Friday, January 18, 2008

College = High School: Doing Less With More

By Richard Vedder

As I read Alan Greenspan's book The Age of Turbulence, I am struck by the emphasis he places on education as a key to continued growth and prosperity. Greenspan thinks the problem is mainly in the K-`12 schools, repeating the opt-stated phrase that we have the best universities in the world, but he is worried about the universities becoming mired in mediocrity because of the low knowledge base of incoming college students.

Greenspan --whose commentary on the American economy is generally spot on in my judgement -- understates the problem, and overstates the success of universities, being blinded by the research successes and Nobel Prizes. Down in the trenches of the undergraduate classroom, things are not so pretty.

Colleges, perhaps deliberately, do not tell us how much kids learn while under their care. Nonetheless, isolated bits of data are not reassuring. Between 1992 and 2003, adult literacy on average in the U.S. stayed constant --that is the GOOD news. The bad news is that such literacy declined at every level of educational attainment, and declined THE MOST amongst college graduates. The constant average level of literacy was obtained only because Americans in 2003 went to school more --they were more likely to be college grads (who on average have higher levels of literacy than those with less education) for example. In other words, we were doing less with more, or, perhaps more accurately, doing the same with more. This suggests productivity decline in higher education as measured by inputs (more resources used per student) is only part of the story --productivity may be falling on the output or outcomes side as well.

Other data, albeit limited, support that conclusion. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute's American Civic Literacy Test has now been given to tens of thousands of students. Two conclusions emerge: first, college seniors on average know very little more than freshman, suggesting that the "value added" in this area by college is abysmally low. Second, the average level of civic literacy is embarrassingly low --with less than 60 percent of the 60 question test answered correctly (and less than 70 percent at the Ivy League schools that skim out the cream of our best high school graduates.

None of this is terribly surprising if you hang around American college campuses. The National Survey of Student Engagement suggests that it is a rare campus where students actually study 20 hours of week. A typical American student today is in the classroom maybe 16 hours a week, and studies another 14 hours --32 weeks a year. She or he "works" barely 1,000 hours a year. Younger people should be working longer hours, not shorter, than their less physically able senior brethren. I am three times the age of the typical college senior yet I work vastly more hours a year than the college kid. We are wasting resources, deliberately allowing a sort of "academic underemployment" among some of our best and brightest resources.

I know there are tons of exceptions to this characterization. The best of our students today are probably about as good as ever --and work just as hard. But why work when grade inflation lets you "succeed" with modest effort? Why work when you can get an A or at least a B and party four nights a week, instead of just one or two as the students of a generation ago did.

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