Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The College Myth

Matthew Yglesias and David Adesnik both buy into the myth that universal college education is desirable. But it is indeed a myth, and it’s high time we admitted it. There’s simply no basis whatsoever for thinking everyone should get a college education.

It’s true that the returns to higher education have risen substantially over the last few decades. As a result, we should expect a larger fraction of the public to attend college. But a larger fraction does not translate into 100%. Like it or not, some people are just not college material; they would be better served by vocational or on-the-job training (or by a better high school education than our public schools provide).

Moreover, the attempt to provide universal higher education has the pernicious effect of reducing the value of higher education. Radley Balko explains part of the story: as the supply of people with college degrees rises, the wages of people with college degrees will tend to fall (or, more accurately, not rise as quickly as they otherwise would, since other factors like technological progress tend to drive wages up). But the wage effect is not necessarily a bad thing – competition is good, even (especially!) among people with desirable skills. My point, at which Radley also hints, is that the incentives created by policies designed to universalize higher education systematically drive down the quality of education.

Why? Three reasons. First, the policies in question typically provide education at far below its real cost. The low prices do enable some strong and motivated students, who would not have been able to afford an education otherwise, to attend college after all. That’s the upside. But the downside is that low prices also encourage numerous weak or unmotivated students to attend college as well. In my classes, I’ve seen both varieties – and while the strong and motivated students are always a joy and a pleasure to teach, I’m afraid the weak or unmotivated students are much more common. And while instructors do try to inspire their students to better things – transforming a weak student into a strong one, persuading an unmotivated student to try harder – there’s only so much you can do. Efforts at inspiration have rapidly diminishing returns.

Second, and relatedly, the existence of a large class of weak or unmotivated students changes the incentives of educators. Ideally, we would continue to maintain high standards. The students who rose to the challenge would pass; the rest would eventually drop out. But maintaining such high standards would mean failing a much larger percentage of students than is politically feasible. Graduation rates would be unacceptably low for the amount of money being spent. Legislators need a means of measuring the productivity of their higher education funding, and they measure it by “throughput” – the number of graduates produced. In order for a publicly funded school to maintain high enough throughput when a large fraction of students are too weak or unmotivated to pass, the obvious solution is to lower standards. And that’s exactly what happens. The mechanisms by which it happens are multifarious: students seek out the classes and majors that are easiest to pass; departments attract students by lowering the number or difficulty of courses required for their majors; individual professors weaken their course requirements in order to get better student evaluations; etc.

As I noted above, the upside to the whole story is the motivated students who really want and value a higher education. But in some ways, they are victims of the process just described. The standards get lowered for everyone, not just the weak students. If the most common grade is an A, as is the case at my university and probably many others, the best students get no particular reward from working harder, except maybe (in the case of the truly exceptional) the pure joy of learning. I’ve seen many smart students who slide by, never really being pushed to their potential, because they know they can get good grades with minimal effort.

Third, the existence of (near) universal higher education has an undesirable effect on the quality of high school education. Students know, because they are told by their counselors, that a C average is sufficient to get them into a state university. For many, that’s good enough, so they never bother to get better than C’s. They can party and have fun during their teen years, and then get down to the business of learning when they hit college. As a result, (1) they waste many of their most productive learning years, when their minds are most capable of absorbing new knowledge, (2) many reach college and find they can’t cut it – even at the lower standards described above – and drop out, and (3) they inflate the fraction of students in the colleges’ weak and unmotivated class, thereby contributing to the process I’ve just discussed.

The cumulative effect of all these factors is the progressive dumbing-down of higher education. It would be nice if everyone could be instilled with the desire and ability to learn, but that’s not possible, and pretending it is just inflates costs while diminishing the quality of education.


JB said...

That, and the problem that a degree is becoming more of a pass than anything else. I spent four years in undergrad and quite frankly, I could have learned a great deal more in four years just working. Now it's true, I might not have read classic literature in the interim, wasn't college that compelled me to read the literature anyway, just my own interest in some classics. Law school is the worst, it seems most only attend so they can sit for the bar, but most seem to think that the basics can all be learned in just a six-week review course, which doesn't seem too far from the truth for a certain percentage. At this point we are effectively compelling higher education, not because it's useful, but because the state can make it impossible to get work without the credential, merit notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...

I guess what you are saying is that a degree from a public university isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Should I tear mine up? This requires more research than you've provided. You're not a snob when comes to comparing a CSUN education with an Ivy League one, are you? And would you teach any differently if you were at Stanford? I doubt it. I bet that if a majority of your students are getting A's, it's a result of your exceptional teaching skills and your ability to motivate your students and not as a result of grade inflation. And if a majority of your students are getting C's then both you and your students need to figure out together how to improve the situation if at all possible. Don't shortchange your fellow faculty members either. I admire university professors even more than working students because I think they are grossly underpaid considering their years spent studying. Just how did they keep from going blind from reading so many technical books?

