Some Thoughts To Consider About Higher Education

by DC

School begins for many this week, and there are some hard truths about higher education that few wish to explore, let alone acknowledge.

1. Not everyone should go to college. Getting a higher education can be a marvelous experience, but it’s just not for everyone.

I know of no country that attempts to educate everyone at this level. College was originally designed for students who are at least a standard deviation in academic aptitude above the mean. That eliminates all but about 16 percent of the population, and then a lot of those folks are wasting their time and money at a university.

John is a brighter than average high school student, but is not at the top of his class. He is good with his hands and understands how things work. His parents send him to college to become a lawyer.

He is in the bottom 20 percent of his law class. He graduates with an immense debt load and is considered to be a poor lawyer. He doesn’t get much respect.

Suppose instead that John goes to a trade school to become a repairman. He is in the top 20 percent of this group. John the Repairman is highly respected. He has almost no debt, and he makes more money than John the Lawyer.

As an added bonus, society is in need of good repair persons, but we have no need for more bad lawyers.

2. Getting a college degree doesn’t mean that you know anything. Modern universities don’t require that students be knowledgeable to graduate. This sounds odd and administrators and teachers would claim that it is not true, but ask a simple question: What does a student need to know from a university to be allowed to graduate?

The answer is “nothing.”

Students are required to complete a number of tasks. There is a long list of requirements. If they check each one off, they graduate. Students will work hard for grades; they will not necessarily work hard to know something. Modern schools have disassociated the two. Students memorize material, regurgitate it on an exam, and go their way.

Many students graduate knowing next to nothing. Don’t take my word for it. I have been challenging my colleagues to test their students for years. I would love to be wrong on this, but …

3. Grades don’t reflect reality. There are entire areas of universities that give an automatic A to everyone unless they do poorly, and then they are given an A-minus. Much of this results from the improper use of student evaluations of teaching. Having students rate teachers is not a bad idea in itself, but it has evolved into a counter-productive travesty.

Imagine that at your workplace, several times every year, people you associate with are asked to fill out a questionnaire about you. They will remain anonymous and can say anything they wish. Management admits that it doesn’t know what the surveys actually measure, but you will be denied merit pay, and perhaps even fired if your scores are low.

That in a nutshell is how universities use student evaluations.

Critics, and some supporters, maintain that the only reason that this system is maintained is administrative sloth and student crowd control.

Universities are essentially demanding that professors be well-liked by their students or they will be punished. Students are students because they don’t know what they should know. The bottom line is that the evaluation system has resulted in grade inflation and a corresponding reduction in what students actually know.

Research over the last 10 years from all across the U.S. has consistently shown that teachers who get higher student evaluations produce students who tend to do more poorly in subsequent classes.

4. Like the housing market bubble, we may be approaching an education bubble. Paying a lot for an education makes sense if the returns are greater, but the cost of education is rising faster than the benefits. This has serious implications, which I will address in a forthcoming column.