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.

Inconvenient Truth #2: Too Many Students Pursue Traditional Bachelor’s Degrees
(Which I feel compelled to quote in it's entirety.)
A huge number of students enter college with high prospects of failure, which is reflected in high dropout rates. More persons get degrees than the available pool of professional, managerial, and technical jobs–even when we have a jobs boom. All this has watered down rigor and led to declining academic standards.
It is true that a bachelor's degree no longer guarantees employment. It is true that there is much more competition for professional, managerial, and technical jobs. But how many of those jobs are filled by people without bachelor's degrees? The gap in unemployment rates by educational attainment remains stunning: 8.7% of high school graduates and 7.7% of those with some college or an associate's degree were unemployed in December 2011. Only 4.1% of those with bachelor's degrees were. If the entire economy was at 4.1% we would be deeply concerned with inflationary pressures (something you would think Vedder, a professor of economics, would know).

If we didn't need people with bachelor's degrees, the probability of failure issue would be compelling. There's no reason that people should use public resources (let alone their own) to do something that is both unnecessary and unlikely to succeed. But since we are short on professional, managerial, and technical workers, the likelihood of failure is an argument for improving higher education's ability to meet these students' needs and the K-12 system's ability to produce high school graduates who have the skills to succeed.

And the connection between either of these claims and lower standards is, what, precisely?
Inconvenient Truth #3: Increased College Spending No Longer Usually Enhances Economic Growth
Vedder argues here that education has run up against diminishing marginal returns, and that it takes resources "from productive, market disciplined economic actors and reallocates to a less efficient university sector that, at the margin, does not use the resources terribly productively." Again, this is a lovely chain of non sequiturs. That the returns are diminishing does not mean there aren't returns, a point Vedder counters ineffectively with the efficiency argument. Imagine making the same agument about the energy sector, for instance. We would hardly say that the energy sector "no longer usually enhances economic growth" just because it is less efficient that other sectors. Imagine trying to produce growth without a growing energy sector.

And that is the real key here: education is as vital to the American economy as energy. Education growth is certainly not sufficient to produce economic growth. But it probably never was. And in a knowledge economy—one in which growth is produced largely by industries that produce knowledge (intellectual property), use knowledge to produce traditional goods and services more efficiently or competitively (finance, business intelligence), or require a large store of knowledge (health care, education)—education growth is clearly necessary for economic growth.
Inconvenient Truth #4: Many Students Study and Learn Little
Here Vedder offers the obligatory reference to Richard Arum's and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift. I must tread cautiously here; I haven't read the book itself, though I did attend Arum's keynote at last year's Association for Institutional Research Forum. There has been a range of criticisms of its methods, though (as some of the comments on Vedder's essay discuss), and on the basis of those criticisms and Arum's presentation I hesitate to take Arum and Roksa as definitive on this point.

Both as an institutional researcher who has the misfortune of seeing the NSSE data and a former political theory professor who had the misfortune of teaching Plato to a class that largely left the room with Cephalus, I certainly agree that many students study far less than they should. But a surprising number of them are able to produce a decent exam or paper and can have conversations that indicate that they do know the material as well as their work demonstrates. So are the slacking or are they satisficing? I'm not sure that the latter means that they aren't learning.

I've also administered the CAAP critical thinking tests on my campus, which from Arum's description seems similar to the CLA. I'm not convinced that a generic test of reasoning skills captures the learning that takes place in an academic program. Students in a bachelor's degree program don't learn how to think in general; they learn to think about certain things, and that ability is not always transferable. An eminent scholar of Enlightenment philosophy I once knew could reduce Kant to a wonderfully succinct and elegant diagram that was understandable by freshmen and insightful to his peers; he also couldn't understand why billing two universities for travel to the same conference constituted embezzlement. Many students, I suspect, do much worse on a general test of reasoning skills than in a discipline-specific test.

An economist should also take more seriously the evidence of the market to the contrary. Employers continue to pay premiums for education. If college educated students haven't learned, why would employers not take advantage of the wage gap to hire people who, if Vedder is right, are just as knowledgeable but will work for $700,000 less over their lifetimes? Indeed, the structure of market premiums says something important about Arum's and Roksa's methodology: the highest premiums go to graduates in disciplines that build specific technical skills, not the general intellectual ones that CLA and CAAP test. The behavior of the labor market suggests that many students are learning what employers expect them to know rather than what education researchers wish students knew.

Here endeth part 1. There are another eight equally infuriating claims. But my Glenlivet has run out so I have no means of moderating myself. I'll take on those in future installments, hopefully before the Utah State Legislature convenes next week.

(I'd better stock up on scotch.)


  1. More scotch! More scotch!

    Seriously though, love the post. Keep them coming. I especially like the line about "teaching Plato to a class that largely left the room with Cephalus". If this has happened to you personally, the best cure for Cephalus is a visit to the grad pub for nachos and a pint.

  2. Very refreshing Jeff -- couldn't agree more!