I suspect that many of your CSUN students need to work to survive. I greatly admire your working students even if they are only pulling C's. To my mind, this is very unfortunate because school is hard work by itself and grades are the slave wages. I believe that one's focus during one's time in college should be scholarship. College ought to be the launching point for a lifetime of learning. To work at Wal-Mart while trying to get a degree in economics may be stark lesson in the coldness of capitalism but it's not what I would call taking full advantage of one's college education. Showing a customer where to find the diapers is not what I call a very productive use of one's youth or one's mind. Glen, I already gave you my permission to continue to teach at your present public professorial position; why are you pushing your luck? There must be other PhDs who would like to take your place that are anxiously ...

-Waiting in the Wings

Anonymous said...

I just want to note that to be in the top 10% in your high school, you probably can't be pulling a C average. My high school was no rich, white, prestigious school or anything, but the people in the top 10% had pretty good grades. And that's the rule now for getting into UT and, I think, A&M. And when they automatically let in that many students on the basis of their good academic performance, it's hard for them to let too many more people in that had C's. I met plenty of people that had 3.5's or above but had to go provisional in order to get into UT (UT has now done away with the provisional program). There are a bunch of people that major in sociology or whatever and breeze through without working at all, but that isn't necessarily the same set as the ones that had C averages in high school. Those people are another breed: individuals that could actually do well in college, but for some reason just choose to slack off anyway. (I don't know if that's a function of having college paid for by Mommy and Daddy or what. Mom and Dad funded my college education and I didn't screw around, so maybe that's not it. Who knows.) BTW, the 10% system causes a bunch of other problems, but they don't really have much to do with this post.

Anonymous said...

Waiting in the Wings--Are you getting the main point of the post? It's like you miss the essence of the post. Perhaps I can attribute it to your dissatisfaction with your life and wishing for Glen's? Why the nasty, Grinch-y spirit in the holidays?
He's not saying *everyone's* degree is not worthwhile. The operative word here is "everyone". He himself i'm sure is a big advocate of education, he's a Phd himself! It's just that some people are better off going to vocational schools or dropping out altogether to pursue their careers if all that a bachelor's was going to do is delay their ultimate goal.
There are lots of entrepreneurs who are millionaires who dropped out of school. And people don't need 4 years of education to become mechanics. And heck, sometimes as wonderful and valuable as my undergrad experience was (i would not trade it for anything), I'll admit it has not really done anything for me in my present job, well not in a quantifiable sense.

I don't think he's being elitist at all nor is he comparing CSUN to Ivy leagues. There are always going to be unmotivated students wherever you go.
His point is just to say no to universalising college education. He doesn't want another k-12 situation in college. We don't need more grade 13-17 baby-sitting. Forcing all students to go to college can actually have detrimental effects.
And grade inflation is true. There are researches done on the subject, look it up.
And I'm sure Glen also admires those students who work FT and also are at school. I don't think he's referring to these students.
Sometimes I wonder if I'm better off just diving straight into a career shift at an entry level. But I figured CSUN MBA is cheap enough that the benefit in this case outweighs the cost.

Well, the grossly underpaid part, that may be true, but at least they get 3 months out of the year off, with flexible schedules during the year. But we all know that people don't go into teaching to get rich.


Anonymous said...

No, I agree with Glen's point about college not being the right thing for everyone. But kid's out of high school should have other options and not be forced to take low-paying, dead-end jobs. The corporate business community often requires a bachelor's degree as a condition of employment, so I can see why many lackadaisical students feel they have to get their sheep's skin. I think my brother's case is instructive. He went to San Jose State, was the president of his fraternity and majored in Parks & Recreation. He probably spent more time getting drunk and having sex than he did studying. The taxpayers were subsidizing this? To be fair to my brother, he always worked and got no help from our parents. In spite of his college years, my brother was never aimless, he always had the goal to become an attorney. He actually got an MBA in London and went on to finish high in his law class. Today, he's a successful corporate attorney.

I think glen has a strong work ethic and is bothered when he see his students appearing apathetic or unmotivated and doing poorly. I think he has the right attitude though to try to get his students seeing how interesting and relevant the subject matter is. He seems to make a distinction between private schools and public ones though and I question his harsh conclusions. I've attended both public and expensive private universities and I frankly I see little difference. I really don't want to see Glen switch over to a private school--I was just kidding him on the square. I think you're wrong to say that I want to be in Glen's shoes. His socks maybe but definitely not his shoes!

-barefoot in the park

Glen Whitman said...

"I guess what you are saying is that a degree from a public university isn't worth the paper it's printed on." No, I'm just saying it's not worth as much as the public university boosters would like to think -- certainly not enough to make sure everybody gets one.

"You're not a snob when comes to comparing a CSUN education with an Ivy League one, are you?" No. I don't expect all higher education to be Ivy-quality. But it should be something more than High School II, which is the direction we're heading (though we're not quite there yet, fortunately). I'm not just being cynical; I spend a great deal of time teaching material that students should have learned in high school (e.g., basic algebra).

