Col­lege’s di­min­ish­ing re­turns

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION -

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Obama is cor­rect in want­ing to make higher ed­u­ca­tion more af­ford­able and ac­ces­si­ble, but Amer­i­cans would also be cor­rect in won­der­ing just what they’re pay­ing for.

The need for a bet­tere­d­u­cated pop­u­lace is be­yond dis­pute. With­out crit­i­cal think­ing skills and a solid back­ground in his­tory, the arts and sciences, how can a na­tion hope to gov­ern it­self? An­swer: Look around. The prob­lem isn’t only that higher ed­u­ca­tion is un­af­ford­able to many but that even at our high­est-ranked col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, stu­dents aren’t get­ting much bang for their buck.

Since 1985, the price of higher ed­u­ca­tion has in­creased 538 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a new study from the Amer­i­can Coun­cil of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a non­profit, non­par­ti­san re­search group that en­cour­ages trustees and alumni to fos­ter im­prove­ment where in­sti­tu­tions may be re­luc­tant to go against pop­u­lar trends.

For per­spec­tive, com­pare tu­ition in­creases to a “mere” 286 per­cent in­crease in med­i­cal costs and a 121 per­cent in­crease in the con­sumer price in­dex dur­ing the same pe­riod, ac­cord­ing to ACTA.

Al­though the coun­cil con­fined its re­search in this study — “Ed­u­ca­tion or Rep­u­ta­tion?” — to the 29 top-ranked lib­er­alarts schools in the na­tion, where tu­ition, board­ing and books typ­i­cally run more than $50,000 per year, the trends high­lighted are not con­fined to smaller, elite in­sti­tu­tions. Th­ese in­clude an in­creas­ing lack of aca­demic rigor, grade in­fla­tion, high ad­min­is­tra­tive costs and a lack of in­tel­lec­tual diver­sity.

While th­ese re­cent find­ings are not so sur­pris­ing to those who fol­low such stud­ies, one can still be stunned by what can only be de­scribed as a breach of trust be­tween col­leges and the stu­dents they at­tract with di­ver­sions and ameni­ties that have lit­tle bear­ing on ed­u­ca­tion and will be of lit­tle use in the job mar­ket.

One need only be re­minded of the re­cent scan­dal at the Univer­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where a whistle­blower re­vealed that phony classes and fake grades have been of­fered mostly to ath­letes since the 1990s.

UNC, one of the his­tor­i­cally great in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing, quite apart from its leg­endary bas­ket­ball team, is scram­bling now to re­pair its dam­aged rep­u­ta­tion with over­sight and other fixes. But rep­u­ta­tions, cul­ti­vated over decades

COM­MEN­TARY and some­times cen­turies, are like love — hard to re­pair once trust is bro­ken.

On the flip side, ACTA pro­poses that many schools, rather than of­fer­ing the ed­u­ca­tional qual­ity that earned them a golden rep­u­ta­tion in the first place, of­ten de­pend on pub­lic rev­er­ence for the past rather than on present per­for­mance.

Of great con­cern is the di­min­ish­ing fo­cus on core cur­ricu­lums — the tra­di­tional arts and sci­ence course­work es­sen­tial to de­vel­op­ing crit­i­cal think­ing nec­es­sary for civic par­tic­i­pa­tion. Among the 29 schools sur­veyed by ACTA, only three re­quire U.S. gov­ern­ment or his­tory, just two re­quire eco­nom­ics and five col­leges have no re­quire­ments at all.

In a sep­a­rate study, the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Adult Lit­er­acy found that though Amer­i­cans pay the high­est per pupil tu­ition rates in the world, most grad­u­ates fall be­low pro­fi­ciency in such sim­ple cog­ni­tive tasks as com­par­ing view­points in two editorials or buy­ing food when given in price per ounce.

In­stead of the ba­sics, stu­dents might look for­ward to more en­ter­tain­ing fare, such as Mid­dle­bury Col­lege’s “Mad Men and Mad Women,” an ex­am­i­na­tion of mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity in mid-20th-cen­tury Amer­ica via the tele­vi­sion show “Mad Men.”

I con­fess I’d en­joy a din­ner dis­cus­sion along th­ese lines, but as an ed­u­ca­tion con­sumer, I’m not sure a se­mes­ter-long in­ves­ti­ga­tion is worth even a tiny per­cent­age of the tu­ition. ACTA Pres­i­dent Anne Neal ac­knowl­edges that such cour­ses may be in­ter­est­ing and even valu­able.

“What we do ques­tion, how­ever, is al­low­ing such classes to stand in lieu of a broad-based Amer­i­can his­tory or gov­ern­ment re­quire­ment,” she said, “when we know how se­verely lack­ing stu­dents’ his­tor­i­cal lit­er­acy can be.”

Given the ever-escalating tu­ition costs, one may won­der where all that money is go­ing?

Out of the 29 col­leges eval­u­ated, 22 have ad­min­is­tra­tive bud­gets that are at least onethird of what the schools spend on in­struc­tion. More than a third of the col­lege pres­i­dents earn as much or more than the pres­i­dent of the United States ($400,000), for run­ning schools, many of which have fewer than 2,000 stu­dents.

Other find­ings of the 46-page re­port are equally com­pelling but too lengthy for this space. Summed up: Amer­i­can stu­dents are pay­ing too much for too lit­tle — and this, too, should con­cern Obama as he ex­am­ines ways to make col­lege more af­ford­able. Get­ting peo­ple into col­lege is only half the bat­tle. Get­ting them out with a use­ful ed­u­ca­tion seems an equal chal­lenge.

Kath­leen Parker’s email ad­dress is kath­leen­park­er­wash­post.com.

KATH­LEEN PARKER

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