College: Filter vs Education

After spending a week discussing how educators can help high poverty students be career and college ready, the Economist left a bit of a sour note in the mouth while at the Saturday breakfast table. (I was prepared. The Economist’s typical education drumbeat is “unions are evil, fire teachers, create competition.”)

From the special report on Universities. Specifically, “America: A Flagging Model” (my own emphasis).

Students, meanwhile, are not buying education any more than the government is. They are buying degrees, whose main purpose is to signal to employers that an individual went to a—preferably highly selective—university. Harvard degrees are valuable because there are so few of them. Harvard therefore has no incentive to make them cheaper, nor to produce more of them: that would make them less precious.

This helps explain why America’s universities are failing to deliver equity. People are prepared to pay through the nose to buy advantage for their children, so top institutions charge ever higher prices and acquire ever more resources, while those at the bottom get less. That does not serve the Jeffersonian ideal of nurturing the talents of the poor as well as the rich for the greater good of society. So higher education has a divided soul: it is both a great collective enterprise to increase the nation’s welfare and a fight to the death between status-hungry parents.

Employers are not much interested in the education universities provide either. Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management interviewed 120 recruiters from American law firms, management consultancies and investment banks. Their principal filter was the applicant’s university. Unless he had attended one of the top institutions, he was not even considered. “Evaluators relied so intensely on ‘school’ as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms…but because of the perceived rigour of the admissions process,” Ms Rivera wrote. After the status of the institution, recruiters looked not at students’ grades but at their extracurricular activities, preferring the team sports—lacrosse, field-hockey and rowing—favoured by well-off white men.

Of course if you’re a poor family, you’re probably not thinking too much on buying a high status ticket to Harvard. You’re praying your car doesn’t break down (if you have one) and that you can make it to your $9 an hour job on time.

Also of note in the article (especially contrasted against the huge effort those of us in the K-12 field spend in trying to educate kids):

If employers are not interested in grades, students might as well take it easy. That is, indeed, what they seem to be doing. Time-use studies show that the time students spend in class or studying has dropped from 40 hours a week in the 1920s to the 1960s to 27 hours a week now. And since academics are promoted largely on the basis of their research, they might as well give up teaching. That is, indeed, what they seem to be doing. Tenured faculty—the ones with the well-paid, secure jobs—spend less and less time with undergraduates. Increasingly, teaching is done by “non-tenure-track” faculty on short contracts. Mr Arum and Ms Roksa conclude that “no actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth.”



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