Sunday, July 20, 2008

I Respectfully Disagree

By Richard Vedder

I like Margaret Spellings --a good deal. She has been a force for good in higher education, prodding the Establishment to innovate, to be more transparent, and to do good things. At the Education Summit in Chicago Thursday and Friday, she called together top leaders and got them to agree to push for positive change ---more transparency and measurement, better high school/college coordination and "articulation" (whatever that is), etc. She has raised hell about the awful state of accreditation, and wants accreditation to be a force for positive change, not merely a cartel of good old boys and girls that stifles innovation.

But I disagree with one big part of her farewell address (I suspect) to the higher education community, available here.

She said at the end of her remarks, "By educating 20 million more people over 20 years, we will increase our Gross Domestic Product by 500 billion dollars...Half a million more people will be employed..."

Where is the evidence? More than doubling enrollments in 17 years (what she is proposing) will mean reaching out to more and more persons of limited cognitive skills and questionable work habits. Do we need college educated clerks in discount retail stores, or college educated beauticians or mail carriers (12 percent of whom already have college degrees?) Brit Kirwan (Maryland higher education czar) notes in chatting with me that some of those mail carriers may have earned their degree in anticipation of moving up the occupational ladder --true and a good point, but we cannot have a nation of all chiefs and no followers.

What about the evidence that higher state university appropriations are not associated with positive economic growth? Indeed, my guess is that a doubling in enrollments, in and of itself, would lower GDP--shifting resources away from a highly productive economic machine governed by market discipline and to a less productive sector with stagnant productivity and a tendency to fight cost reduction, qualitative improvement, and change. To be sure, true structural reform in the system could modify that outcome, but frankly I am skeptical.


capeman said...

Soon, the abysmal Margaret Spellings will be gone, and Dr. Vedder will have lost his strongest ally. Even she, however, is not as hell-bent on hatcheting higher ed as is the good Doc.

Administrator said...

One of the problems in the U.S. today is that we have a generation of unwavering, relentless complainers. They are very diligent and disciplined in their effort to talk down everything to their level of self pity. No, it's not harder to be positive today, it just easier to criticise anything and everything.

There are others who see a problem and try to resolve it - while others stand by snickering and griping about the way a person (or group of people) want to fix the problem rather than offer help, or their ideas for solving the problem. And the reason they don't offer constructive ideas is because they have no clue that there even is a problem, it is not in their self-interests to see the problem fixed, or they don't have the self-confidence or backbone to pitch in.

How many people are there, that just retire and leave things as they are? A lot, but I don’t have a problem with that. How many people don't retire because they love what they do? Not many. Vedder has decided to take on a huge problem and fix it while the sharks and ankle-biters from the higher ed establishment and others berate him for spending his retirement years trying to leave higher ed a better place than he would have left it had he retired. I find that much more commendable, noble, and virtuous than people like Jeff Immelt, the Ivy Leaguer, running GE into the ground.

And I find it humorous that while these complainers spend their time finding things to bitch about, Vedder is planting seeds in Washington. These will be the people who lead and implement the changes he blogs about. It's a grand scheme. I just hope Vedder (and I) is (are) around to see the faces on the higher ed establishment in the future when they wake up and say, "What the hell happened to our status quo? Oh no!!"

Vedder has a ton of very strong allies. Every family that can’t afford to send their kid(s) to college and every kid that has to leverage his/her financial future to get into a school. I don’t even begin to think that if Vedder did a little marketing campaign to the families with future university and college bound children, that the families would respond by saying, “No thanks Dr. Vedder, we want to spend ourselves into insolvency. No sir, we don’t want higher education to be more affordable and productive.” On the contrary, there would be a much greater uprising. So we can assume that the complainers are "all for" fleecing American families. No better than the oil companies or the tax man or women.

Now both Vedder and I know this comment will draw ad hominem personal attacks from the usual suspects. As long as they stay busy complaining, they will continue to be helpful in a very interesting way. Hard to believe there are so many miserable higher ed sycophants out there!

capeman said...

administrator -- I would be more impressed with the good Doc if he had not apparently waited to start his crusade until near the end of his career, drawing his pension from his chaired postion from the terrible higher ed system. (If I have the chronology wrong, I would be happy to be corrected.)

Melissa said...

(Formerly "Administrator")

I suspect Vedder started his "crusade" toward the end of his career for a good reason.

However, regarding your comment, "drawing his pension from his chaired postion from the terrible higher ed system.", I can understand your point of view. For some, throwing rocks at the institution that employs him has a corrosive affect on his credibility.

With that said, I would add that this is not precedent setting.

We currently have two Senators saying that the government (which they are part of) saying that we need "change". (Wow, what a revelation!) So they are saying, the institution that they are part of is broken. I guess this would decribe Vedder's position.

Remember - I am not discounting your point. However, in industry or higher ed, if change doesn't come from within; would we like it if change came from someone on the outside that may or may not be as keen to the problems as we inside industry or higher ed?
(I think in the case of government the answer is a "YES")

Another subject I gave thought to was this statement by Vedder: "More than doubling enrollments in 17 years (what she is proposing) will mean reaching out to more and more persons of limited cognitive skills and questionable work habits. Do we need college educated clerks in discount retail stores, or college educated beauticians or mail carriers (12 percent of whom already have college degrees?)...we cannot have a nation of all chiefs and no followers."

First of all, national demographics, I believe, do not favor Spellings proposal as Vedder interprets it. The "Baby Boomers" for the most part have been through the "educational pipeline" and in my opinion, the number of college candidates is going to drop.

Second, even if an influx of immigrants increases the number of college candidates, do we say "America is the land of opportunity unless you want to go to college"? How would colleges and universities judge who should, and who should not go to college?

To be sure, colleges and universities are not doing a good job at that now with a 50% retention rate.

Not every college or university grad is a "chief". Quite a few grads are mediocre employees. I have wondered if some really went to college what with their grammer, communication skills, and work ethic.

I don't think it is the place of colleges and universities to engage in social engineering any more than what is already inherent in the college experience. And I'm not even going to get into ethnocentric studies.

capeman said...

I'm not in favor of the Spellings proposal, not this one, not any of them. I didn't call her "abysmal" without reason. She has been a horribly destructive non-entity, and the sooner she is gone, the better.

Do I want the government, the federal government, to take the lead in changing higher education? No! And that's exactly what Spellings has been trying to do, without much success.

People like Vedder tried to hitch themselves to her agenda, have the federal government bludgeon the colleges to do what they can't get them to do by suasion and normal processes. Very dangerous. And now that she's going off where he doesn't want her to go, he seems to be disconnecting. But it may be too late. Except, she will be gone and forgotten soon. We'll have a new bunch trying to sway the colleges, probably the Obama bunch. And then I suspect the Vedders are going to rediscover the dangers of the federal education establishment.

Eveningsun said...

Not to worry, Capeman. The Bush bunch will be replaced by the Obama bunch, and the Obama bunch will be replaced by some other bunch, and none of them will be in power long enough to effect their agenda. Meanwhile the education establishment will outlive them all and, most likely, eat their lunch. This de facto reality is just part of the built-in conservatism of our political system. Kind of an effective check on federal power, when you think of it. Were Vedder a conservative he'd see that.

capeman said...

Right, eveningsun, most of this stuff is probably jousting at windmills. Occasionally something really big happens, but it's usually not according to plan or agenda, at least none of those that are evident in advance.