"And would you teach any differently if you were at Stanford? I doubt it." Yes, I would. I taught at NYU for a year, and I definitely teach differently at CSUN. Among other things, I've taken out all the calculus.

"I bet that if a majority of your students are getting A's, it's a result of your exceptional teaching skills and your ability to motivate your students and not as a result of grade inflation. And if a majority of your students are getting C's then both you and your students need to figure out together how to improve the situation if at all possible." You need to think more carefully about the function of grades. Grades are supposed to be measures of both relative and absolute achievement. If everyone's making mostly A's, then GPA's stop providing useful information. C is supposed to be the median grade, and my department (unlike many) actually stands by that rule.

"I admire university professors even more than working students because I think they are grossly underpaid considering their years spent studying." I dispute that university professors are generally underpaid. Although I could get paid more in the private sector, I also would not have the freedom to set my own research agenda, I would not have as much flexibility in my hours, etc. There's a good reason for the wage differential: professorships are generally pretty desirable jobs.

"I suspect that many of your CSUN students need to work to survive. I greatly admire your working students even if they are only pulling C's." On this point, at least, we agree. I do admire the students who are working while putting themselves through school. In fact, this is such an important point that I will probably make a follow-up post on it. For now, I will give you the short version: While it is admirable to work to put yourself through school, you should not expect to graduate in four years. When students (and the state legislature) think it should be possible to work full-time and simultaneously attend school full-time, they create another set of pressures that tend to push down standards -- not because these students lack the ability to meet higher standards, but because they lack the time. The motivation is understandable, but the result is deleterious to education.

Anonymous said...

First, I want to say hi to your sister, Ellen. I'm glad she took the time to post an interesting personal comment about UT. Please, comment more often! Next, I want to take the time to thank you and Tom and Neal for a year of wonderful, valuable posts that as far as I'm concerned never went unappreciated and went unpaid for only monetarily.

Scarily, we have more in common than you think. I'm a big game player myself especially tournament bridge. More casually, I play scrabble with a friend of mine about once a weak. When we first started playing, she beat me 10 times out of 10. Now that I've improved considerably, I problably should win once or twice out of 10. But I still let her win all the time unless I think she's getting way too cocky. Why shouldn't I let her feel superior if it makes her happy? Also, I want the game to continue into the future. Well, that's sort of how I feel about you; after a year "playing" on agoraphilia, I think I should be able to win at least 10% of time, to expect more would be pushing MY luck. Sometimes, I think you intentionally held back and let me win about 10% of the time, so thanks.

On my likely last comment of the year, I will only continue to argue for your extreme worth in gold (not sorry greenbacks) as a professor and a blogger. It's common knowledge how highly you are regarded as a teacher by your students. I doubt their esteem for you would change significantly if you became a more demanding or a tougher grader. But you're right; you have to find a happy medium; you wouldn't want to fail everybody. I imagine you might get paid a million dollars a year if your pay were tied to your students' evaluations. If that were the case, I'd say grade them based on attendance- everyone who shows up get an A+, no homework or tests! You will be the richest and most popular man on campus.

Have a safe and relaxing trip back to the nest in Houston and I looking forward to more wit and wisdom on your part in 2005. Remember, when you're playing a game with your friends who have fragile egos, it's okay to secretly throw the game once in a while. They won't think you're dumb. For a change, I'll sign my name with my "real" pseudonym.


Anonymous said...

Holiday wishes for our troops in Iraq. Many of them had limited options and chose military service as a way to a better future. Some of them plan on going to college after they finish their duty with the money the government promised them for school. Good luck to them all.

Tim Swanson said...

Regarding the A&M comment, if a Texas public high school student graduates in the top 10% of their class or score a 1300 on their SAT they are automatically admitted. 50% of the incoming freshman this past year fell under one of these categories.

And for what it's worth, in my own experience as an undergrad and grad student I find myself agreeing with the observations penned from Whitman and Balko. And I don't see the trend abating anytime soon (especially with policies like this:


Anonymous said...

Was my grade in your class a pity grade??? :)


Glen Whitman said...

Hi, Shawn. Without commenting on your personal grade in a public forum, I can say that I don't give pity grades, so yours must not have been one! I grade you and everyone else (in a given course) on the same scale.

Anonymous said...

I was just messing around. You are a good teacher. Keep up the good work.

andrea said...

I actually find the problem with universal education to be on the employment end. As more people are getting degrees, many companies are simply raising the standards for the same job.

A job that wouldn't have required more than a high school diploma 20 years ago (and maybe a few secretarial courses) now asks for a bachelor's degree - because that degree is being used as a proxy for work ethic or some buy in to middle class values or some other standard that employers think is more likely to get them a higher caliber of employee. More importantly, the lack of higher education sends up red flags over that person's intelligence/trainability/commitment.

I think education should be available to anyone who wants it, but making it a de facto requirement for doing anything more than sweeping floors is such a waste.

Anonymous said...

Glen, email that girl before she gets away!