By Richard Vedder
I want to recant, a little bit at least, on an article I wrote a few years ago for the Cato Journal (as a opposed to the piece I wrote appearing in the Winter 2010 issue, out shortly). In that piece, I asked the question: "Why do some people think we have one of the worst systems of primary and secondary education of major industrialized countries, but the very best system of higher education in the world?" The short answer to the question: higher education is less government run and regulated, more competitive, and more dependent on customer provided fees than the K-12 system. The greater market discipline and competition makes our higher education system better.
But is all of that true? How do we know our higher education system is "the best in the world." True, more winners of Nobel Prizes have affiliation with American as opposed to European or Asian universities. The Shanghai and London indices of "best colleges in the world" give American universities dominance at the highest rankings.
But higher education is not just about research --for over 250 years American universities had no particular pretenses of being research institutions --teaching was not only "job one" but almost the only mission of schools. Government support of universities is overwhelmingly a consequence of the teaching function of schools.
What makes people think Americans do a better job of teaching undergraduates than the Brits or Japanese? We have precious little quantitative measures of higher education performance in this regard --and that is by design --the universities do not want us to have that information, all rhetoric to the contrary. Indeed, the smattering of objective evidence we have is not particularly comforting. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Civic Literacy Survey shows American college students are embarrassingly ignorant about fundamental facts of American civic life --and college seniors know little more than freshmen. The broader Adult Literacy Survey of the U.S. Department of Education shows falling levels of literacy amongst college students. Grade inflation has contributed to declining work effort by college students. Meanwhile, close to half of students of four year schools fail to graduate within six years. Who is to say American students learn more than those in China, India, Japan, or, for that matter, Britain, Australia or Holland?
Colleges rely on the Nobel Prize criterion to justify their claims of excellence, ignoring the fact that over 90 percent of enrollees of American colleges attend schools that have had no significant association with Nobel Prize winners. As Kevin Carey, the Spellings Commission, yours truly and many others have been saying --make full transparency regarding student performance a precondition for governmental subsidies for higher education.