By Peter Sacks
College bashing is very much in vogue. A batch of new and recent books portray the campus culture in dark tones: College is an expensive fraud, pandering to its entitled student customers with soft courses and inflated grades; college is for dummies, it's bad for your brain, and it's even worse for your pocketbook, your children's, and the financial well- being of generations to come.
The more level-headed of these books tell us, unsurprisingly, that our higher education system is at a crossroad, badly in need of fundamental reforms. The worst of these titles inflate their claims to hyperbolic levels. An example is Craig Brandon's The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About it. Brandon, a former journalism teacher at Keene State College in New Hampshire, asserts that American higher education in the last 20 years has degenerated from a stable working model of education into a hedonistic five-year party accountable to nothing but the bottom line.
Mr. Brandon argues that higher education has been seized by profit -mongering administrators who have shaped a corporatized model of education, producing uneducated graduates ill-prepared for the outside world. Mr. Brandon asserts that this transformation has been the result of a "widespread fraud," as America's "subprime" colleges have hoodwinked taxpayers and parents into thinking students are earning an education, when in fact they're getting little more than an expensive five-year entertainment.
Mr. Brandon writes: "Millions of unprepared, disengaged, and anti-intellectual high school graduates have chosen to attend party schools to enjoy five or even six years at adolescent playgrounds that have been designed for their enjoyment. Party-school administrators, who need to keep their classrooms filled to pay for bloated administrative salaries and a never-ending construction program, have dumbed down their classes and inflated grades to retain as many students as possible, even if they don't want to learn anything. "
Unfortunately, this book is mostly blatant and breezy generalities, whose proof consists of too many second-hand citations from magazine and newspaper articles. So much so that readers may conclude that the author is anti-intellectually oblivious to some of the most important debates now taking place in higher education. A good example is Mr. Brandon's view of U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" rankings, including his contention that an institution's SAT scores help students and parents sort good colleges from "subprime" ones. In what the author calls his "Red Flag List: How to Spot Party Schools and Subprime Colleges," Mr. Brandon writes:
"What a party school or subprime college IS NOT: It's generally not a top-tier school as defined by the U.S. News & World Report Guide to Colleges or the Princeton Review..... What a party school or subprime college IS: It's a relatively inexpensive four-year residential college/university that rates among the third or fourth tiers, as defined by U.S. News & World Report. Not all third- or fourth- tier schools are party schools and/or subprime colleges, but most party schools come from this low ranking and admit students with low grades and SAT scores." (page 195-196)
Hoisting another red-flag for parents and students, Mr. Brandon adds that one must pay close attention to the U.S. News rankings to determine whether a school admits any students with SAT scores of 1000 or less on the verbal and math sections (presumably prior to the SAT's revised score structure). "If the college admits students with SATs less than 500 in verbal or math, you are definitely in subprime territory," he warns.
It might surprise him to learn that, for instance, the University of California Berkeley -- hardly a subprime university -- has admitted students with SAT scores of less than 1,000. Is Mr. Brandon even aware that the U.S. News ranking of "best" colleges and admissions tests like the SAT, which drives the whole wealth and prestige-driven enterprise (the rankings correlate almost perfectly to the average SAT scores of entering freshmen) are coming under heightened scrutiny as a fair metric for college quality and merit? Mr. Brandon would undoubtedly counter that criticisms of rankings and the SAT exactly proves his point, that colleges are hell-bent on lowering academic standards in order to keep the party going.
But there's little evidence for such a claim. For instance, according to the Association for Institutional Research, a consortium that includes ACT, Inc.,The College Board, Educational Testing Service, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, American colleges and universities have generally become more selective in their admissions, not less so. Among public institutions, for example, the percentage of open-door colleges declined from 20 percent in 1979 to just 9 percent by 2000; selective universities increased from 70 percent to 78 percent; and number of most selective institutions rose from 10 percent to 13 percent of all colleges and universities.
At private universities, the trend is more pronounced. In 1979, just 13 percent of private universities were classified as highly selective; by 2000, one in five of the privates met this criterion.
