26 January 2012

Inconveniently Untrue Inconvenient Truths (Part 2)

Last week, Richard Vedder managed to completely infuriate me with 12 supposedly inconvenient truths about American higher education, most of which turned out to be, shall we say, exceptionally problematic. I tackled the first four last Friday (and must certainly apologize for making you wait, with baited breath I'm sure, for the next installment). Resuming where we left off . . . .
Inconvenient Truth #5 Undergraduate Students Are Often Neglected
There's no question that this is probably true at top-shelf research institutions. In grad school I saw excellent (and well-funded) researchers who couldn't teach with anything resembling competence sail through the tenure process. But saying that this is a problem with American higher education generally is like saying excessive speed is characteristic of the Italian auto industry. That Bugatti Veryon may break 260 miles per hour, even with James May behind the wheel. But a total of 300 were ever made. The run-of-the mill Fiat? Not so much. Admit it: that Alfa Romeo sitting in the garage isn't even running.

And that's where American higher education finds itself as well. Undergraduates may be low priority at Ph.D.-oriented institutions. But according to the Carnegie Foundation's classifications, those make up only 15% of primarily 4-year institutions. If the remaining institutions are giving undergraduates short shrift, who are they paying attention to? It surely isn't research: in 2000, despite making up more than three-fourths of the institutions that received federal research grants, non-research/doctoral institutions received only 15% of grant money.

19 January 2012

Inconveniently Untrue Inconvenient Truths (Part 1)

Richard Vedder, in a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested "12 Inconvenient Truths About American Higher Education" that he plans on expanding in a series of essays. These claims, if true, are inconvenient for defenders of traditional higher education; Vedder suggests that these claims "suggest cumulatively American universities have a lot of problems." The problem is that they are mostly not true, or at least can't support the conclusions that Vedder reaches from them. Which is inconvenient for him and those who think the free market can do better with higher education than it did with mortgage lending.
Inconvenient Truth #1: College Costs Are Rising Both for Students and Society
This one we can't stop hearing about. Vedder maintains not only that tuition is up but also that "higher education absorbs more than triple the share of the nation’s productive efforts than it did when John F. Kennedy was president." I tackled the increasing cost concerns back in November, and have since updated the analysis (and made it fancy and interactive!). Basically, and assuming that my university is representative, costs haven't increased at state universities; tuition has gone up only because state funding has been slashed.

The increasing share of (I assume; Vedder doesn't really define "productive efforts") GDP, that reflects not a problem with universities but their success in the major goal of post-World War II educational policy: increasing access. The percentage of 18 to 34-year-olds attending college rose from 10.8% in 1963 to 23.8% in 2010. In 2010, 2% of those 35 and over were enrolled in college; in 1963 the Census Bureau didn't bother including them in the data. That alone accounts for most of the rising share of GDP. We allow more people to go to college today than we did in the golden era of the "American Century" and are somehow shocked—shocked!—to find that we spend more of our resources on education.