Monday, November 13, 2006

The Revolution of Falling Expectations and Efficiency

By Richard Vedder

Two things came across my computer this morning worth commenting on.

First, the latest results of the annual National Survey of Student Engagement were announced. NSSE is a fine test instrument, but as usual it refuses to provide institutionally-specific data, continuing the anti-transparency reputation of American universities (it really isn't NSSE's fault -- if they made the data generally available, most schools would not participate). The Spellings Commission recommendations, if adopted, would change things, and I think this is one recommendation worth fighting over, and I am willing to join the battle.

One thing the NSSE data in the aggregate shows is that college students study very little, maybe 13-14 hours weekly as a senior, which along with perhaps 16 hours in class means our heavily subsidized college seniors are having a 30 hour work week --maybe 35 hours, if some quasi-academic activities are included. Moreover, freshmen indicate that the work load is far below their expectations coming into college. Over the years, grade point averages have soared, while hours worked in academic pursuits have fallen. Doing less with more has been the reality of American higher education. Standards are clearly declining -- a lot. Question: why do the public authorities continue to subsidize this? Why do they not insist on evidence of learning?

Another NSSE nugget: on-line students are at least as equally engaged in their education as those in traditional settings --in some cases, they have MORE student-faculty contact. Is this not a sign that further on-line expansion may be desirable on educational grounds, assuming per student costs are no higher than in traditional settings?

Moving on, Whiz Kid Jonathan Leirer sent me a study put on-line at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (done by Rensselaer's James Adams and Roger Clemons of the University of Florida), entitled "The Growing Allocative Inefficiency of the U.S. Higher Education Sector." While I have not read the paper completely, I think I agree with the conclusion even though I have reservations about some of the metrics (e.g., the measurement of research productivity). It is good to know that there are honest academic economists out there who realize that when they apply the same efficiency criteria to their own business that they freely apply elsewhere, they find disturbing results.

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