Issue #15, Winter 2010

That Old College Lie

Are our colleges teaching students well? No. But here’s how to make them.

In addition to the toll on individual students, the higher education price explosion is also a serious barrier to national prosperity. In his February 2009 address to Congress, Obama called for the nation to regain its historic status of having the most college-educated workforce in the world by 2020. It will be exceedingly difficult to achieve this if college costs keep rising and colleges remain indifferent to how well they help students learn, graduate, and succeed in the workplace.

The president’s proposal to transfer more than $40 billion in banking industry subsidies to Pell Grants is a great idea. But nothing in the current Obama plan will prevent colleges from continuing to jack up tuition at double the inflation rate or more–in fact, the increase in consumer purchasing power will encourage them to. Unless something changes, by 2020 that $40 billion will be swallowed up by the appetites of a higher education system that has demonstrated no limits on how much money it is willing to ingest and spend.

The spectacle of an industry stuck on a steep and ascending trajectory of price increases, laxly regulated and fueled by debt, should be sobering and familiar. The real estate market collapsed and almost took the global economy down with it. It’s not too late to avoid a similar catastrophe in higher education. But it will take a decisive change of attitude among those who have historically been higher education’s biggest defenders.

Progressives should start by acknowledging that higher education is not a perfect land of opportunity best left to its own devices, unobserved. If progressives really care about higher education, if they’re truly committed to getting the most vulnerable students not just in the door to college but out the other side in one piece, they’ll be the first to insist that higher education reveal far more information about its successes and failures.

If they do, the benefits will be enormous. The market for higher education will start functioning properly, giving institutions strong incentives to care more about teaching and learning and a new ability to compete with one another on value and price. Students and parents will have a much greater ability to find colleges with a demonstrated track record of helping others like them learn and thrive in their lives and careers. Policymakers will be better able to judge which colleges are truly providing a return on the public dollar. Colleges with a mission to serve the disadvantaged will finally be able to demonstrate their full worth to the world.

There’s no time to waste in pushing for more and better higher education information. Without it, the coming decades will be much like the last: higher prices, diminished opportunities, the slow marginalization of higher education as a whole. Until this problem is solved, all the good works of people like Claiborne Pell will come to naught.


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Issue #15, Winter 2010
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Rafael Castello, University of Valencia (Spain):

Really a very good analysis. Thank you.

One more argument: the American university system is one of reference for all the World, and now the European Union are copying some of the worst features: while we've quality system controls, they are overscoring the top universities, also; so the bottom ones are always underscored.

Dec 8, 2009, 2:40 AM

The writer's criticisms are not without foundation. There are many problems with higher education in the USA and we should work hard to improve our system.

The writer overlooks the fact that many people who go to college are not really college material and will not perform well academically regardless of where they go. Many students are more cut out to study as a tradesperson or enter an apprenticeship. The populist drives for 'universal college education' are wrong-headed. One needs only review the history of City College in NYC or the university system in France to see how well these programs work.

The system of higher education in the USA is without question, for all of its faults the best in the world. No country is as egalitarian in its admission standards. No country offers the avenues for self-improvement that the US educational system does.

Dec 9, 2009, 7:32 AM

@ Sacrifice

You might want to read an article written by William Deresiewicz;

Dec 28, 2009, 1:41 AM

Unfortunately, knowledge isn't something you can buy by/with/from? money. You have to do something to get it. But if your brain is occupied with sorrows about 1000s of Dollars of debts, you won't be able to focus your thinking on your homework. To do some brain work you must be free of other, maybe existential, problems.

Let me mention Darwin and Einstein. Both were free of financial problems when they made their discoveries. They had a safe job, or, in case of Darwin, a rich daddy. They had the necessary intellectual freedom to do research.

Knowledge is some sort of culture, and culture only can flourish if you haven't to struggle with other things.

Jan 17, 2010, 8:00 AM

Education has become a business of money not what can or should be learned.

May 15, 2012, 11:31 PM

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