Cold Brine: The College Board Loses Its Senses

Peter Wood

The College Board hopes to splash water on a slumbering nation. “Wake up! Come to your senses!” it says. Pretty much verbatim. 

Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future (PDF), the College Board’s new report, is a bucket of cold, briny water aimed at what the Board takes to be the snoring complacency of Americans on the issue of how many of us have college degrees. We need more degrees, it says—many, many more—or else we will snooze our way into terminal international decline. 

We’ve read the report and, after due consideration, we too have an urgent message: Shrug it off America and go back to sleep. Here’s why.

Coming to Our Senses was issued by the College Board’s Advocacy branch, the Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education. The source is the first clue to the report’s real agenda. Coming to Our Senses is presented as an alarm call on the U.S. economy, but it is really a plea to expand the higher education industry. Moreover, it is a plea that focuses on pushing into college vast numbers of students who have neither the skill nor the ambition to succeed.

Coming to our Senses concludes that America should “establish and reach a goal of ensuring that by the year 2025, fully 55 percent of young Americans” have a college degree (associates degree or higher).  That’s a startling number. Today only 34.4 percent of Americans 25 years old and older—about 67 million of them—have associates degrees or higher. To increase the percentage that much in the next 17 years, as the College Board proposes, would require something like Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward—perhaps without the carnage and mass starvation, but no more likely to achieve its goal than Mao’s efforts to industrialize China in one fell swoop.

  

The Great Leap

To achieve an American population with 55 percent holding college degrees would require a dizzying expansion of American higher education. Our current system serves about 18 million students, with a six-year graduation rate of about 56.4 percent (that’s for 2000-2001 freshmen at four-year institutions). The math becomes a little tricky for calculating enrollments over a 17 year span in a growing population with mortality among existing degree holders, but roughly to achieve the College Board’s goal, we would have to award degrees to 129 million individuals in those 17 years, 57 million more than if we continued at the current rate.  

  

Here is our rough calculation. The 34.4 percent of the population who currently hold college degrees (7.4% with associates degrees as their highest level of educational attainment; 17.1% with bachelors degrees; and 9.9% with graduate or professional degrees) amount to about 67 million people. If (implausibly) none of them die in the next 17 years, that 67 million would be only 19 percent of the projected population of 357,452,000 in 2025. That means to get to 55 percent, we would need to grant degrees to an additional 36 percent of the population, which would be 129 million people. If we assume (again, implausibly) that all 18 million students currently enrolled in college earn their degrees and that we have a total of four four-year cohorts in the next 17 years, we will grant degrees to approximately 72 million people. That falls 57 million short of the 160 million new degrees needed in the College Board proposal. These calculations deliberately underestimate the new degrees that would be needed to reach the College Board’s goal. We chose four-year cohorts as an approximation that includes two-year and four-year degree programs. A little more than half of students currently enrolled in college are in two year programs, but large percentages of students enrolled in both two and four year programs take much longer to complete their degrees.

Note that the College Board itself offers no estimates or calculations. It simply declares 55 percent of Americans with college degrees by 2025 as a goal, with no thought to how the goal could practically be attained. We recognize there are more sophisticated ways to calculate enrollment and degree completion rates, but all such methods would only increase the number of new degrees needed and the number of new enrollees needed to reach the point of receiving their degrees.

The sheer number of new entrants into college programs that would be needed to reach the 55 percent goal makes this proposal rather silly. The silliness doesn’t stop with the difficulty of rounding up an additional 57 million students. The report gives no thought to the capital investment that would be needed to educate these students, or the cost of taking 57 million people out of the workforce. Again a few rough reminders might be in order. Currently about 40 percent of Americans aged 18-24 (11.16 million) attend college, either full-time or part-time. About 17.6 million in this age cohort are in the civilian labor force. The College Board proposal would appear to require that most of those now working switch to college programs. Who would pay for this? Would the individuals who switched from working to studying generally be better off? 

Of course, not everyone in college is in that youthful age cohort. Only about 62 percent of these college students are aged 18-24. So the College Board proposal would reach still deeper in the workforce to encourage people to seek college degrees. The College Board recognizes this and devotes a portion of its proposal to adult education, including a proposal to double “the federal investment” in such programs. Some of this involves sleight of hand. The College Board proposal consistently speaks of the 55 percent goal as associate degrees and above, but when it comes to adult education, the Board speaks of a high school equivalency certificate (the General Educational Development or GED) as though it were a college degree—although they supercharge it as the “honors GED.”

 

Many Experts

When an important and respected body comes up with a weighty proposal, we are obliged to pay attention. But the College Board in this case appears to have abandoned any real seriousness. It asks Americans to come to our senses, but then lays before us a dreamy nothing of an idea. How exactly are we to more than double the capacity of colleges and universities almost overnight? And if this is to be phased in, then how are we to triple or quadruple the number of colleges as the calendar runs down to 2025? On these matters, the College Board is totally and completely silent. 

