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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?

Richard Vader in his excellent article "Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?" in the Chronicle for Higher Education, he states that new information has "reinforced my feeling that diminishing returns have set in to investment in higher education, with increasing evidence suggesting that we are in one respect 'overinvesting' in the field."

"As more and more try to attend colleges, either college degrees will be watered down (something already happening I suspect) or drop-out rates will rise."

Richard's critics argue (with no supporting data) that history has always favored those with a college education. The "invest in college at any cost" advocates consistently confuse a causal relationship (i.e. college contributes to higher wages) versus the correlation of college and higher wages (i.e. smarter people go to college and intelligence is a predictor or success). The critics also hate the notion that college needs to pay for itself by relying on vocational education (i.e. education that leads to a good-paying job as opposed to education that merely enlightens).

One of the critical comments on the author's blog stated: "I imagine that at the CHE Vedder is seen as some kind of 'provocative in-house critic' or some such nonsense." "I honestly wonder why the Chronicle keeps Vedder around." So this is how some in the establishment react to any questioning of the "any college investment is a good investment" argument.

Another critic said "Since we know that education has no consequence other than individual financial profit, it's obvious that we don't want to administer it to those who won't profit from it. Waste of time, really. Surely there's a nice neat test that will let us weed out the weak sisters for life as gammas? Those parking lot attendants don't need to think (or vote, or make life choices)." But what evidence do we have that a $200,000 college education in Sociology really makes the grad a better voter or citizen? Please help me see the evidence of this enlightenment.

Another response said: "It should be apparent that college should be about more than vocational training for professional and higher paying jobs." Another said college "gives you tools and skills for a maximum appreciation of life in all its domains." Well this is not apparent to me in the slightest (although I grant that the college establishment disagrees with me on this one). The challenge with all of this added enlightenment is how do you measure progress on the enlightment curve? How well has the college grad improved his critical thinking skills and persepctives that will make him a better citizen? This enlightenment category is never measured, never proven and few outside the education establishment want to pay for someone else's daughter to obtain it.

In general, the college establishment wants to use the evidence of greater financial rewards for college grads when it supports them and use the enlightenment argument when the financial investment argument does not work. I come from a perspective that beleives that the investment in college needs to stand on its own. Let's remove all the subsidies for college that total somewhere between $7,000 to $10,000 per college student per year. If a family wants to pay for Johnny to get enlightened then let them pay for it. If Johnny wants to study a less fun but more in demand subject then let Johnny and his family pay for it and reap the beneifts as well.

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