written communication” rose only from 5 percent to 9 percent, and those “proficient” in mathematics rose only from 5 percent to 10 percent. (Presumably, the 8–10 percent of proficient graduates are more or less the same as that top 10 percent who showed strong improvement in critical thinking according to the CLA.)
Worse, for many students, their experience is a lot like what happens in failing common schools: the longer they have them, the less competent they get.
Leaving aside a “marginal” category, the number who were clearly “not proficient” decreased during their college years only from 86 percent to 72 percent in “critical thinking,” only from 77 percent to 63 percent in “written communication,” and only from 84 percent to 73 percent in mathematics. Such measures are hard to dismiss, because if anything the ETS has an incentive to tell colleges what they want to hear.
Perhaps the rising numbers of disgruntled faculty, and writers of "quit lit" in the house organs for business as usual in higher education are onto something.

At the heart of the problem?  The usual suspects: an enrollment model of access-assessment-remediation-retention and a product prototype of beer-'n-circuses.  It appears, though, that Charlie "Fail U" Sykes's characterization of investing in higher education as the equivalent of buying a BMW to drive it over the cliff, then to buy three more, has legs.
Even if the average price for a public college education could be cut by a third, $50,000 is still far too much to pay for students not to learn anything. If all students want is to enjoy themselves on a break from studying and working, and the rest of us for some reason consider this desirable, they should be able to enjoy themselves for much less money, perhaps for a year at a pleasant place where they can live in comfortable dormitories and party, sunbathe, or ski with no classes to feel guilty about skipping.

If the quality of a college education cannot be improved, we should concentrate on encouraging at least half of those who now go to college not to go, adjusting requirements for jobs and professional schools accordingly, and make provisions for an orderly shutdown or shrinking of most of our colleges and universities. But, of course, the quality of a college education can be improved. The problem is that hardly anyone is trying to improve it. Few people are even paying attention to the defects of higher education as it is now, and some still deny that anything is wrong.
I'm not sure about the "rest of us" considering the "gap year," another upscale indulgence, as something to be subsidized. Shrinking enrollments are concentrating minds at places you might have heard of: perhaps market tests will produce the efficiency gains.

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