But let’s entertain the College Board’s dream for a while. Why set the goal at 55 percent?  Why not 30, 50, or 67.2 percent? The College Board never says, but it claims that “many experts say” that 55 percent is what is needed, “merely to reclaim our position in the front rank of international educational leadership.” Many Experts was unable for comment, but there is a reason—sort of— for the magic 55. A footnote leads to a citation of an article in the Carnegie Foundation’s Change Magazine. If you trouble yourself to look up the original article you find that 55 percent is the estimate of the proportion of the populations of Japan and Canada that have associates degrees or above. The College Board appears to be warning us that Ottawa will grind us under its heel if we don’t get busy—now!

International comparisons are sometimes helpful and we don’t want to dismiss out of hand the idea that American education often falls troublingly behind its counterparts in the developed world. This is especially true of K-12 education, but Americans have known this for a very long time and the problems have proven remarkably hard to fix. This isn’t the place to pursue that topic. On the matter of higher education, the National Association of Scholars is in the forefront of bodies calling for serious change. We just don’t think that a magic wand approach that suddenly turns tens of millions of young Americans who show no particular aptitude or disposition for college into college students is much of an answer. 

In fact it is a non-answer that would simply compound the problems at hand. Fewer and fewer families today can afford to send their kids to college. And convincing them that college is worth the “investment” is getting harder.  Rightly so, because for many of them, it isn’t. 

The College Board, though wildly unrealistic, does recognize that its 55 percent goal is ambitious. It recommends a ten-part action program. Among the ten are these:

“Align the K-12 education system with international standards and college admissions expectations,” “Improve teacher quality,” and “Keep college affordable.” The word “keep” in “Keep college affordable,” is questionable, but these seem worthy goals.

 

Minority Access

How much of this report is really a smokescreen for lowering academic standards in the hope of streamlining a much larger number of minority students through college? Remember the report’s origin in the College Board’s Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education. Access is frequently a code word for racial preferences, which are viewed with increasing skepticism by the public and have been voted down in California, Washington, Michigan, and Nebraska—and are under increasing scrutiny as President-elect Obama prepares to take office. 

So there is a context to the report to consider. In fact, according to Coming to our Senses, the primary reason why the United States falls short of Japan and Canada is that the educational attainment of “minority” students (by which the authors appear to mean blacks and Hispanics) falls so short of Asians and whites: 

Asian Americans already meet this goal [55 percent] and middle-class white Americans are within striking distance. Therefore, success will require our nation to place much greater attention on the educational success of low-income and underrepresented minority students.

It seems highly implausible that the cure for educational deficits among blacks and Hispanics is to insist on a massive expansion of college degrees. But let’s note as well that the College Board’s logic here leads to the idea that virtually the entire expansion of higher education that it has in mind—the 57 million new students—will come from this pool of currently underperforming students.

 

Too Few or Too Many?

There are more complicated logistical problems with the College Board report, which fails to take into account timing and the limited capacity of the higher education industry to house students en masse. Some Experts (not the same ones referred to by the College Board) have argued that there are already too many people going to college. This is the thesis of Charles Murray’s recent book, Real Education. Murray’s answer is to create a system of competency exams that would allow many students to bypass college. Of course, another option is the rise of distance-education, which would potentially allow tens of millions of working men and women to earn college degrees in their spare time at a fraction of the cost of traditional colleges.

We aren’t endorsing these proposals but it seems likely that the College Board’s advocacy of its 55 percent goal could fuel either or both of them. As the traditional college degree gets diluted further and further to make room for vast numbers of unprepared and incapable students, the market may well come to favor competency exams over college degrees. And as traditional colleges cram more and more unmotivated students into aging facilities, distance education is likely to burnish its attractions.

If the goal is simply to increase the percentage of students who hold college degrees, of course, there are ways to achieve this that are simpler than sending 57 million additional students to college. There is the Wizard of Oz Scarecrow approach. The federal wizard could pass legislation conferring a diploma to each man, woman, and child in America, citizen and alien alike. Then the world would know that America cares about educating its people. Indeed, the College Board’s report seems to anticipate the idea:

A new definition of academic excellence is needed in the United States. It should be more inclusive, more focused on student needs, and more dedicated to “developing talent” instead of “selecting for talent” in the admissions process.

Granted this doesn’t get us all the way down the Yellow Brick Road, but it’s a start.

Hydraulics

Does America’s international competitiveness really depend on the percentage of the population which holds two and four year college degrees? Clearly the idea has some attraction. Americans like to count things, and counting up the number of people who hold degrees is far easier than trying to determine who actually possesses the qualities we prize in a workforce and a citizenry. Ingenuity, focused intelligence, alertness, a quick grasp of context, a mind well-stocked with knowledge, eagerness to solve problems, and ease with one’s fellows are among those qualities. Is the possession of a college degree a good proxy for them?

