Expanding Enrollments, Declining Standards: American Higher Ed Prepares to Take the Plunge

Peter Wood

Kevin Carey, whose Chronicle article “A ‘Race to the Top’” (subscription required) Ashley Thorne examined earlier this week (“To Infinity and Beyond! Kevin Carey’s Race to Over-the-Top”), has posted a fascinating reply (“Debating RTT4HE”).  First, let’s applaud the tone.  Carey and the NAS clearly disagreed about some fundamental matters, but we appreciate his courtesy and good will.  Let the games begin!

Carey notes that NAS and he agree on quite a few matters.  We do.  We agree that remediation should be moved from college to high school; we agree that obstacles to students transferring between colleges should be diminished; we agree that academic standards in higher education should be strengthened.  We even agree that colleges should publish their graduation rates, though we have some caveats about where he is headed with that.

Where we disagree, as Carey accurately puts it, is over our “conviction that too many people are going to college.”  That’s perhaps putting it a little more bluntly than we would prefer.  The NAS does not have a magic number of people who should attend college, or a magic percentage of the population who should hold college degrees.  On the whole we favor more people, not fewer, knowing more about history, science, literature, math, philosophy, and economics.  We favor a system of higher education than promotes rather than retards the transmission of cultural achievement from generation to generation.  We aren’t “elitist” in the sense that Carey implies when he writes that we “just want to hoard college credentials for the privileged few.”   Actually we aren’t that concerned at all with “college credentials.”  The transformation of higher education into “credentialing” is part of the problem.  We simply favor the steps that are needed to ensure that our civilization thrives.  And we believe that mass marketing of higher education as a something-for-everybody commodity does not serve that goal. 

Carey is a polished advocate of a view that has deep support within the American political, cultural, and philanthropic establishment.  We don’t want to attribute all of the establishmentarian positions to him.  He hasn’t, as far as we know, spoken to all of them.  But they do seem relevant as context for what he advocates.  The Lumina Foundation, for example, which supports Education Sector (where Carey is the policy director), has been a major advocate for massive expansion of higher education.  The head of Lumina, Jamie P. Merisotis, has called for sixty percent of Americans to have college degrees by 2025 (in contrast to today’s rate among young Americans of 34.4 percent).  The Carnegie Corporation of New York, which also supports Education Sector, has likewise called for gigantic expansion of higher education.  And, of course, President Obama announced early on in his presidency his goal of America having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.  Russia currently has the highest percentage (55 percent), so Obama is aiming at something greater than 55 percent in ten years.  Do the math and that means roughly doubling the current size of American higher education in a decade.  We have some 18 million students enrolled in college today.  Who really believes that our colleges and universities have the capacity to scale up to an enrollment of 36 million by 2020?  Of course, the scaling up would have to start instantly. 

Apparently Carey believes that.  And not only does he believe it is possible, he believes it can be accompanied by rising academic standards.

The imagined expansion also faces some practical difficulties beyond the mere absence of buildings, chairs, and teachers.  The price of higher education is spiraling up.  As Joseph Marr Cronin and Howard E. Horton pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, average tuition and fees in the last 25 years have risen by 440 percent.  That more-than-quadrupling of price is just one benchmark of the financial obstacle to Obama’s dream of a gargantuan increase in college enrollments.  We might pause for a moment and consider the “protests” (some of them riots) on March 4 as students in California and all over the United States began to reckon with the inability of state governments to live up to their supposed promises of affordable college educations for everyone who wants them.

Let’s reiterate: we would love to live in a society in which everyone had the intellectual talent to succeed in a rigorous college program and in which society could actually afford to make this dream come true.  But neither side of that proposition is remotely true.  Large numbers of students currently in college lack either the talent or the motivation to make much of the opportunity; and our society is simply not in the financial position to make a college education a public entitlement. 

It is easy to see why many people who make their livings as academic administrators or faculty members are enticed by this fantasy.  The dream is also a pleasant daydream for teenagers and their parents.  For those who work in higher education, the prospect of a massive scaling up of the enterprise offers the solace that they can continue business as usual.  For students and parents, it eases the anxiety that they will have to pull money out of thin air to pay the impossible expenses of a college education. 

