Opinion

The Great Debate

from Reihan Salam:

How to fix higher education

America’s elite higher education institutions are the envy of the world. Foreign students flock to the oldest and wealthiest U.S. research universities to take advantage of resources that are unparalleled, thanks to the deep pockets of many centuries’ worth of captains of industry.

Yet when we consider the post-secondary institutions that educate the typical American high school grad, we see a very different picture. While the share of Americans who enroll in higher education has grown substantially in recent decades, graduation rates have been stagnant.

Community colleges promise an affordable education to millions of students, but they often fail to offer the courses students need to complete a degree in a reasonable amount of time. Public colleges and universities churn out graduates who are forced to take jobs that don’t actually require a four-year post-secondary education. Most private non-profits do the same, and they’re also notorious for charging obscene tuition that their graduates can scarcely afford. And private for-profits, which have grown enormously by taking on some of the hardest-to-accommodate students, stand accused of loading up their students with debt without offering them marketable skills.

It is hard not to sympathize with the Obama administration, which last week launched a new effort to ensure that career training programs are meeting the needs of their students. The problem with the new White House push, however, is that it focuses on a too-narrow aspect of America’s higher education crisis: about 8,000 vocational programs at community colleges, state universities, and for-profit colleges, which train students in subjects like business administration, nursing and automotive repair.

The basic problem that the Obama administration hopes to tackle is that while a large and growing number of students enroll in vocational post-secondary schools, most of whom make use of federal grant aid and subsidized loans to meet the cost of tuition, an alarmingly high share of them are failing to find well-paying jobs. And students who can’t find well-paying jobs struggle to meet the cost of servicing their loans, let alone pay them off.

Weeds amidst the ivy

On the first day of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities annual convention, a storm worked its way towards the convention center. More than a thousand people milled inside Rosen Shingle Creek, one of the golf resort/convention centers that are endemic to central Florida. The attendees had come for the annual congress of for-profit colleges, hosted by the sector’s trade association and central lobbyist. Its theme: “Opportunity for all.”

That night, a self-described “futurist and demographer” took the stage to deliver the keynote address. Kenneth Gronbach is a big man with a bigger voice, going after laughs more than longitudinal studies. Gronbach calls himself a “generational marketing expert,” and has written a book called The Age Curve. Subtitle: “How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm.”

Gronbach’s presentation began with a joke: “How many people are really excited to listen to a demographer for an hour?” A little manic, Gronbach paced the stage, taking audible sniffs as he caught his breath and delivered the next slide. “We’re going to concentrate not on money and stuff, but on people,” he said. But for Gronbach people are opportunity, and opportunity is money.

Quantifying the damage of the rush to quantify

It was unsurprising to hear, as we did Tuesday, that Claremont McKenna College had lied about its students’ SAT scores to boost its position in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of colleges. University officials are famously obsessed with these rankings, and this is not the first time that a school has admitted fudging data. Just last year, Villanova Law School said that it had given false information to U.S. News.

Today we quantify and rank the performance of people and institutions as never before – all in pursuit, supposedly, of better outcomes and greater efficiency. Yet this obsession with metrics, a hallmark of the free-market ideology, invariably creates more incentives to cheat.

University presidents fret endlessly about the U.S. News rankings because they can have dramatic effects on everything from the quality of student applicants to the ability of schools to attract faculty and raise money. In an earlier era, one free of U.S. News, schools would not have had much reason to lie about SAT scores or admission rates. But now, with these numbers seen as hugely important, you can understand the temptation to monkey around with the reported data.

Occupy Student Debt’s failure to launch

By Chadwick Matlin
The views expressed are his own.
Over the past three months, as Occupy Wall Street has pitched a tent in the American consciousness, doubters have had the same refrain: “But what do they want?” Mothers, uncles, family friends, family of friends, they’ve all asked me—their token 20-something—some version of this. They argued that a movement was not a movement just because it wanted to move somewhere. It also needed to know exactly how it was going to get there. Apparently, all revolutions must now come with a built-in GPS.

A month ago, Occupy Wall Street made a demand. Or, as is the way in the nested hierarchy of OWS, a subcommittee of a committee of the movement made a demand.  They want all student debt in the country forgiven. All $1 trillion of it. And if the government would be so kind, they’d appreciate if it would pay for higher education from here on out, as well.

So this is what they—or at least some of they—want. But what has happened with this proposal, this great demand that we’ve all been waiting for?

Hardly anybody has cared.

In one month, only 2,694 people with debt have signed the Occupy Student Debt pledge, which states the following:

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