Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Boomerang Effect

By Jim Coleman

Richard M. Freeland, Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at Clark University, had an insightful piece in The Christian Science Monitor this past week. Freeland discusses the increasing tendency for students to go through 4 or 5 years of college with little or no preparation for entering the work force and real world:

One of the most striking recent phenomena about college graduates in America has been the ‘boomerang’ student: the young person who goes away to college, has a great experience, graduates, then moves back home for a year or two to figure out what to do with his or her life. This pattern has left many graduates – and their families – wondering whether it makes sense to spend four or more years at college, often at great expense, and finish with no clear sense of who they are or what they want to do next.

Freeland explains that this “boomerang” effect is, among other things, due to curriculums that focus almost exclusively on academic interests while eschewing the more practical applications of knowledge and that most colleges under fund and marginalize their career planning offices.

Freeland makes a valid point. Colleges continue to ratchet up costs while the value added of attending college improves little—or in some cases decreases. Additionally, colleges have become overburdened with bureaucracy (university staff has ballooned 5% relative to student enrollment over the past decade) and shared governance, making them increasingly inept at responding to changes in our fact paced world.

What’s worse is that universities have little incentive to change things, because prestige—the thing universities desire most-- is currently determined by factors other than graduates’ success. For example, look at how the U.S. News and World Report rankings work. Over 50% of a school's final score is determined by student SAT/ACT scores, peer assessment, class size, and faculty salary. Since what happens to students after graduation bears little on a school rankings and prestige, colleges choose to pour money into things like recruiting kids from top boarding schools rather than making sure graduates actually have the requisite skills to get a job.

What’s needed is some sort of measure for examining what role individual colleges play in people’s success. That way when prospective student try to determine what value a college has to offer them they’ll have more to go on than scores derived from the number of rejected applicants and faculty salaries.

Unfortunately, colleges have proven notoriously bad at tracking post graduate success—with the exception of for-profit universities which live and die on their reputation for getting their graduates employed. Thus it’s up to third parties to devise a way of measuring post graduate success, and CCAP is currently working on just such a project. We’ve been collecting mounds of data on some of America’s most successful people to see if going to the country’s most prestigious—and expensive— schools actually correlates with a successful post graduate career. Is shelling out big bucks for an Ivy education actually a sound investment or is it just an over priced country club membership? In the coming weeks CCAP hopes to shed more light on the subject—stay tuned.

Jim Coleman is a research associate at The Center for College Affordability and Productivity

1 comment:

Crimson Wife said...

Perhaps a good portion of the "boomerang" problem is simply burnout. I know that by the time I finished 16 grueling years of high-stress formal education I was ready for a break. For so long, I'd been so focused on pleasing others to earn good grades that I lost sight of what *I* wanted.

Perhaps we should be encouraging students to take 1-2 years off in between high school & college to de-stress and recharge their batteries. Maybe a national service like most other countries have. Kids could have the option of serving in the military or doing something along the lines of Americorps.