Is a college degree’s worth best measured by the income its recipient makes five or 10 years down the road? Is college primarily a catapult to wealth? These were questions implicitly raised by President Barack Obama’s recent proposal that the federal government look at graduates’ earnings when rating schools in an effort to steer students toward the best ones.
Is time in the military, in a store or at home with children comparable to time in a classroom, and should it count in some way toward a degree? There are university administrators who think so and who are trying to increase “completion rates” — the percentage of students who make it all the way to degrees — by giving credit for experiences far away from campus, so that students have a less lengthy, costly route to a diploma.
Some states and educators see the spread of massive open online courses as a terrific way to enroll more young people in college at a more affordable price, but there’s little if any evidence so far that this approach is optimal, especially for the students stretching the furthest to incorporate higher education into their lives.
And already, the higher learning that too many young Americans partake of leaves a lot to be desired. Time magazine rightly began its recent cover story on the college experience in the United States by reporting the results of a chilling survey last year of recent graduates. It showed that 62 percent of them didn’t know, for example, that congressional terms are two years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate. You can’t tell me that the quality of the men and women we send to Washington isn’t affected by such profound and widespread ignorance about what they do there and how the system works (or, rather, doesn’t).
Although our lurch from one crisis to the next — the Syria debate, the government shutdown — often obscures all other matters, one of the most important issues in American life right now is higher education’s identity crisis, its soul-searching about what it should accomplish, whom it should serve and how it must or mustn’t be tweaked. Our global competitiveness is likely to depend on how we answer these questions.
And if you think we’re suitably competitive as is, then consider another survey, published earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It measured the skills of Americans from the ages of 16 to 65 and found that they by and large lacked the mathematical and technological know-how, along with the literacy, of their counterparts in Japan and Northern European countries.
Among the 23 nations that the organization assessed, we weren’t anywhere near the lead. We were closer to the bottom of the pack, with our young adults in particular performing unremarkably. This troubling state of affairs is an echo of the educational gap that we’ve long lamented. It’s an extrapolation, really. Learn too little and you wind up knowing too little.
“Higher education policy needs to focus not just on access and affordability but also quality and success,” Michael Dannenberg, the director of higher education policy for the Education Trust, said when I asked him what the moral of the skills survey was. He added that while completion rate was one aspect of success, “it’s not the whole story.”
The escalation of tuition, the crippling rise of student debt and a persistently high jobless rate over recent years have rightly prompted educators, politicians and other policy-makers to float and implement methods to make college less financially onerous, in part by collapsing the time it takes for students to get their degrees. After all, statistics suggest that college diplomas are the best amulets against unemployment and the surest paths to a good income.
And the Obama administration, to its credit, has made clear in its recent proposals that the measurable effectiveness of schools shouldn’t be overlooked in the process. That was a big part of the new higher-education policy it laid out in August, which Dannenberg described as positive “baby steps” in the right direction.
But the inclusion of graduates’ earnings as one yardstick of effectiveness belongs to a broader trend of seeing college in pecuniary terms that could easily go too far. Setting students up for immediate careers and giving them the intellectual tools that will serve them best over a lifetime aren’t necessarily one and the same, and in several states and at many universities, the vigorous push to plump up enrollment and herd students into particular programs threatens to make college too much of a vocational school.
We’re in a tricky, troubling spot. At a time when our nation’s ability to tackle complicated policy problems is seriously in doubt, we must pull off a delicate balancing act. We must make college practical but not excessively so, lower its price without lowering its standards and increase the number of diplomas attained without diminishing not only their currency in the job market but also the fitness of the country’s workforce in a cutthroat world.