Every year since 1986, the Institute for Emerging Issues has held a highly publicized conference devoted to some current policy issue. For 2007, the theme was “Transforming Higher Education: A Competitive Advantage for North Carolina.” Sadly, there was very little said about actually transforming higher education in the state over the two days of the event – that is, how it might be made a better and more valuable experience for students. Instead, the speakers were mostly fixated on the supposed need for North Carolina (and the United States as a whole) to put more students into and through college.
In other words, it was about quantity rather than quality. What needs to change, according to most of the speakers, is the number of young Americans entering and graduating from college, not the educational worth of the courses they take. This made for a rather monochromatic conference, rather like attending a concert where every piece was just a variation on the same theme.
The main theme was that America’s higher education system is “underperforming.” Whereas in the past the United States had the highest percentage of its workforce holding college degrees of any nation, today a number of countries now surpass the U.S. and more are catching up. Several speakers, including Governor Mike Easley, asserted that this situation poses a threat to our standard of living. Businessman Thomas Tierney stated that there is a “direct relationship between completion of higher education and economic growth,” and since the U.S. is losing its “lead” over other nations, our standard of living is in jeopardy.
What About Quality?
Among all the talk about our “underperformance,” there was scarcely a word about the very serious problems we have with educational quality. As this column has pointed out in the past, many Americans graduate from college with poor skills in the fundamentals – reading, writing, and mathematics – and with weak knowledge of our history and institutions. An important consequence is that large numbers of our college graduates have only the cognitive abilities to do what have traditionally been regarded as “high school jobs.”
In their 1999 book Who’s Not Working and Why, economists Frederic Pryor and David Schaffer noted that more and more college graduates in the U.S. end up competing for jobs that call for no academic background other than simple trainability. Data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics also shows that many college graduates are working at jobs for which they are seemingly “overqualified” – if you assume that a college degree represents a great advance in human capital over having only a high school diploma. That’s an assumption Pryor and Schaffer refuse to make, writing, “The low functional literacy of many university graduates represents a serious indictment against the standards of the U.S. higher education system.”
Too bad they weren’t invited.
Not one of the conference speakers acknowledged that for lots of young Americans, college is four or more years of fun in an environment where the intellectual content is a thin gruel and the academic expectations are low. It would have been good to have heard some discussion about the importance of transforming higher education so that most graduates would at least be proficient in the three domains of literacy tested by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Presently, only about 30 percent are.
Are We Really in Danger?
Returning to the main theme of the conference, is it the case that our standard of living is going to fall unless we succeed in reclaiming the top spot among nations in the percentage of our population that earns a college degree? Among others, former Governor Jim Hunt offered the view that the future will be “scary” unless we do something to get more of our young people up to the level of the competition.
The statistics are undoubtedly right – a number of countries now have slightly surpassed the United States in this respect, including Canada, Finland, Belgium, Japan, and Norway. But does it follow that our prosperity will fade away unless we manage to “keep up” with them?
Relax. There are many other, more important factors in a nation’s (or state’s or city’s) prosperity than the percentage of the population holding certain educational credentials. The climate for investment and entrepreneurship is crucial. So is the stability of money, the enforceability of contracts, and the security of property rights. Economic success is related – inversely – to the degree to which government officials attempt to manage and control production and exchange through regulations. How talented and industrious the workforce is certainly matters, but it would be a mistake to think that the only way for people to become skilled is through formal education. History is full of examples of people who were fabulously productive despite having little or no formal education, and vice versa.
It’s unfortunate that, apparently, none of the speakers had read Professor Alison Wolf’s book Does Education Matter? (You can read my review of her book here.) After surveying education around the globe, she concluded that formal education matters much less than people generally suppose. She points out that some countries have “invested” heavily in efforts to raise the level of formal education among their people without seeing any change in living standards, and that there are other countries that do little to promote formal education yet are among the world’s most prosperous. High “educational attainment” is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for prosperity, in other words.
We have much, much more to fear from rising taxation and an increasingly dirigiste economic policy than from educational “underperformance.”
The other principal topic of discussion at the conference was the problem of affordability. Speakers said over and over that we have got to make college poor people are being priced out of higher education.
Some are and it’s a loss, both individually and to society, if people who would gain from postsecondary studies forego them because of the high cost. It is also a loss, however, if in the attempt to minimize the first problem, we over-subsidize higher education so that many people who have scant interest or ability in academic pursuits are in college, goofing around, and putting downward pressure on academic standards. The solution is to identify those students from poorer families who need financial assistance and provide it to them, not to have a policy of subsidizing college for everyone.
And we should also examine ways to reduce the cost of learning. When the speakers at the conference talked about the cost problem, their implicit or explicit solution was more government subsidization. No one wanted to discuss the prospect of providing sound education for less. Some colleges have held the line on tuition and fee increases much better than others. It would have been useful to hear how they do it.
The Emerging Issues Forum missed an opportunity to raise public awareness about real problems in our educational systems, K-12 and higher. There was way too much alarmist talk about the alleged need to “produce” more college graduates -- as if people with their unique goals and attributes were assembly line products -- and way too little constructive talk about how to target financial assistance to students who would really benefit from it. And there was no talk at all about how to squeeze out unnecessary costs in the delivery of higher education. A few of the presentations were eminently worthwhile, but on the whole, the conference was a disappointment.