Closely related to the greater admissions selectivity, colleges and universities, with rare exceptions, have been placing ever increasing weight on admissions test scores in their admissions decisions. In 1979, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, 46 percent of college and universities designated admissions tests as having "considerable importance" in whether to admit a student; by 2003, admissions tests like the SAT were given the "considerable importance" rating by more than 60 percent of institutions.
What is happening here? The very enterprise that Mr. Brandon accepts as the gold standard for academic quality, the average SAT scores of admitted students, and the U.S. News college-ranking operation that lives or dies on the existence of the SAT, have played a dominant role in creating and perpetuating the corporatized, bottom-line environment in American higher education that Mr. Brandon appears to deplore.
In fact, the growth of the SAT enterprise has had virtually nothing to do with teaching, learning and academic quality at the nation's colleges and universities. According to the rules of this game, a college is rated as being of high quality or low quality based upon a number that entering freshmen have plastered on their foreheads prior to ever stepping foot on campus.
In reality, the evidence from hundreds of validity studies has shown that one's performance on the SAT or its cousin, the ACT, tells colleges more about the social class of test takers, particularly parental wealth and education, than how well a student will actually perform in college. Put another way, admissions tests add little to the prediction of college grades beyond what admissions officers already know from a students' actual performance in high school classrooms.
No, the SAT/U.S News & World Report enterprise isn't about upholding the quality of American meritocracy. For colleges and universities, this enterprise is about marketing and branding, including the identification, recruitment and enrollment of the "right" upper-middle-class students with the proper SAT profile. In a marketplace governed by the U.S. News rankings, these mostly affluent students lend prestige to the institution, which leads to satisfied alumni donors and growing endowments. Mr. Brandon has identified symptoms of disease in higher education. He is right to suggest that the growing entrenchment of corporate values at colleges and universities has harmed students, parents and the general public. But he seems ignorant of the causes.
Nor will readers looking for insight and common-sense explanations of American higher education's pitfalls find any more satisfaction from No Sucker Left Behind: Avoiding the Great College Rip-Off by Marc Scheer, an educational consultant in New York.
This book is a laundry list of the financial pitfalls that students encounter when considering college, going to college and graduating from college. Mr. Scheer is concerned with duplicitous colleges, bad teaching, unscrupulous lenders, greedy graduate schools, and so on.
The author sets us straight on such popular misconceptions as "colleges have very little money and need every penny they can get"; and "all kinds of financial aid are safe for students." In the very first sentence of the book, Mr. Scheer informs us: "College is supposed to be an investment that guarantees a student's success -- but this is no longer true."
Has a college degree ever come with a lifetime investment guarantee? For the moment, let's grant Mr. Scheer that belief. If so, have the economics of college attainment changed so dramatically in recent years that the pursuit of a degree really has gone from a sure bet to a sucker's play, a foolish act of economic irrationality? Or, if not a wholly irrational act, is one's pursuit of higher education merely become a break-even proposition, leaving one no better off than if he or she had quit after high school?
The economic evidence strongly suggests that neither of these propositions is true. An economist would determine whether we are getting our money's worth from higher education based on a human capital model. If college students were indeed not learning skills and knowledge that enhance their productivity in the workplace, employers would be unwilling to employ college graduates any more often than high school graduates; nor would employers be willing to pay college graduates higher salaries than employees who have not gone to college.
The Great Recession of the past few years has brought into sharp relief the vast disparities in the labor market experiences of college-educated workers compared to those without bachelor's degrees. Throughout the summer of 2010, the unemployment rate of workers with bachelor's degrees or higher hovered around 4.5 percent -- half the jobless rate of the entire workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The disparities in unemployment rates between college graduates and those having a high school diploma -- whose jobless rate reached a peak of nearly 11 percent in May -- were even greater.
