Educational Value

It seems to me….

It makes little difference how many university courses or degrees a person may own. If he cannot use words to move an idea from one point to another, his education is incomplete.” ~ Norman Cousins[1].

The U.S.’s early and lasting enthusiasm for higher education has given it the biggest and best-funded system in the world[2]. Hardly surprising, then, that other countries are emulating its model as they send ever more of their graduates to get a university education.

The modern research university, an amalgamation of the Oxbridge college and the German research institute, was invented in the U.S., and has become the standard for the world. Mass higher education started in the U.S. in the 19th century, spread to Europe and East Asia in the 20th, and is now happening almost everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa.

The global tertiary-enrollment ratio — the share of the student-age population at a university — increased 14 percent to 32 percent in the two decades preceding 2012. In that time, the number of countries with an enrollment ratio of more than half rose from five to 54. University enrollment has continued to increase and the desire for a degree is understandable: today a degree is a requirement for a decent job and an entry ticket to the middle class.

There are, broadly, two ways of meeting this large demand. One is the continental European approach of state funding and provision in which most institutions have equal resources and status. The second is the more market-based U.S. model of mixed private-public funding and provision with brilliant well-funded institutions at the top and poorer ones at the bottom.

The best universities are responsible for many of the discoveries that have made the world a safer, richer, and more interesting place. But costs are rising. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries spend 1.6 percent of GDP on higher education, compared with 1.3 percent in 2000. If the U.S. model continues to spread, that share will rise further. The U.S. currently spends 2.7 percent of its GDP on higher education.

This would be OK if the U.S. was getting its money’s worth from higher education and on the research side, it probably is. In 2014, 19 of the 20 universities in the world that produced the most highly cited research papers were American. But the picture is less clear on the educational side. U.S. graduates score poorly in international numeracy and literacy rankings and are still slipping. In a recent study of academic achievement, 45 percent of U.S. students made no gains in their first two years of university study. Meanwhile, tuition fees have nearly doubled, in real terms in 20 years. Student debt, at nearly $1.2 trillion, has now surpassed that for credit/debt-cards and car loans.

None of this means that going to university is a bad investment for a student. A bachelor’s degree in the U.S. still yields, on average, a 15 percent return. But it is less clear whether the growing investment in tertiary education makes sense for society as a whole. If graduates earn more than non-graduates because their studies have made them more productive, then university education will boost economic growth and society should want more of it yet poor student scores suggest otherwise as does employer testimony. A recent study of recruitment by professional-services firms who hired graduates from the most prestigious universities not because of what the candidates might have learned but because of those institutions’ tough selection procedures: students could be paying vast sums merely to go through a very elaborate sorting mechanism.

Why might U.S.’s universities provide poor value for the cost? The main reason is that the market for higher education, like that for health care, does not work well. The government rewards universities for research so that is on what professors concentrate. Students are looking for a degree from an institution that will impress employers; employers are interested primarily in the selectivity of the institution a candidate has attended. Since the value of a degree from a selective institution depends on its scarcity, good universities have little incentive to produce more graduates. And, in the absence of a clear measure of educational output, price becomes a proxy for quality. By charging more, good universities gain both revenue and prestige.

Governments need to get behind these efforts. The U.S.’s market-based system of well-funded, highly differentiated universities can be of huge benefit to society if students learn the right stuff. If not, a great deal of money will be wasted.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Norman Cousins was an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate.

[2] The world is going to university, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21647285-more-and-more-money-being-spent-higher-education-too-little-known-about-whether-it?fsrc=nlw|hig|26-03-2015|NA, 28 March 2015.

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About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
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