Two articles caught my attention this morning—one from Walter Russell Mead’s blog at The American Interest, the other from The Chronicle of Higher Education (h/t James Taranto).
The common thread is the cost and utility of a college education. It was a topic that coincidentally was addressed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a new plan by the administration to shift federal dollars away from schools that don’t “make the grade.” Said Duncan:
Historically, we’ve funded universities whether or not they’ve done a good job of graduating people, whether or not they’ve done a good job of keeping down tuition.
Needless to say, the plan—the particulars of which will be unveiled by the president in a speech on Friday—calls for more spending, increasing aid for Perkins loans and work study programs by $7 billion, so that we as a nation can “educate our way to a better economy.”
Which brings us back to the two aforementioned articles, beginning with Mead’s musings:
To understand the failures of our higher educational system, one need look no further than college classes on topics ranging from ‘Puppetry’ to ‘Surfing and American Culture’ which provide little educational value, no marketable skills, and essentially serve to defraud irresponsible college students (and their parents) out of tuition money and student loans.
Those are strong charges but Mead backs them up with two real examples from the Spring course catalog at no less august an institution of higher learning than Harvard:
Scandinavian 102: Trolls, Trolldom and the Uses of Tradition
Examines Scandinavian folklore and folk life, with an emphasis on narratives, supernatural beliefs, and material culture from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, and the anti-colonial and nation-building uses of these traditions.
Visual and Environmental Studies 80: Loitering: Studio Course
You will hang out in the vicinity of culture and make things in response to it. This class is not thematic or linked to any particular discipline.
Note: No previous studio experience necessary.
Mead doesn’t come out and say it, but his blog post—ultimately a cry from the wilderness—is imbued with a longing for an alternative. Luckily, one is on the horizon. Richard Vedder writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education of an agreement between a company called “StraighterLine and the Education Testing Service (ETS) and the Council on Aid to Education (CAE) to provide competency test materials to students online” for placement in the world of work.
StraighterLine, Vedder explains, is a company that provides high-quality college-level courses online at comparatively modest fees. Its partnering with ETS, creator of the SAT and other widely used standardized entrance exams, and CAE, described by Vedder as “a powerhouse organization, with a board laden with leaders from the college world,” is the sort of thinking outside the box that the Obama administration should applaud.
Together, the three would give colleges the run for their money Duncan seems to be envisioning in his comments. As Vedder notes:
[C]onsumers typically have believed that there are no good substitutes [to college]—the only way a person can certify to potential employers that she/he is pretty bright, well educated, good at communicating, disciplined, etc., is by presenting a bachelor’s degree diploma…. Because of the lack of good substitutes, colleges face little outside competition and can raise prices more, given their quasi-monopoly status.
Under the proposed partnership students paying out a modest amount would to take courses that equip them for two tests. The iSkills “measures the ability of a student to navigate and critically evaluate information from digital technology.” The CLA assesses critical learning and writing skills through use of cognitively challenging problems. Writes Vedder:
Students can tell employers, ‘I did very well on the CLA and iSkills test, strong predictors of future positive work performance,’ and, implicitly ‘you can hire me for less than you pay college graduates who score less well on these tests.’
Of course students would miss out on the experiential value of loitering for course credits, but maybe a change in the way workers are hired would shrink the nation’s population of loiterers, so no harm, no foul.
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