Fewer and fewer businesses think so, and fewer still college faculty members who see first-hand how many of their students graduate from college unfocused, uneducated, and dull. A college curriculum cannot overrule human nature in the best of circumstances and these are not the best of circumstances for American higher education. A cultural revolution swept through higher education over the last several decades leaving behind programs that are long on ideology and short on rigorous intellectual standards. College curricula nationwide have been watered down. And for this reason, the college degree really isn’t a strong indicator of those qualities of mind and character we care about. A college degree does indicate one thing: a student’s determination to tough it out, despite high costs, numerous distractions, bureaucratic obstacles, and a haphazard program of study.

But if a college degree isn’t a good proxy for general ability, what is? At the moment there is no good answer for that question. We don’t have a handy set of indicators for overall intelligence combined with aptitude and motivation.   Rather we piece together our picture of individuals by what they actually accomplish. The college degree is a data point, but not necessarily a very important one.

Americans thus have ambiguous feelings about college degrees. Sometimes, like the College Board, we make a fetish of them, as though the degree itself were proof positive that a graduate acquired a real education. But much of the time, we admit to ourselves that the degree is just a token. The proof of an individual’s worth is in what he can do. But the ambiguity doesn’t stop there. Clearly some college degrees count more than others. They have Ivy League prestige value; they link an individual to a local or regional network of alumni; or they provide a graduate with an image to live up to and an identity with which to organize his often inchoate scraps of adulthood. “I am a graduate of X” usually means something above and beyond, “I studied hard and learned something.”

The College Board’s picture of what it means to have a college degree is a good deal less complicated than this, but the College Board does have its own story, or at least a guiding metaphor.  We learn that, “A torrent of American talent and human potential entering the educational pipeline is reduced to a trickle 16 years later as it moves through the K-16 system.” Educational leader are called to the task of “fixing leaks in the educational pipeline.” That’s a “pipeline that leaks like a sieve from grade 9 on.”

This might be called the hydraulic theory of education: students are highly talented water gushing through the plumbing of American education, but many do not make it all the way to the golden faucet because the pipes leak. The choice of metaphors in an official report is always worth attention. In this case, students have “talent” but no self-determination. They are just piped to wherever the plumbing sends them.

The problem with this metaphor is that students do make choices. They apply their talents to what most interests them. Their choices are, for sure, constrained by the quality of their schools, the realities of their lives at home, and the culture that prevails in their communities, but they are still choices, and they matter at least as much the educational “pipelines.”

Grow Your Own

Coming to Our Senses is a disappointment. The College Board’s Commission on Access, Admission and Success Higher Education that drafted it was chaired by the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, and includes a who’s who of the American educational establishment. Molly Board, the president of the American Council on Education served; as did Charles Reed, the chancellor of California State University; Gregory Williams, the president of CUNY; and James Wright, the president of Dartmouth. Twenty-seven luminaries in all. This is not group that one would say lightly is naïve about the realities of higher education. How then could they put their names to something so strangely disconnected to reality? Is the wish-fulfillment syndrome in American higher education so strong that its top leaders see nothing amiss in collectively proposing a demographic and financial fantasy and presenting it as a stern call to the facts?

 

We don’t have an answer, but the report did remind us of something. A few years ago a novelty company began marketing a line of miniature highly compressed sponges that, when dropped in water, would expand to become much larger sponges in various shapes. One of Grow Your Own™’s products is “Grow a Degree.” According to the instructions on packaging, the matriculant simply places the miniature absorbent diploma in water and watches his credentials expand by 600%.  No term papers. No studying. No tuition. After three days, the diploma is ready to present to potential employers.

This is one way we think the nation might meet the College Board’s goals for 2025. Students wishing to invest a little more could round out their educations with some of Grow Your Own’s other fine products:  “Grow a Brain,” “Grow Your Own Beer,” and “Grow a Boyfriend.”

But let us come to our senses.

Yes, America is in need of rousing. We are falling behind the rest of the world, and certainly a large part of the reason is the dearth of educated citizens. But the problem is not that students don’t go to college; it’s that many who go finish with meaningless degrees. Many students graduate knowing only how to recite progressive political slogans, like “Stop the hate and celebrate”; “Litigate, agitate, legislate”; and “I pledge allegiance to tap water.” It’s as if, rather than teaching what is meaningful and eternal, colleges really are offering sponges soaked with popular culture and ideology.

 

The solution, consequently, is not to enroll more and still more people in college. This will only produce more graduates with a diluted education that imparted little worth knowing. Instead, colleges must return to their original mission. They must educate that much smaller number of students who possess the intellectual ability and the perseverance to rise to the demands of a worthy curriculum. We need more educated people, for sure; but that doesn’t equate to more people holding college degrees. The College Board to its credit worries a great deal about the quality of K-12 education, but that concern is distorted by its conception that the college classroom is the proper destination for the majority of students.

We’ve already run that experiment and the results are clear: it doesn’t work. College is an expensive waste of time for many students, and rather than dumb down college even further to make it accessible to even more, we need to reform K-12 schooling so that it gives America’s youth a wider and brighter set of options for what to do next.

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