Even more striking are the differences between college graduates and workers without a college degree in terms of labor force participation rates -- the proportion of a given population of workers who are either employed or actively looking for jobs. From 2000 through 2008, about 78 percent of college graduates were part of the labor force compared to about 63 percent of high school graduates. For some minorities, a college degree has meant an even greater likelihood of being actively involved in the labor force. Among blacks, for instance, 82 percent of those with bachelor's degrees were part of the labor force in 2008, compared to just 65 percent of black high school graduates.
Employers are not just more likely to hire college-educated workers; they're also willing to pay them a significant premium over what employers pay people without a bachelor's degree. Sandy Baum, an economist at the College Board, has been producing a report for several years called Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society. Baum's analysis leaves little room for doubt that the lion's share of any financial irrationality regarding the decision to go to college -- provided one has the opportunity to pursue it -- belongs to students and families who heed the dire warnings of the college-is-for-suckers crowd.
Here are just a few of the particulars from Baum's most recent 2007 report:
- A college graduate can expect to earn 61 percent more than a high school graduate over one's working life; earning an advanced degree will boost the higher education premium over a high school diploma by 2 to 3 times.
- Net of all college costs, including interest payments on college loans, college graduates can expect earnings to overtake the cost of going to college by their early 30s. Then, the earnings gap between college graduates and high school graduates becomes progressively larger throughout their working lives.
- The earnings premium of a bachelor's degree is significantly greater for women and minorities. For instance, in 2005, an employee with college degree earned $50,900, 62 percent more than the $31,500 a worker with high school diploma would earn. For Hispanic males, the earnings gap was 86 percent; for Asian men, the gap was 94 percent.
Wasting Our Money, Failing Our Kids, Or Maybe Not
Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing our Kids -- and What We Can do About it, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, is a perhaps more literary and nuanced indictment of American higher education than the Brandon and Scheer books. I wanted to like this book for not providing readers with a sensational, overinflated account of colleges and universities as purveyors of educational porn.
Unfortunately, Higher Education? provides little that is new, valuable or interesting, and instead is rather full of too many chapters that regurgitate the many well-worn complaints about higher education: Students are subjected to uncaring and unsupportive professors -- if they are taught by full-time faculty members at all, since most college instructors are part-timers, adjuncts and graduate students; professors themselves are overpaid, underworked, and preoccupied with the "virus" of research that is consuming colleges of all stripes; and colleges have become simply too expensive relative to the diminishing value that institutions actually provide students.
Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus have a penchant for anecdotal information from Princeton, Harvard, Kenyon, and similar institutions -- giving the book a sort of name-dropping, elitist accent. The authors come up short on a sustained, persuasive argument that would provide readers with more than a meandering, aimless emptying of higher education's kitchen sink.
Their discussion of the exceedingly high costs of college at America's elite institutions typifies the generalities that are likely to offend the sensibilities of sophisticated readers. The authors make much of the fact that many high-priced colleges, including Dartmouth, Williams College, NYU, University of Southern California, Kenyon, etc. all posted tuition prices in 2008-09 that were all about $37,500, plus or minus a few hundred dollars. The authors go on to question the mysterious process of higher education cost-setting -- why colleges determine whether to set tuition at, say $37,000 versus $17,000.
So what? While many observers, such as Mr. Hacker and Ms. Driefus, pay a lot of mind to the ever-rising tuition costs at elite colleges and universities, these published prices are virtually irrelevant. The far more important number is the net price students pay, which is the cost of attendance (tuition sticker price plus expenses) less federal, state and institutional grants. Even more interesting is the net price students pay relative to family income.
Some colleges offer big tuition discounts to students from low- and moderate-income families. Other colleges refuse to do so, in effect telling these students: "We don't want you here. Go elsewhere."
The real elephant in the room that these books largely ignore, instead making glancing blows at some of the symptoms of decline and damage, is the growing class divide in American higher education and the consequences of this growing divide. American colleges and universities are working exceedingly well for some families and their children -- those near or at the top of the social, cultural and economic hierarchy. The system is not working well for students and families who lack the social, economic and cultural capital that the higher education system rewards in terms of access, the opportunity to learn and stay in school, and ultimately, completing a college degree.