One response to this is to observe that we have made K-12 education a public good.  Why not higher education too?  Other countries (e.g. France) do it (sort of).  Why not the U.S.?  Well, let’s allow that it is indeed possible for the U.S. to achieve president Obama’s goals (and those of the Lumina Foundation and Carey too).  But do we really want to do to higher education what we have to K-12 education?  The prospect would seem to be of a system of derisory standards and profound institutional decline.  We might achieve the hollow boast of the most college-credentialed citizenry in the world who also happen to be among the worst-educated.

Carey thinks otherwise, and we want to give him his due.  He mentions the “premium” paid to college graduates over those without college degrees.  True enough.  That premium exists.  It means that Starbucks can hire college graduates rather than high school graduates to serve up tall soy lattes.  Broadly speaking, the flood of college graduates has displaced lower-credentialed workers in jobs that don’t intrinsically require a college education.  The phenomenon deserves more attention than it has received, but virtually everybody has encountered it.  Actual jobs in which a college degree is a meaningful asset are few and far between.  We have suffered a massive credential inflation for which the answer is…double the number of college graduates?  Come on.

College graduates do have one marketable advantage.  They have demonstrated a degree of stick-to-it-tiveness that non-graduates have to prove in some other way.  An employer can get assurance that the college graduate has, at a minimum, proven his capacity to survive intellectual boredom, political indoctrination, and cultural anomie.  The graduate will be fluent in some of the poses and clichés that those who went from high school to the workplace are less likely to have acquired.  College these days is seldom a matter of acquiring an actual education; it is mostly a matter of acquiring bien pensant attitudes.  Perhaps college has always had an element of that.  But seldom has it been so completely that. 

Carey also directs our attention to a proposed reform that might ease our anxiety about the likelihood that massively increasing enrollments would lead to further decline in academic rigor.  Let’s back up a moment.  Ashley Thorne questions Carey’s idea that a “public learning audit” would safeguard standards as enrollments increase.  Carey replies that she misread the notion of “public learning audits,” and directs our attention to an article on Inside Higher Ed by Douglas C. Bennett, the president of EarlhamCollege

We aren’t opposed to “public learning audits” per se, but they are a very thin reed on which to build a defense of academic standards.  The idea advanced by President Bennett is that every two years each college would make public its internally-generated assessment of how well it is getting on with the task of educating its students.  We don’t want to be overly cynical, but really?  Would this be as reliable as having Wall Street firms offer self-assessments of how wise they have been in their investment strategies?  Or fortune-tellers offering self-assessments of the accuracy of their astrological predictions? 

Not to doubt President Bennett’s sincerity.  He mentions that EarlhamCollege would as part of its “public learning audit” make available “our results from the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment.”  Those are pretty safe bets.  The NAS has examined the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) which offers the reassuring news that, at every college that has so far administered it, students between their freshmen and senior years have learned something.  CLA focuses not on substantive knowledge but on the capacity to think critically and to write.  It is modestly good news that, no matter the intellectual preparation or native ability of a student and no matter the rigor of a curriculum, four years in a college seems to have some measurable effect on mental ability.  The studies so far, however, lack external controls.  So we don’t know whether the four-year gain of college students is greater than the four-year gain of non-college attendees.  (Conceivably it could be less.  That’s the possibility suggested by some studies such as the recent one by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.)  But let’s be generous.  College probably contributes something positive to what students learn.  That leaves open the question of whether the gain is worth the cost in effort, time, and dollars. 

The idea that a system of “public learning audits” would in any practical way safeguard the quality of higher education from further decline seems to us to be wishful thinking.  Academic standards are already low and sinking.  The proposal to massively increase college enrollments would—if it is carried out—amount to something like a rocket-pack strapped to the decline.  The so-called “race to the top” would in all likelihood be a race to the Marianas Trench of higher education. 

Why?  Because our K-12 education system does not now and will not any time soon produce enough high school graduates who are capable of the levels of effort and understanding that a real college education requires.  Because American culture is awash in self-indulgence that diverts children from ever acquiring the self-discipline and habits of mind that college requires.  Because our society has stumbled into mistaking credentials for education.  Because our business community has contented itself with workers who are narrowly skilled rather than broadly knowledgeable.  Perhaps because our civilization has lost confidence in itself and isn’t willing to be judged by enduring standards.  We don’t know all the answers.  We just see a great deal of peril in the current rush to make higher education bigger and bigger and bigger.  And Carey’s reassurances notwithstanding, a vastly expanded system of higher education in the United States is going to be one of vastly lower academic standards. 

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