By Richard Vedder
A few weeks ago, James Altucher of the Financial Times caused a bit of a stir when he declared college is a waste of time. (I would add, decidedly, and money). Gary Becker and other apologists for the higher education establishment rushed to the attack.
One major dimension of the question of the utility of college is: what do students learn? What is the "value added" by obtaining a college degree? Some data suggest that there is some value added, but it is either very small, or is declining markedly over time. The data are sketchy, incomplete, imperfect, precisely because the higher education establishment has fought mightily to prevent such "value added" measures, although there are some signs that some schools are changing their tune a bit, prodded by the Spellings Commission and others.
VALUED ADDED TO LITERACY OF ADULTS The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) measures the literacy of adults in three areas: prose literacy, document literacyn, and quantitative understanding. Let us look at the difference between the average scores of college grads compared with high school grads for two years, 2003 and 1992.
Prose Literacy In 1992, college grads scored 57 points higher on the NAAL test of prose literacy than high school grads; by 2003, the differential narrowed by 5 points (9%) to 52 points.
In 1992, the college/high school differential was 57 points; by 2003, it had fallen relatively sharply, 20 percent, to 46 points.
In 1992, the differential was 57 points; 11 years later, it was 5 percent smaller, 54 points.
In 2003, college grads scored better than high school grads on all measures of literacy, but the differential, which can be considered the "value added" by a college education, fell, a great deal in the case of document literacy.
VALUED ADDED IN COLLEGE IN KNOWLEDGE OF HISTORY AND AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute administered a 60 question test to freshman and seniors at 50 U.S. institutions. The average score of seniors on the test was 53.2 percent, only slightly higher than the 51.7 percent average for freshman. At over 30 percent of the schools, knowledge for seniors was lower than for freshman. Among the schools with negative gains were Yale, Cornell, Duke, California at Berkeley, and Williams College. To be sure, these are imperfect tests and can be criticized on a number of methodological grounds. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that there may not be not an awful lot of learning and acquisition of skills going on in college, and in fact, they may be in decline. I am the first to admit far better and more sophisticated tests are needed. But, for the moment, I see a good deal of evidence that says "Altucher may be right." College's one advantage -- its certification of skills is still valued by employers. When employers lose confidence in that, the gig is over, the demand for college will fall, and, out of necessity, colleges will enter into real reform.
While the evidence is that learning may be deteriorating, faculty evaluations of students have been rising -- grade inflation. Students may be learning less, but told, increasingly, that they are doing fine. This is the Revolution of Declining Expectations in higher education.