The sickly state of higher education
If it’s not inspected, it’s neglected is one of many catch-phrases of the military. The decoded version, if needed, is this: if you don’t measure, assess, or otherwise check something, it can’t really be that important.
We’re well-used to the assessments of the academic-educational complex, what with tests, exams, quizzes, papers, projects, and the likes. However, where these assessments fall short, at the higher education level, is against an understood external standard. There is little post-college assessments versus the much familiar pre-college SATs and ACTs.
Yes, there are arguably, quasi-exceptions such as the bar, CPA exams, and the likes, but who knows how the student would have done before their heads were filled with such expensive information and experiences? The idea a student could self-study and pass the bar without going to law school, a la Abe Lincoln, could well be a recurring nightmare that must be crushed by those in the legal-education industry.
As the parent of one who has already sent three to college (and with a fourth only months away and with one of the three earning a professional degree), it has become more obvious through the years that college, if you have to pay full-cost yourself, is a major rip-off and is likely to be unsustainable at the national level.
And it isn’t just the exponentially growing overhead and staff, the athletic teams, and the Taj Mahal-ish student housing and recreation facilities, it’s the whole endeavor. The problem, however, is this: what’s the alternative?
When I first pondered my children attending college, I came up with three fundamental criteria that I thought would be useful for them (in no particular order):
- Go somewhere people have heard of. I included this rule because I went somewhere people had not heard of and as college graduates proliferated, came to view an ounce of educational image as being worth a pound of performance.
- Be prepared to enter the workforce when you are finished. In other words, college should help you come to possess a skill-set, knowledge, accreditation, certification, habits, etc. an employer would value.
- Have little or no debt when you’re done. I have viewed debt, when avoidable, as a terrible and largely pointless burden.
College completion, across time, has become what I view as an easily measured discriminator. College is something an employer can look at and say (with its internal voice), “We have outsourced much of our selection processes to the screening provided by higher education. Therefore, because you have finished college, you have fulfilled the requirements of our easily measured discriminator.”
For the military (for example), it matters not whether you attended Harvard or Humboldt State, nor does it matter whether you majored in physics or psychology. If you have a degree, you’re a candidate for a commission. Is this good or bad, or is it just the way it is? I’ve observed the difficulty with “elite” colleges is getting in (and the cost).
So when David Brooks points out “on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that,” you might find that a little discouraging. Well, it gets worse: “… student motivation actually declines over the first year in college. Meanwhile, according to surveys of employers, only a quarter of college graduates have the writing and thinking skills necessary to do their jobs.” What to do?
It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.
There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.
In the past, higher education has attempted to address the issue via the accreditation process or in the case of professional education, through post-educational examinations like the bar. Again, those are perhaps useful in certifying that a particular level of competency has been achieved, that is insufficient.
The challenge is not getting educators to embrace the idea of assessment. It’s mobilizing them to actually enact it in a way that’s real and transparent to outsiders.
Meting that challenge—because something has to give—is likely to be a multi-generational effort and, as Brooks points out, tied to federal funding.
The idea a Humboldt State student might know more—or be more valuable to an employer—than a Harvard man upon graduation is a shocking thought indeed.
In the Olympics, it isn’t where you start that matters, it’s where you finish. Shouldn’t it be the same way in higher education? Yet without well-understood finish lines and ways of measuring the race, we’re just mucking around.