Class rules the American higher education system. Consider the differences in bachelor's degree attainment, depending on a wide variety of student characteristics, including one's race, gender, high school class rank, and parents' income. At the top of the demographic heap in terms of bachelor's attainment are students from families with annual incomes of $116,000 and above: Fully 94 percent of these students completed a bachelor's degree in 2008. By contrast, 24 percent of low-income students (whose parents earned less than $39,000 per year), earned bachelor's degrees -- a staggering shortfall of some 70 percentage points compared to students from affluent homes, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity, the widely regarded newsletter published monthly by education analyst Tom Mortenson.
Compared to these gaps in educational attainment along class lines, the attainment gaps along racial lines are significantly less severe. For instance, 56 percent of white female high school graduates earned bachelor's degrees in 2008, exceeding by 20 percentage points the black female bachelor's degree attainment rate of 37 percent. The greatest attainment gap along racial lines in 2008 -- 46 percentage points -- occurred between Asian male high school graduates and Hispanic male graduates. While 76 percent of Asian males earned bachelor's degrees, just 30 percent of male Hispanic students eventually completed bachelor's degrees.
No, Virginia, American society isn't always the land of unlimited opportunity, where any reasonably intelligent child can succeed with enough pluck and luck. Yes, the education system over the past few decades has evolved into a highly structured inequality machine, a system stratified from top to bottom along class lines and race lines that provides abundant opportunities to succeed for the well-born and meager opportunities to the not-so-lucky.
Call it affirmative action for the rich. By rewarding the luckily born in admissions, financial aid, and prospects for completing a degree, colleges and universities -- particularly elite ones -- have helped to perpetuate the advantages of the haves against the disadvantages of the have-nots.
Consider the question of access to higher education. As I've already suggested, according to the rules of this marketplace, academic quality -- and therefore the perceived brand-name attractiveness of the institution -- is determined by the college's admissions selectivity, which itself is determined by the average SAT scores of entering freshmen. It so happens that a college's ranking in such guides as U.S. News depends heavily on its selectivity. It also happens that SAT scores sort students rather viciously along class lines.
What does this mean? Consider the powerful relationship between admissions test scores and parent education levels. About 25 percent of high school students on average score in the top quartile on admissions tests such as the SAT or ACT, according to data I compiled from the Department of Education's 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. But fully 52 percent of students whose parents have earned a professional degree score in the top test quartile. Fifty percent of the students whose parents have doctorates score in the top quartile.
The proportion of students scoring in the top drops powerfully in direct relationship to parent education levels. A mere 6 percent of students whose parents did not complete high school score in the top quartile, and just 11 percent of students whose parents have a high school diploma were among the top scorers.
Thus, any institution that aims to hold its place in the rankings or to rise in the rankings must compete with every other college also hoping to hold place or rise, creating an arms race to attract the students with top SAT scores. What's more, the relationship of class status and test performance means that the enrollments of the most selective colleges an universities have become dominated by affluent students, who are being put on the path to high-status jobs and the leadership positions in American society.
In a 2004 study published by the Century Foundation, America's Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, fully three-quarters of the freshmen at the nation's most selective 146 colleges and universities came from families in the top socio-economic quartile. A mere 9 percent of students at the selective colleges came from the bottom half of the socio-economic ladder.
At the same time, the least selective institutions -- the "party schools" that Brandon denigrates -- are turning into educational reservations for the poor and working-class -- people who are being trained to serve the leadership class. Indeed, the higher education system over the past generation has become more deeply stratified between colleges that primarily serve low-income and minority students and selective institutions that serve affluent students. In 1972, for instance, about a quarter of the students at community colleges were from low-income families. By 2002, 43 percent of community college students were from low-income households.
