Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New York Post op ed says degrees aren't worth it


Not the most well reasoned or argued article I’ve ever read (I know it’s just the Post, but the blogs I read are typically better written than this) and I don’t agree with his prescribed fix, but he hits on 2 big issues I think are vital to the future of higher ed.

  1. We're too slow.
  2. We have no accountability.

We’re too slow.

Someone has to decide to go to college, then apply for admissions, then apply for financial aid (which may spoil the deal if not enough is available), then wait around for registration to open, then pray the classes they want/need get enough people to “make” but not enough people to fill up, then wait around for classes to start. It’s a lot of hoops for the students to jump through that have very little to do with the core value we offer them. Some of it is necessary, even beneficial, but the benefit isn't immediately apparent to the “end user”. I think in the next 10 years we'll be able to greatly streamline this process and make it much more student centered. If we don't, someone else will, and we may find ourselves obsolete.

Hough balances this with the abundance of cheap or even free quality educational resources available thanks to stuff like Open CourseWare and iTunes U. “Today's student who decides to learn at 1 a.m. should be doing it by 1:30. A process that makes him wait 18 months is not an education system. It's a barrier to education.” I don’t think it’s as bad as an 18 month wait, especially not here (we're a 2 year school were students can literally walk in the day before classes start and leave with a schedule for the coming semester, which I think is awesome), but I agree with the spirit of what he’s saying.

We have no accountability.

His focus is more on the ivy leagues, who seem to play a game of recruiting the brightest students who leave with a degree, still bright, but not much more so. Hough compares Harvard to a hospital who turns away the least healthy 92% of its patients and then takes credit for the health and longevity of the patients it treats. A degree is supposed to certify a graduate has met a certain standard of learning and competency, but everyone just has to take our word for it (“our” meaning the higher ed industry as a whole). Grade inflation and downright degree milling are eroding employers' faith in our authority to make such claims about our graduates.

He calls for government regulation enforced by standardized testing. I think that's horribly short sighted. But maybe we need something like the Bureau of Labor Statistics but for the long term impact of education. If longitudinal data was collected and made publically available in a standardized format, we’d have no choice but to get some accountability. Even with newspapers failing, there will always be someone out there willing to take us to task over statistics.

The hypothetical example Hough uses sets the groundwork for the type of data that could be collected. Median income 1 year after graduation, 5 years after, 10, 25, etc. Median education related debt at graduation with interest rates. We'd have to correct for outside influences such as social-economic status. Maybe comparing graduate incomes to the incomes of their own parents? Someone better at statistics than me could tackle that problem. Schools shouldn't be punished simply for servicing a poor area (although we all now they already are).

Other fuzzy areas would be attempt to collect data on productivity and employer satisfaction. Standardized testing could play a role in measuring things like value added. If there was a way to compare GRE scores to ACT/SAT scores, or maybe create a new test that's taken on the way in and on the way out to establish how much was actually learned. I think a large percentage of what is learned in a college or university experience would be hard to test for, so the results would have to be tampered with other data.

There's also the type of research that goes into works such as Colleges That Change Lives. That has very little to do with economic issues such as debt and income and much more to do with civic engagement and overall satisfaction with ones own life. Hough would probably disagree with me there, since colleges that change lives tend to spend a lot of time on “frivolous” but engaging topics like gender studies.

I also agree with Hough that we have an over reliance on the degree model. But Hough seems ready to completely abandon the degree model. I think it works quite well in some areas, but not as well in others. I think we're ready to see the rise of several different models, each suiting certain educational goals better than others. There will of course be a transitional period where square pegs are pounded into new round holes, but eventually each model will focus on its own strengths and attract students with the proper kind of attitudes and learning styles. I also think this will help us move away from viewing graduation as a culminating event and seek out models for life long learning.

That may be horribly idealistic of me, but I also realize this won't happen over night. My kids will probably be the square pegs being pounded into round holes. And by the time my grandkids are ready for college, there will be a fresh crop of issues to address. I expect evolution and improvement, not utopia.


o said...

Bravo. I had always hoped for more of an apprenticeship model in the original sense of University. Are we starting to see that again through colleges?

Derek said...

i have limited experience with how higher ed works outside of tennessee, but i haven't seen a great deal of variation. to me, even MACT seems rather plain and undaring, but career academics seem to see it as either cutting edge or too fruity to be a "real" education. i think it's that 2nd bit, the anything different can't be as good mentality, that kills a lot of innovation in higher ed.

traditional education works very well for some things. but i think it falls apart in any field that is highly technical because of the pace of technology. but i think that's a problem that can easily be addressed on campuses that are willing to embrace change and diversity of thought. a reactionary mentality won't serve higher ed any better than it's served the american auto industry.

on a related note, have you looked into edupunk? innovation isn't dead in higher ed, it just seeps up from the underground like any subculture (or disruptive technologies).

Nikita Full Moon said...

Feeling slightly argumentative, I shall say "Bunk!" While the process-as-a-barrier is a somewhat valid argument, applying to University after high school is simply the process of registering for a new school, except for the first time, the student is old enough to do it herself. Plus, a little competiveness is good for a person's soul. And universities are accountable to each other--the exchange of knowledge and collaboration that goes on between institutions is what keeps the accountability and respect for an instituion's prestige up. Believe me, if Harvard started producing crappy research, word would get out.

As for the value of degrees, I admit I can't "directly" monetize my arts degree, but given the child I still was at 22 when I started and the critical, analytical, useful person I was at 26 when I graduated, I'm pretty glad I got it. I also attribute my university experience to fostering my desire for lifelong learning, (so *NOW* I'll use iTunesU), so while it might be my diploma in PR and my certificate in management that have got me the job interviews, it's my ability to communicate rationally that's probably got me hired.

Derek said...

i agree that we're accountable to each other, but that all works in a very ivory tower way. its as much a problem of perception as a problem of reality (but i don't think it's totally a problem of perception).

someone that can produce great research may not be able to teach worth a damn. i've experienced that myself. one of my least favorite professors from an undergraduate student perspective turned out to be highly respected researcher in his field and the grad students who got to work with him in a lab loved the experience.

putting him in a traditional lecture hall is a waste of resources. maybe he needs to just work with grad students in a lab. or maybe we need to reexamine the assumptions built into the traditional lecture hall in light of various types of students with different learning styles and various types of instructors with different teaching strengths.

and would we really hear about it if the ivy leagues started producing junk research? there are people who consider john mack's work with the psychology of UFO abduction stories to be junk research. we have various camps or "interpretations" of quantum physics arguing with each other, all of which could be totally full of it.

few laymen are in a position to critically evaluate research. since our business model relies on recruiting laymen in hopes of producing non-laymen, we have to be able to speak openly and honestly in laymen terms. otherwise we run the risk of creating a caste system where you have to be educated enough to pursue an education.

we need a metric of accountability that doesn't require a university education to understand. or we need to spend more time educating students about their higher education choices before they make those choices. or some combination of the 2. or something else i didn't think of. :)