Thursday, August 19, 2010

Higher education no silver bullet -- Aug. 19, 2010 column


We’re No. 12. The United States has dropped from first in the world to twelfth in the percentage of young people with college degrees.

The problem isn’t that we’re sending fewer students to college. College enrollment in the United States is at an all-time high; 70 percent of those who graduated high school in 2009 were in college last fall. The problem is that other countries are pumping ever more students into their educational pipelines, particularly in science and math.

President Obama wants to raise the number of college grads by 8 million by 2020 “because America has to have the highest share of graduates compared to every other nation.”

But do we, really? It’s red, white and blue, but we should ask if we’re serving our people and our country well by simply churning out more of the same.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a large, educated citizenry, but increasing the quantity of college graduates without improving quality won’t boost our national smarts or our global competitiveness.

Americans still want to believe education is the key to personal and national triumph, but a growing body of research and literature challenges that view. College-educated Americans still do better economically than those without college, but a degree no longer guarantees success or even employment.

And there are signs our schools need to do a better job teaching people to think critically. The latest Pew Research Center poll found nearly one in five Americans mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim. In fact, the Obama’s-a-Muslim contingent is growing. The poll was taken before Obama’s remarks about a mosque on the World Trade Center site. People said the source of their information was TV.

Obama pledges to make sure that “every one of our young people has the best education that the world has to offer.” That’s hardly a novel notion from a president, but fine words still don’t butter the parsnips. He didn’t go into details on how he’d target funds to improve the quality of higher education.

We already spend about 2 ½ times more than the average of developed countries on higher education, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. education costs rose four times faster than inflation over the last 25 years and twice as fast as our health care costs.

It’s easy to burn a thousand dollars a week on tuition, room and board at a private college or university. Financial aid helps, of course, and state schools are a better bargain. Nevertheless, many students graduate with $100,000 in student loan debt only to find that a college degree isn’t a silver bullet.

Scholars at the Brookings Institution studied economic mobility and found that education tends to reinforce, rather than compensate for, the differences associated with family background.

“Strikingly, children from low-income families with a college education are no more likely to reach the top of the income ladder than children from high-income families without a college education,” Ron Haskins wrote in “Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America.”

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, authors of the new book, “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It,” suggest that colleges are padding their staffs and are building luxury facilities that would be more appropriate for country clubs.
Full-time professors teach fewer undergrads and poorly paid adjuncts are teaching more students, the authors note. (I’ve taught as a college adjunct instructor, and my father was a university professor.)

Hacker and Dreifus cite Williams College in Massachusetts for having as many administrators to students as teachers to students. More than 70 percent of employees at the college do something other than teach. With about 2,000 students, Williams has 84 coaches on staff and 73 fundraisers, Hacker and Dreifus write.

Students don’t escape blame either. Several studies have found college students study less than they did decades ago -- but expect better grades.

College students in 1961 studied 24 hours a week while students in 2003 studied just 14 hours a week, Philip Babcock and Mindy Parks wrote in a study for the American Enterprise Institute.

The shorter study time stemmed not from students being pressed for time from working part-time – although they do have jobs. Nor was it because they picked less demanding majors or because they saved time with computers.

No, the authors said, the most plausible explanation for the decline in time spent studying is that academic standards have fallen.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Obama, college, higher education, spending, academic standards, students, time studying


  1. Ms Mercer, once again, does a first rate job of highlighting an important, but disturbing issue. The lack of efficiency and effectiveness in American higher education needs to be corrected. High standards must be imposed on students, faculty, and administrators in our colleges. Costs can be reduced and learning outcomes increased by colleges being more selective as to what is taught and the qualifications of the students and those who teach and manage them.

    Anothe outstanding job by M. Mercer.

    Just one comment-Dreifus is hardly a representative adjunct. But, in spite of that, the most important subject in higher education today is the fact that most undergraduate courses are being taught by an exploited caste of adjunct and contingent faculty, as qualified and dedicated as “regular” faculty but unable to provide optimal service to student. This thirty year trend if unchecked will soon lead us to a place where no one in the faculty can enjoy such traditional things as tenure and/or support for research—and then most of Hacker and Dreifus’s arguments will become entirely irrelevant. The real problems in higher education are always underplayed or entirely ignored by conventional university pundits, such as Hacker and Dreifus-and, again. the latter is, contrary to what is implied perhaps in the article, not at all a representative [url]adjunct. []—