29 January 2012

Increase Education, Send Less Kids to College! (And Bring Back the Lyceum)

Per personal and family ritual, we watched President Obama's State of the Union address this past Tuesday night.  Much of the speech was what you would imagine-- a laundry (wish)list of policies, tweaks, and problems-to-be-solved, and not much ground was broken.  One item that caught my attention was the President's discussion of college tuition and specifically, a proposal that would tie continuing federal aid for student loans and grants to controls on increases in tuition costs. (Discussed further here)  This is a very worthwhile goal, and I have nothing to say against it.  Except for the few families for whom money is no object, the rising costs of tuition (not to mention the boatload of other fees and costs associated with attending college) not only limit the amount of education that many students can afford, but also unduly limits their range of career choices following college.

However, my quibble is more with a policy that is closely associated with the drive to make college more affordable: an insistence that we need to be sending more students to college.  The precise number we are supposed to aim for is never specified, but it is generally assumed to be something close to "all."  Unlike the student aid proposal I described above, I have serious misgivings about whether this goal, (semi-)universal college, is socially desirable, particularly if by "college," you mean a four-year residential program.  Colleges are already discovering a distressing number of students arrive at college, presumably with the means to pay and the proper criteria for admission, but who are woefully unprepared for the actual work required.  There are additional concerns about the actual quality of education received by thousands of students at some accredited institutions.  Four-year residential programs, in part because of their residential nature, are entirely too expensive for access to be expanded much beyond current capacity.  And thus, I utter the words that will render me un-electable for any higher office for the remainder of my natural lifetime-- we should send less students to "college."  Certainly no more than current enrollment, and quite possibly fewer.

This is not a plea for greater ignorance, or even less education, but rather for a reallocation of priorities.  This is not a complaint about the relative lack of utility of a college education, but rather a plea that its benefits need to be spread more broadly but in a more efficient manner.  Probably since the GI Bill, increasing college enrollment has been send as an end in itself, rather than simply a means to a more educated, and economically competitive population.  It is, just like a spouse, kids, and home ownership, part of the birthright of every middle-class American, and quite a few who are not.  We see frequent fretting, including during the State of the Union, that businesses, particularly in technology and engineering fields, are willing to hire additional workers, but are unable to find candidates with the requisite skills and background.  The response, a misguided one in my opinion, has been to insist that sending more students to college will inevitably resolve this problem, with little concern about what actually happens during those four years.

Rather than focusing on educating in a compressed four-year timeframe, society needs to reorient around a model of lifetime learning.  First, money that would be used to send additional students to college (or to maintain current enrollment) should, in part, be reallocated to primary and secondary education, areas that truly already serve all children.  We should allocate that money based on the best research on educational inputs, but investing in better training and increased incentives (non-exclusive-test-based) for teachers should be a component.  Second, we need to develop a range of educational opportunities that deliver quality training, not just for careers, but that also include enrichment in the basic sciences, arts, and humanities, without a residential component .  Right now, we seem stuck with just three options: four-year full-time residential program, community college, or for-profit "career college."*  We need to develop a broader spectrum of vehicles to deliver education, not just immediately post-college but at different stages of life.  Third, we need to incentivize employers to invest more heavily and more broadly in their workers, not just in the simple ways of improving job-related skills, but also in providing time and money for education in the kind of things that make life truly meaningful.  Here I am imagining something like increased corporate investment in the arts, and in something like the 19th century lyceum movement in America, devoted toward expanding public access for adults to continuing education and personal enrichment in the sciences and humanities in every town and city across the country.

Now, please permit me the following aside: I have a lot of friends in various levels of academia, including my own wife.  Any kind of noise about cutting aid or reducing college enrollment (probably involving the closure of institutions) will inevitably provide the motivation for several heads worth of hair to spontaneously burst into flames, particularly given the abysmal job prospects that many graduate students and newly minted Ph.D.s face these days.  I want to clearly allay that fear.  Again, I do not see this see this set of proposals having the inevitable result of a net reduction of academic employment.  To the contrary, I think it would remain at least static and quite possibly increase.  As it stands, academics are typically faced with the following depressing choice: success and regular employment (and possibly tenure) at a four-year institution teaching 18-24 year olds, of which there are so few that finding one in your specialty, with complementary employment options for one's spouse, is practically a matter of pure serendipity, or scraping by while cobbling together a class here and a class there at a local community college.  Just as these proposals intend to broaden the options available to students, it would broaden the employment options (and incomes) available to academics.  That is not a topic I want to fully develop here, but I am open to discussing it in any comments.

* There is also a cultural critique to be developed here based around relative perceptions of the quality of education obtained by students attending our current three options, namely that that receiving a bachelor's degree from a four-year accredited institution is a magnificent achievement, while an associate's degree from your local community college is somewhat less prestigious.  It is almost certainly impossible to change the opinions of massive numbers of the population without some form of brainwashing, but the lack of appreciation for the education offered at less intensive and less costly institutions (as well as the overestimation of the talismanic value of a bachelor's degree, no matter its quality or content) is one obstacle to the development of a more diverse set of educational settings.

The Nightstand (Jan. 29)

Rules of American Justice: a tale of three cases (Glenn Greenwald, Salon) and Two lessons from the Megaupload seizure (Glenn Greenwald, Salon)- Double dose of Greenwald this week.

The Long Goodbye (Doug Monroe, Atlanta Magazine)- Powerful not just on a personal level, but also for health policy wonks like me.  Medicare makes payment for hospice services when, among other things, a physician certifies that the patient will die within the next six months.  Of course, this is unknowable.  There is a lot of overspending here, not to mention fraud.

Will Israel Attack Iran? (Ronen Bergman, NYT Magazine)- Answer: Uhh...yes.

Internet Regulation & the Economics of Privacy (Julian Sanchez, Cato@Liberty)- This will be a rare link to something from the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank).  SOPA and its counterpart, PIPA, appear to be dead for the time being, though both will certainly reappear at some point in the future, just because industry wants it so bad.  Sanchez does some excellent work here showing that, purely in economic terms, more protection for the content industry is simply not needed (i.e. there is no proof that piracy is really hurting Hollywood's bottom line).

Citizen Philosophers: Teaching Justice in Brazil (Carlos Fraenkel, Boston Review)- My first reaction to this piece was, "How could we get something like this running in the U.S.?"  My second reaction, was just to laugh at my first reaction.  Then, I just wept.

Come on, China, Buy Our Stuff (Adam Davidson, NYT Magazine)- Part of the logic of the pro-globalization forces of the late 1990s and early 2000s was precisely what Davidson explains has not come to pass.

What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind? (Alison Gopnik, WSJ)

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