Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The state of education


A couple of interesting articles on education today. The first is an editorial in the Wall Street Journal dealing with the latest iteration of “education reform”, a windmill that every President feels obliged to Quixotically tilt and that our current President is embracing down to newborns. The hard numbers give us an ugly picture:

Yet few doubt that public schools today are troubled, as the president noted on Saturday. What the president left out is that the performance of American high school students has hardly budged over the past 40 years, while the per-pupil cost of operating the schools they attend has increased threefold in real dollar terms.

In real dollars (i.e. inflation adjusted), we are spending three times as much for the same product. That is what happens when you assume that only one model of school works, you surrender to the teachers unions and the government does everything in it’s power to quash real competition. What we get is exactly the product we should expect: mediocre at best, inefficient in the extreme and grossly expensive.

The other comes from USA Today and asks if too many kids are going to college (my answer: yes!). The article is titled What if a college education just isn't for everyone? and is chock full of good information.

The case is compelling: As good jobs increasingly require more education, college is widely seen as the ticket to personal economic security and to global competitiveness. And the message has gotten through: The percentage of students who went on to college or trade school within a year of high school climbed from 47% in 1973 to 67% in 2007, Census data show.

Two out of three high schoolers are going on to some sort of post-secondary education. That is great! Isn’t it? Well, actually it is not…

Federal data show that fewer than 60% of new students graduate from four-year colleges in six years, and just one in three community college students earn a degree. More than 350,000 students who borrowed for college in 1995 had no degree six years later, according to a 2005 study for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

In other words, forty percent of students at four year schools walk away with nothing and two thirds of community college kids get the same thing ("I almost have an associate’s degree" is not going to carry much weight on a resume). I recall orientation freshman at Ohio State when the speaker said “look to your left and to your right, one of the three of you will not finish your degree at OSU”. That is a grim statistic and it was real. I transferred to a smaller school to finish my degree. Many students left and never finished.

Does it really make sense for that many kids to go to college? When I went in the early 90’s, there were frankly a lot of kids who were in over their heads. Unable to write coherently or even spell, these kids were trudging along in college because they were just expected to do so. The problem is even more pronounced among minorities. Are we helping kids from “underprivileged” backgrounds by sending them off to fail at college instead of seeing them gain skills that will actually help in the workplace?

What a lot of this is leading to are kids with degrees they don’t need, a cheapening of college into an extension of high school and an enormous amount of government backed student loan debt, coming from ample available credit which has fueled a boom in college costs very similar to the housing bubble that just burst. When the government intervenes as it has in the credit markets for social engineering purposes, it undercuts the foundation of those very markets. In housing we see the results of “loan at any cost” in the form of inflated home values that collapsed, leaving a lot of home owners holding the bag like a giant game of musical chairs. In education we see even less underwriting oversight. If you are in college and not a criminal, you can get a seemingly infinite number of student loans. Lenders are quite willing to keep forking over the money because Uncle Sam is co-signing the loan (that is an oversimplification but you get the gist). Kids borrow and borrow because “you have to go to college” which in turns makes it quite easy for universities and colleges to raise tuition at a far faster pace than inflation. Little wonder colleges keep springing up and advocacy groups push for more kids in college. It is a great scheme. You keep raising rates and keep pushing fear of not having a degree but you do so knowing full well that the Federal government will pay the bills. It is brilliant but it is destructive to the very people it is supposed to benefit.

What we are left with is a false economic system where way more people are getting very expensive college degrees (or at least lots of college debt). We are doing a poor job of preparing the next generation of high school graduates for jobs that are not “college degree” jobs. I like this quote at the end of the article:

"College preparation for everyone is a very nice ideal, but we have a very high failure rate," says Northwestern University professor James Rosenbaum, author of Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half.

"If we don't start letting counselors be candid, we're not going to fix this system."


Like so much of what government touts, it sounds grand on the surface but the truth of it is a lie. Our public schools are a disaster. They can’t even prepare kids to graduate from high school and yet we expect them to prep kids for college, a college degree that many kids don’t need, that is going to land them in debt right out of the gate and many of them will never complete in the first place. That is just about the opposite of education and what we really have is a full employment scheme for people with graduate degrees who don’t want to get real jobs.
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