Ashley Thorne of the National Association of Scholars has written a response / rebuttal to my new Chronicle column, which argues that cash-strapped colleges and universities would benefit from a “Race to the Top” for higher education. She’s friendly about it and agrees with some of my points, but in the end we have very different ideas about the appropriate scope of higher education.
On the particulars, Thorne seems to share many of my views about the need to improve preparation, reduce remediation, facilitate credit transfer, help people learn and graduate and get good jobs and so on. But underlying her critique is a strong thread of conviction that too many people are going to college. And I just don’t believe this to be true. For decades now we’ve been investing huge amounts of time and money in growing the supply of college graduates. And for decades the job market has responded by increasing the wage premium for college graduation. If there was an oversupply of college graduates, we might expect employers to have taken the recent recession as an opportunity to shed these more expensive employees. Instead, the opposite has occurred–people with college degrees have weathered the storm the best while people without postsecondary credentials have taken the biggest hit.
For NAS, the too-many-graduates thesis goes hand in hand with the idea that academic standards in higher education are too lax (which is what, in their view, allows too many people through.) And indeed many colleges could do more to set higher standards and provide a better learning environment in which students can meet them. That’s why I suggested that colleges all submit an annual, “public learning audit” of the kind that Earlham College President Douglas Bennett recently proposed. But–tellingly–Thorne rejects this idea by deliberately mis-reading what such an audit would entail. Says Thorne:
While it is desirable for the public to know what colleges are actually teaching, we’ve found that the bureaucratic focus on student learning outcomes has unintended consequences in the direction of actually lowering academic standards. Outcomes assessment encourages teachers to set the lowest possible goals for their classes so that, come assessment, they can prove that they have met those goals. It also forces teachers to concentrate on aspects of their subjects that are easily measurable, rather than intrinsically important.
A bureaucratic focus on low standards would definitely be a terrible idea. But that’s not at all what Bennett is proposing. Unless Thorne believes that there is no possible way for a university to understand and report how much its students are learning–an idea that I think is absurd on its face–then her rejection of the learning audit makes me suspect that NAS really has no interest at all in a set of policy solutions that could help more students earn a high-quality college degree. It just wants to hoard college credentials for the privileged few. At worst, these notions slide into Charles Murray-style genetic determinism. At best, they ignore the evidence that increasing academic expectations would result in more people earning college degrees, not fewer.