Thus, when Mr. Hacker and Ms. Driefus complain in Higher Education? about the "triumph of training," disdainful that students at many colleges are permitted to earn bachelor's degrees in such fields as photojournalism, landscape architecture, adult development and aging, ceramic engineering, and so on, while praising the liberal arts and sciences as genuinely worthy of a college education, they fail to fully appreciate the class distinctions.
In fact, given how our society has chosen to allocate educational resources, training -- provided by institutions of lower rank -- has become a necessity for those born unlucky. Education, by contrast, is fast becoming a privilege of the rich, who can study the liberal arts to their hearts' content, travel to Europe for a summer abroad, acquire a most desirable internship at a New York publishing house, and cap it all off with a first job with Teach for America before quitting to go back to grad school or law school and landing their first real job on Wall Street.
The implications of the prevailing paradigm of higher education quality in the United States have been staggering, explaining most of the problems that Hacker, Driefus, Scheer, Brandon, et. al. have voiced in their diffuse collection of complaints.
Consider, for example, the complaint that colleges are spending too much on research; on massive construction projects; and on frivolous spending on luxurious accommodations, fitness centers and other amenities for students, while shortchanging the essential educational mission: teaching. In fact, college administrators are acting rationally. They spend money on the things than enhance institutional prestige. And, the wealthier a college is, the more it can spend on each student over and above what the college actually collects in tuition and fees -- permitting low student-to- teacher ratios, state- of-the- art instructional and laboratory facilities, and well appointed student centers and gyms.
Teaching? The market as it's now structured provides precious few signals widely available to consumers for adequately evaluating the quality of teaching at a given institution. Rankings such as U.S. News & World Report pay little heed to teaching quality. And, even if there were more widely available market signals, these would still overwhelmed by the group-think about college quality perpetuated by the irrational, but convenient, belief in the SAT as the final word on predicting one's potential to succeed in college.
The higher education market's allocation of resources is perverse. Wealth and prestige beget more wealth and prestige in a vicious cycle that creates a winner-take-all system of higher education. Because rich colleges and universities can heavily subsidize the cost of education for their students, affluent students at the elite public or private institutions bear much less of the cost of education than poorer students do at poorer schools. Gordon C. Winston, an economist at Williams College, has estimated, for example, that among private colleges, heavily subsidized students from a top-tier school pay about 28 cents for a dollar's worth of education compared to 71 cents per dollar that students from a bottom-tiered private college pay.
Apart from the question of access to higher education, and whether students attend a minimally selective public college or a highly selective private one, the perhaps more fundamental question -- at least for the nation's economic productivity -- is whether students actually complete their degrees. In fact, the proportion of American high school graduates going on to college has increased dramatically during the past few decades -- yet overall college completion rates have been stagnant or declining. Virtually the entire decline in college completion can be attributed to students who start at a community college and to young men who start at minimally selective four-year public institutions.
In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, economists John Bound of the University of Michigan, Michael Lovenheim of Cornell, and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia, wondered whether the decline in college completion rates has been a result of too many unprepared students heading off to college, then becoming discouraged by their lack of college-level skills. The researchers' findings were somewhat surprising: lacking academic preparation proved to be less significant than colleges providing adequate resources for teaching, student support, and other "supply side" inputs that help to keep students enrolled and complete their degrees.
In other words, resources matter, and spending per student matters a lot for creating an educational environment that helps or hinders what really matters in the long run: students earning the degree and using that degree to launch a career or continue one's education in graduate or professional school. Having ample resources is why bachelor's degree completion rates among highly selective private colleges and universities have been improving, while completion rates are in decline at low-rank public institutions, which have been increasingly starved of resources amid a massive disinvestment in public higher education over the past several years.
How to Reward Talented Low-Income Students?
Indeed, the differences in spending per student -- between elite colleges, which serve mostly affluent students, and public colleges that serve mostly lower-income students -- are eye-opening. In 2006, private research universities spent an average of about $33,000 per student each year, while public community colleges spent about $9,000 per student, according to Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, reporting their findings in a new book, Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College. In fact, spending per student at private research universities was about twice the spending per student at public research universities.
