Saturday, April 18, 2009

Education Inflation

When my oldest three now-grown children were babies several people asked me how we could afford to have more than 2 children when projected college costs were so high. Some people told me that they stopped at one or two children for that reason. I think it is at that point that I started being consciously skeptical of the idea of college as a necessity for everyone.

I think our country has pulled an interesting sleight of hand on us. They provide our children primary and secondary public education at taxpayer expense. Then they propose a system by which no child, no matter how uninterested or unacademically inclined, should ever be "left behind" from a K-12 education. That means that education isn't based on a "progression through mastery" system but is based on a lockstep age-based system where, in order to give the slower ones a chance to catch up to age mates, the quicker ones are held back while the slower ones are made to feel ashamed. The uninterested or unacademically inclined, no matter how good their reasons are for being that way, are stigmatized and offered no viable alternatives to the system's norm.

Now, increasingly, 4 years of college is being held up as the norm for every student. The end result is inevitably a sort of educational inflation. What used to be an 8th grade education is now in many cases drawn out into the freshman year of college. There are ways to get around the sheer ponderous inefficiency of this mode of education -- homeschooling, dual college/highschool credits, CLEPing, merit scholarships, Great Books colleges are some things that come to the top of my mind as shortcuts through the maze -- but often they take money or at least intensive research and planning (and of a procedural, logistical sort, not straight intellectual). Many of these also require a pretty clear and usually family-supported effort to swim against the cultural current.

The good thing is that in the US there is hardly anyone who runs into an iron ceiling with regard to education. You can get a degree late in life, you can get a degree over the internet, you can sometimes get your employer to pay for your further education, you have any amount of access to "the best that has been thought and said" -- the only limits are the amount of time and energy you are willing and able to put into it.

The bad thing is this softening and dilution of education. One thing it means is that often you need a doctorate for a profession that doesn't really intrinsically require one. For example, just to take cases I have heard about personally, increasingly an occupational therapist needs to get at least a Master's Degree, and a physical therapist chooses between a doctorate and a master's. When a bachelor's degree is the norm, it becomes little more than a prerequisite for further specialization. This seems unnecessary and a sort of indirect, postponed punch of personal expense, the corollary of a purportedly "free" but extremely institutionalized and rigid (AND expensive to the country) K12 system. Many kids are going out into the working world saddled with large debts.

In that context, here is an interesting article: Are Too Many People Going to College? by Charles Murray. I rather disliked this article of his called "Intelligence in the Classroom" (we talked about it here) but I did think this college one made some interesting points.

The points seem to be:

  • MORE people should be getting the basics of a liberal education.
  • The core of this should be taking place in grades K-8.
  • It should not have to wait for college.
  • High school should be a place for survey classes and courses slightly below the college level, firming the foundations laid in the earlier years..
  • College is not and should not have to be for everyone.

Liberal education in college means taking on the tough stuff. A high-school graduate who has acquired Hirsch’s core knowledge will know, for example, that John Stuart Mill was an important 19th-century English philosopher who was associated with something called Utilitarianism and wrote a famous book called On Liberty. But learning philosophy in college, which is an essential component of a liberal education, means that the student has to be able to read and understand the actual text of On Liberty. That brings us to the limits set by the nature of college-level material.
  • For learning to make a living, the brick campus is increasingly obsolete.
  • Having a BA does help increase income, but it may not be worth the cost paid for a lot of people.

The income for the top people in a wide variety of occupations that do not require a college degree is higher than the average income for many occupations that require a B.A. Furthermore, the range and number of such jobs are expanding rapidly. The need for assembly-line workers in factories (one of the most boring jobs ever invented) is falling, but the demand for skilled technicians of every kind—in healthcare, information technology, transportation networks, and every other industry that relies on high-tech equipment—is expanding.

He also makes the point that liberal knowledge is increasingly accessible through the internet -- many of the things only available to the college student in former times -- professor-taught courses, excellent books, and such things -- are now readily available to most people.

The physical infrastructure of the college used to make sense for three reasons. First, a good library was essential to higher learning, and only a college faculty and student body provided the economies of scale that made good libraries affordable. Second, scholarship flourishes through colleagueships, and the college campus made it possible to put scholars in physical proximity to each other. Third, the best teaching requires interaction between teachers and students, and physical proximity was the only way to get it. All three rationales for the brick-and-mortar campus are fading fast......

....Once again, the Internet is revolutionizing everything. As personal computers acquired the processing power to show high-definition video and the storage capacity to handle big video files, the possibilities for distance learning expanded by orders of magnitude. We are now watching the early expression of those possibilities: podcasts and streaming videos in real time of professors’ lectures, online discussions among students scattered around the country, online interaction between students and professors, online exams, and tutorials augmented by computer-aided instruction software. Even today, the quality of student-teacher interactions in a virtual classroom competes with the interactions in a brick-and-mortar classroom. But the technology is still in its early stages of development and the rate of improvement is breathtaking.

The final conclusion is that by holding up the BA as the norm and then making people jump through various financial and procedural hoops to achieve it, you set up a situation that widens class divisions and sets many people up for accusations of not trying hard enough or not being smart enough:
Today, if you do not get a B.A., many people assume it is because you are too dumb or too lazy. And all this because of a degree that seldom has an interpretable substantive meaning.

Let’s approach the situation from a different angle. Imagine that America had no system of postsecondary education and you were made a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. Ask yourself what you would think if one of your colleagues submitted this proposal:

First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it.


Faith said...

Wow, excellent points!

Theresa said...

Totally agree. But what can we, as mothers of children in all stages of this messed-up system do?

Laughing Stars said...

Thought provoking post! I think you're right. College -- as an option -- should be questioned more rigorously by most students. And the basic elements of a good liberal education should probably be offered a lot sooner.

Willa said...

I know, Theresa. That's a dilemma. I think it takes what I mentioned, some guts to go against the prevailing climate and some skill in researching and setting up opportunities for our children.
I don't really feel I have those qualities in a great degree so in some ways I'm just pretending I do, praying and hoping that we can get all our kids set in a direction that is right for them, without sacrificing things that are more important to us.

The nice thing is that as more people question and look for alternatives, the more alternative paths there are. And I really believe the system as a whole is quite flexible so educational mistakes aren't as permanent as they are in some cultures. That's probably why so many people still come to this country thinking of it as the land of opportunity. I'm not trying to be a Pollyanna but I am grateful I live here even though I think there's some things that are messed up.

That doesn't stop me from being irritated by the inefficiency and waste of the mainline system, though!