That Old College Lie
Are our colleges teaching students well? No. But here’s how to make them.
This was a tolerable state of affairs for the first 150 years or so of the nation’s existence. Initially, the federal government left higher education to the states, which in turn liberally granted charters to sectarian colleges and universities. College was mostly reserved for the sons of privilege–at the turn of the twentieth century, only 240,000 collegians were enrolled nationwide. While that number had grown to 1.5 million by the eve of World War II, it was still only 1.1 percent of the total population.
But the postwar social reordering changed higher education profoundly. Returning soldiers flooded campuses using money from the G.I. Bill. Middle-class prosperity brought status anxiety and aspiration to match. The emancipation of women and minorities created new classes of students, while the erosion of well-paying manufacturing jobs drove more young people to earn degrees. Today there are 18 million college students, a sixteen-fold increase since 1900 relative to the population as a whole.
This created an obvious challenge: All those new students had to go somewhere. The existing network of elite institutions had little desire to open their doors to the masses. So policymakers, mostly at the state level, made a historic–and in retrospect, deeply flawed–decision. They stamped out hundreds of copies of the standard university model. Teacher’s colleges were converted into regional universities. Branch campuses opened up with compass point suffixes describing their proximity to the mother ship. Big states like New York and California built whole university systems from scratch.
Even this wasn’t enough to handle the tide of new undergraduates. An additional layer of community colleges was built, many in Sun Belt states where in-migration and population growth were most acute. While these two-year public institutions didn’t offer advanced graduate programs in particle physics or produce bowl-winning football teams, they were still unmistakably colleges, firmly in the realm of higher education.
Each of these new institutions faced a question of identity. How should they act? Who should they be? Naturally, they looked to the original colleges that shaped the mold. And without exception, those institutions offered two core lessons. First, they taught that status in higher education is derived from wealth and selectivity–the most renowned institutions have gigantic piles of money and allow only the “best” students to attend. Second, they insisted that questions of quality, particularly as they relate to what students are taught and how much they learn, are nobody’s business but the institution’s own. This position was derived from the principle of academic freedom, a tremendously important and necessary idea when it comes to protecting controversial scholarship. Unfortunately, it was extended to the student side of the equation–colleges demanded freedom to teach as well or poorly as they pleased. Thus, any attempt by the government to inquire about academic matters was resisted at all costs.
The new colleges and universities took these values to heart. As a result, the customers, donors, and governments that finance America’s allegedly world-beating institutions know remarkably little about whether individual colleges and universities are any good at the single most important thing they do: helping students learn.
American colleges grant more than 300,000 bachelor’s degrees in business every year. Whose graduates are most successful in business? There are anecdotes, but no available, comparable data. Nobody really knows. Which teacher education program best prepares candidates to excel in the classroom? Nobody knows. Nearly every college teaches introductory courses like calculus and English. Where are the best calculus and English professors? Who is most successful in preparing students for law and medical schools? Whose graduates make unusual contributions to philanthropy and the arts? Who teaches writing well, given the academic preparation of the students they enroll? Who teaches anything well? Nobody knows.
How College Is Like Prada
The near-total lack of useful information about teaching and learning has three main effects, all bad for students. First, it creates distortions in the higher-education market that drive up prices. Second, it gives colleges free rein to ignore their teaching obligations in favor of a mad contest for status and self-gratification. Third, it leaves colleges that serve the most disadvantaged students with the fewest resources.
The information deficit turns college into what economists call a “reputational good.” If you go to the store and buy a shirt, you can learn pretty much everything you need to know before you buy it: the material, where it was made, how to clean it, and so on. College is different. You’re paying up-front for professors you’ve never met and degree programs you probably haven’t even chosen yet. Instead, you rely on what other people think of the college. Of course, some students simply have to go the college that’s nearest to them or least expensive. But if you have the luxury of choosing, in all likelihood, you choose based on reputation.
If college reputations were based on objective, publicly available measures of student learning, that would be okay. But they’re not, because no such measurements exist. Instead, reputations are largely based on wealth, admissions selectivity, price, and a generalized sense of fame that is highly influenced by who’s been around the longest and who produces the most research. Not coincidentally, these are the factors that drive the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings that always rate old, wealthy, renowned institutions like Harvard and Princeton as America’s best colleges.
The influence of reputation is exacerbated by the fact that most colleges are non-profit. For-profit institutions succeed by maximizing the difference between revenues and expenditures. While they have strong incentives to get more money, they also have strong incentives to spend less money, by operating in the most efficient manner possible. Non-profit colleges aren’t profit-maximizing; they are reputation-maximizing. And reputations are expensive to buy.
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