Another way to see how differences in institutional resources can dramatically change outcomes for individual students is to compare graduation rates of similar students, depending on the selectivity and wealth of the college they attend. Take students at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder: the graduation rate for such students attending minimally selective colleges is only about 40 percent. By contrast, the graduation rate of similarly situated students attending top-tier colleges or universities is about 76 percent.
In the end, a basic college degree has remained the privilege of the top half of the income distribution in the United States. In 2008, just 9 percent of students born to low-income families earned a bachelor's degree by the age of 24, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity. Among lower-middle class students, just 16 percent completed a bachelor's degree by the age of 24. By contrast, among students in the top socio-economic quartile, the BA attainment rate in 2008 was nearly 80 percent,
Market forces and the perceived need to compete for market share in the age of U.S. News & World Report have worsened the class divide in American higher education. Adding even more fuel to this combustible mix has been the the states' relentless disinvestment in higher education.
In effect, many states have been slowly getting out of the higher education business. On a national basis, for every $1,000 in state personal income, states' funding of the operating expenses at public colleges and universities in 2006 was barely half the funding levels in the mid-1970s, according to the Grapevine report, published annually at Illinois State University. In some states, the retrenchment from higher education since around 1980 has been astonishing. Overall, state support of higher education declined 41 percent between 1980 and 2010 for every $1,000 of personal income. In such states as Oregon, Massachusetts, Arizona and Virginia, the decline approached 60 percent. Colorado's spending for higher education declined by 69 percent.
In order to replace lost state revenues, public universities have turned to parents and students for money, raising tuition prices and fees, and becoming much more selective in their admissions. The cost shift from taxpayers to students and parents has been massive. In 1980, students and parents paid tuition and fees to public colleges and universities amounting to about 30 percent of operating revenues, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity. By 2008, students and parents paid 50 percent of operating revenues. What's more, public universities have de-emphasized undergraduate teaching to make room for huge construction projects and high-priced research professors, including their large and expensive research enterprises.
In short, these public universities are doing many of the harmful things that Hacker, Scheer, et. al are complaining about, precisely because states are disinvesting in higher education.
The new brand of quasi-public university looks and acts much more like an elite private university, particularly in the sorts of students it recruits, admits and enrolls. The elite public university now favors the generally affluent students with the right SAT scores that enable the institution to compete with similarly striving institutions in the U.S. News ratings. Consider, for example, the University of Virginia, the flagship institution in one of the states that is aggressively withdrawing from higher education funding. The university's number of lower-income students receiving Pell Grants dropped almost 12 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity. The percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants at Virginia was about 8 percent in 2008, placing it among the nation's most selective and expensive private universities on this count.
In effect, the legislative and political choice of states to roll back higher education spending has compelled many flagship public universities to "aristocratize" themselves, looking and acting much more like elite private universities than public universities. Because ties of these universities to the public have been severed, so has their obligation been diminished to serve public needs.
Provide a tuition price-break for state residents? Create admissions policies that provide a level playing field for the distribution of educational opportunities, without regard to how many advanced degrees one's parents have, the neighborhood they live in, or their net wealth? Provide resources for undergraduate teaching that are more than a mere fraction of the subsidy that students receive at private university, in order keep students in school and complete their college degrees?
Historically, when the social compact between the public and their public universities was on firmer ground, the answers to such fundamental questions were settled. But that social compact has been shattered, and students, their families and taxpayers are now paying an excessive price.
That price has come in many ways, and the authors of the college-bashing books have identified some of the symptoms. Unfortunately, they have ignored the real crisis in American higher education, whereby colleges and universities have been part and parcel of a massive redistribution of educational opportunity away from our society's have-nots to its already-haves.
In this particular democratic society, where educational accomplishment has become the one and most vital characteristic of an individual that separates the United States from its feudal and aristocratic ancestors, that's a bad thing not just for higher education. It's a really bad thing for the future of the republic.
Peter Sacks is a writer and economist. He is the author of "Generation X Goes to College" and "Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education".