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Academic Rigor Mortis

Academic Rigor Mortis

In assessing avenues of social mobility, higher education proponents Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson give colleges an unearned “A” in Can College Level the Playing Field?

Michael Poliakoff
Can College Level the Playing Field? Higher Education in an Unequal Society
by Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson (Princeton University Press, 250 pp., $29.95)

In my Quaker elementary school, more than sixty years ago, we often sang a hymn about peace among nations set to the melody of the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The verse of the hymn that came to mind as I read Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson’s Can College Level the Playing Field? was the prayer, “Speed the slow and check the eager; Help the weak and curb the strong.” Something seemed wrong to me, even as a child. Surely, we should do our best to speed the slow and help the weak. But why would anyone want to hinder the quick and the strong? Why, I ask in retrospect, do we speak of zero-sum games? And when do we know we are helping?

These are questions that might help us approach Baum and McPherson’s book, which is subtitled Higher Education in an Unequal Society.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The book begins by noting that “the United States is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world and inequality is growing.” Baum and McPherson argue that the nation needs an economic overhaul encompassing its labor market policies, corporate regulations, and anti-trust policies. The book contains plenty of criticism of higher education policy and practice, but ultimately it is a cry of despair that higher education can do little without sweeping changes in neighborhoods, health care, early childhood education, and K-12 programs. Few would argue against the view that higher education interventions are too little too late. But the authors’ assessment is also sweepingly polemical: “It is important to dispense with illusions about American exceptionalism regarding equality, opportunity, and mobility.”

Is it really that simple? Before examining Baum and McPherson’s case that higher education alone has but slight potential to solve the problem of limited social mobility, their socioeconomic postulate about America’s failure deserves attention. Would the immigrant population agree? Would the Asian American population, in particular, agree? A 2019 study found that children of immigrants born into the 25th percentile of wealth—including children whose fathers came from Guatemala, El Salvador, and the Philippines—had average incomes at or above the 50thpercentile by adulthood. The study pointed out that their success was conditioned on their parents’ choice, notwithstanding language barriers and lack of professional network, to settle in places offering better opportunities for their children. For them, equality, opportunity, and mobility are not “illusions.” It is, perhaps, politically incorrect to say it, but culture matters, and this book steers quite wide of that factor.

Turning to higher education policy, the authors are appropriately skeptical of the potential of “free college” and cancelation of debt to serve as equalizing forces. They offer the good advice that students who seek Pell Grants participate in a mandatory advising session to help them make appropriate college choices. Their guidance about Pell Grants, one should note, comes in the context of a dig at the for-profit sector, namely that advice coming from these institutions is “perhaps especially” unreliable. It is true that some for-profit institutions have offered misleading promises to encourage enrollment, but there are bad actors and low performers in all sectors, and scapegoating for-profit institutions—some of which are quite effective and serve students quite well—is not helpful. The authors are on much firmer ground in their recognition that career and technical training and apprenticeship opportunities are for many students a better pathway to professional success than seeking a bachelor’s degree. Kenneth Gray and Edwin Herr’s book, Other Ways to Win, deserves mention in this context.

There is arguably something self-serving when two longtime leaders in higher education assert, “Higher education spending, like all education spending, is an investment in improving human lives.” Not so fast. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s The Cost of Excess, which examined 1,500 four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities, demonstrates that not all spending is effective. In fact, at public institutions, spending on student services (expenses “whose primary purpose is to contribute to students’ emotional and physical well-being and to their intellectual, cultural, and social development outside the context of the formal instructional program”) had no statistically significant correlation with graduation rates. Curiously, the authors do not mention such appalling waste of education dollars as lazy rivers, luxury facilities for athletes, and the unseemly salaries and perks of college presidents and their top administrators. In short, from 2010 to 2018, public colleges and universities spent $112 billion (after adjusting for inflation) on expenses that did not help students graduate in a timely manner. Given that Americans currently hold $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, this does not seem to be a wise investment.

Can College Level the Playing Field? claims “the quality of the postsecondary experience is at the top of our priority list because it is so neglected in the public discourse.” This is flat-out wrong. Strangely, there is no mention of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s groundbreaking Academically Adrift, whose revelations about the limited cognitive gains of vast numbers of college students even managed to make their way into a Doonesbury cartoon. Nor do Baum and McPherson note the disturbingly limited number of hours that many American full-time undergraduates spend studying and preparing for class, evident in the findings of the National Survey of Student Engagement. Nor do they note the shocking consequences of lack of academic rigor evidenced in the findings of the 1992 and 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Spoiler alert: Most four-year college graduates cannot reliably distinguish the differing viewpoints of two newspaper editorials or compute the cost per ounce of groceries. Nor do the authors mention the available accountability instruments, notably the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the ETS Proficiency Profile, which show how effective (or not) an institution is in increasing students’ cognitive gain.

While Baum and McPherson are right to point out that the deficiencies of K-12 education and the effects of poverty limit higher education’s potential to increase social mobility, they overlook the sin of feckless higher education leadership. Who is responsible when classrooms are largely idle on Friday afternoons and early (i.e., 8:00 a.m.) mornings? Who is responsible when an institution presents a vast cafeteria line of distribution requirements and electives in place of an orderly core curriculum, one that avoids the multitude of under-enrolled sections that a corpulent curriculum inevitably brings? What is the excuse for grade inflation that renders transcripts so unreliable that more than one major company asks to see students’ SAT scores? Or for putting millions into bloated diversity and equity offices (Berkeley at $34 million and the University of Michigan at $25 million, by last count), instead of putting that money into need-based scholarships?

The absence of silver-bullet solutions is not an excuse for higher education to point its finger at capitalism or K-12 or bad neighborhoods before taking a long, hard look in the mirror. Baum and McPherson note in passing the potential of predictive analytics and improved advising, but what a book with this title should have done is look in detail at the schools in the University Innovation Alliance that offer new paradigms. These are schools that effectively address the bottleneck courses that stop the progress of students who aspire to the STEM fields and deploy proactive advising, i.e., the early-warning and intervention systems for students who would otherwise fail.

America outspends every other nation, except Luxembourg, in per-pupil funding for higher education. It is very easy to call for more money. The hard work, the work that alone can sustain America’s boast to be the envy of the world in higher education, will be in facing up to the cost of wasteful spending and ensuring—with consequences for failing to deliver on the promise—that every student who receives a diploma is ready for the challenges of career and citizenship.

Michael Poliakoff is the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and served previously as Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Research at the University of Colorado. He has taught Classical Studies at several institutions, most recently George Mason University.

Image: The Stata Center at MIT (Wikimedia: Magnus Manske)

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