(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on January 10, 2012.)
In 1978, the Chinese government made a decision to change direction. Rather than continue the stagnating communist policies that mired the country in Third World poverty, it started to liberalize its economy. The gamble paid off, and today, China has the world’s second-largest economy, with a large trade surplus and near-double-digit annual growth rates.
The Chinese government just made another move that also should improve the nation’s—this time to streamline its higher-education system. China’s state-run universities have been churning out graduates so quickly that many can’t find good jobs, even in a booming economy.
In response, China will “soon start evaluating college majors by their employment rates, downsizing or cutting degree programs in which the employment rate for graduates falls below 60 percent for two consecutive years,” the Wall Street Journal reported recently.
Perhaps America’s public universities should follow China’s lead and focus on such net results as employment rates. After all, the United States also has too many college graduates who are having difficulty finding college-level jobs.
Roughly one-third of all U.S. college graduates work in fields for which no degree is required. As of May 2011, just 55.6 percent of graduates of the college class of 2009 held positions requiring college degrees, while the rest were almost equally divided between the unemployed and those working in jobs that don’t require degrees, according to a Northeastern University study.
There are two main reasons for this. One is that many students graduate without measurably improving their academic or vocational skills. The second is because there is a significant mismatch between students’ choices of majors—or even their decisions to pursue four-year academic degrees in the first place—and the needs of the U.S. workplace.
Of course, it’s a much simpler matter for China to take action because the Chinese government still pretty much calls all of the shots, without having to deal with any of the messy political and moral concerns of free nations.
Yet, while China remains a totalitarian state with little concern for individual rights—certainly not a system the United States should emulate—it frequently makes wise decisions on a purely utilitarian level. As a result, the standard of living has risen dramatically in just a few years: In 1991, its per capita annual income was $356, 6 percent of the average U.S. income. Today, per capita income in China is more than 10 times higher than it was—rising to 27 percent of average U.S. income.
The United States, on the other hand, is in the fourth year of a severe downturn, and our academic decision-making does not bode well for the future economy.
Large reductions in state appropriations have forced America’s public universities to make significant program cuts, but administrators generally make those cuts based on inputs, such as how many students are enrolled in a course—a measure of a course’s popularity with students—rather than utility.
Basing cuts on popularity rather than on how well a program prepares students for life after college hardly improves America’s economic competitiveness. The United States does not need more baristas with sociology or psychology degrees (two popular majors with comparatively little professional employment potential).
Of course, the value of the Chinese policy hinges on what Chinese officials mean by “evaluating college majors by their employment rates.” Job prospects should be only one of many factors administrators consider when they decide what goes, what stays, what gets cut, what gets expanded. A proper education encourages creativity, cultural knowledge and intellectual rigor. In fact, the Chinese have been trying to introduce American-style elements of creativity and innovation into their schools. So program cutting requires a scalpel rather than a chain saw.
But using data on the employment of graduates is still a valuable evaluation tool, and it serves as a useful guide for reforming higher education.
The Chinese exhibit hard-nosed common sense by looking at the actual results of their higher-education system; forward-looking U.S. public universities should do the same. If they won’t end their excesses voluntarily, perhaps it’s time for state legislatures to consider Chinese-style standards.
Results matter; it’s time to judge universities on how well graduates perform once they’ve left the security of the ivory tower.