Briefly Noted: Kevin Carey, “That Old College Lie”

Kevin Carey, “That Old College Lie”

The article is excellent and should be read by as many as possible as soon as possible. The primary call is for information:

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.

Very powerful interest groups within the university, of course, do not want any information about what their students learn and its utility to be shared at all:

To get colleges to participate in their surveys and tests, NSSE and the CLA had to strike a bargain. Colleges would control the results–the data would remain secret unless colleges chose otherwise. Then, in 2006, Mark Schneider, the commissioner of the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, proposed adding some new questions to the annual survey all colleges are required to fill out in exchange for federal funds. Colleges would be asked if they participated in surveys and tests like NSSE and the CLA. If the college answered “yes,” and had already chosen to make the data public, it would be asked to provide a link to the appropriate Web address. It would not be required to participate in any test or survey not of its choosing, or disclose any new information. It would just have to tell people where to find the information it had already, voluntarily, disclosed. One Dupont Circle rose up in anger and the proposal was summarily squashed. For his temerity, Schneider was nearly fired.

And I don’t think I need to tell any of you how serious a crisis we face in American education as a result of garbage like this:

….When Pell grants were named for the senator in 1980, a typical public four-year university cost $2,551 annually. Pell Grants provided $1,750, almost 70 percent of the total. Even private colleges cost only about $5,600 back then. Low-income students could matriculate with little fear of financial hardship, as Pell intended. Over the next three decades, Congress poured vast sums into the program, increasing annual funding from $2 billion to nearly $20 billion. Yet today, Pell Grants cover only 33 percent of the cost of attending a public university. Why? Because prices have increased nearly 500 percent since 1980. Average private college costs, meanwhile, rose to over $34,000 per year.

….The average graduation rate at four-year colleges in the bottom half of the Barron’s taxonomy of admissions selectivity is only 45 percent. And that’s just the average–at scores of colleges, graduation rates are below 30 percent, and wide disparities persist for students of color. Along with community colleges, where only one in three students earns a degree, these low-performing institutions educate the large majority of Pell Grant recipients. Less than 40 percent of low-income students who start college get a degree of any kind within six years.

….A 2006 study from the American Institutes for Research found that only 31 percent of adults with bachelor’s degrees are proficient in “prose literacy”–being able to compare and contrast two newspaper editorials, for example.

….Ten percent of the U.S. News rankings are based on spending per student, with additional points for high faculty salaries and other costly items. If an innovative college found a way to become more efficient and charge less while maintaining academic quality, its U.S. News ranking would actually go down.

….The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education recently found that the total increase in college tuition from 1983 to 2007 (439 percent) far outpaced the rise in median family income (147 percent) and even the medical care costs (251 percent) that are threatening to bankrupt the nation.

Alright. I do have some quibbles with the article:

  1. Yeah, it’s elitism, but it needs to be addressed – no amount of information can tell you who can or cannot be taught if you neglect that issue from the very beginning for egalitarian reasons.
  2. Related to that: this article does not take seriously whether colleges admit too many to begin with.
  3. A utilitarian model strictly can only help those in fields like mine – political philosophy, for example – indirectly. While I’m all for greater access to information, I do worry that an already materialistic public will become even worse. Higher learning does have to be “higher” in some sense.
  4. There are some reasons to believe that colleges are actually quite good: I mean, one does get to work with people who strive for new knowledge in their fields and are experts. Again, the fact that students from our grade school and high school systems cannot appreciate what they’re getting should be a concern. I do believe in higher education reform, but is a college really in the business of teaching people how to read? That seems to be what the article is implying. Education reform has to be complete; there are failures all over the system.

Josh and I were talking about the issue of what could have made college better, and I think we concluded that some sort of comprehensive exam given senior year would have been a huge help. Definitely in grad school qualifying and comprehensive exams helped me put a large number of issues from various classes into a whole that had to be defended. It’s not just a useful exercise: it pushes the school to be a bit clearer about what it is educating in, while allowing students to take a reasonable diversity of classes. (Schools may have to institute a few core classes to have such an exam, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all – the core at the University of Dallas works in my experience. I would never insist a school do the exact same thing as Dallas, but a bit of openness to that idea wouldn’t be a bad thing).

Moreover, if a school takes the exam and its preparation seriously, it should realize that it has something with which to sell its students to employers and graduate schools: “look, our students learned X,Y,Z and passed proficiency tests.” A good school should be marketing its students and working to get them employed; that for-profit colleges don’t care whether their students get employed is a sign of what a racket higher education has become. Which brings us back to the main point of agreement between Mr. Carey and I – if a school cared, the students would be better and they would be treated better by the school and the world at large.


  1. Interesting statistics. I think they should release some sort of rating system for the top schools in different areas of learning. I only think it would improve education as well as get us on track to be able to complete with the world average cause we are lacking in many levels.

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