Tag: higher ed

Not Everyone Needs to Go to College

William F. Buckley famously said that he’d ”rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” That was, of course, a swipe at the practical wisdom of those people who spend their lives teaching in ivory towers, and a deserved one. But score one for the egg heads when it comes to identifying the practical reality of modern higher education.

According to a new report from Public Agenda, while college presidents blather on about their impoverished schools and what a tremendous public good higher education is, the professors (at least those that Public Agenda interviewed) are pretty darn realistic about the real problems in academia. This quote, echoed in professorial statements throughout the report, captures exactly what a lot of us libertarian types have been saying for years:

I think a big problem facing higher education is the idea that everybody should get into college. I don’t think everybody is designed to go to college. Not everybody needs to go to college. I know that’s shooting ourselves in the foot, because that’s where our jobs are. The more people show up at our schools, the more jobs we get. Not everybody needs to go to college. Not everybody should. Not everybody’s prepared.

Public Agenda doesn’t identify who the speakers are in its report, but whoever said the bit above – or any of the similar statements about too many people going to college or being pushed to go to college – actually deserves to get tenure.

Educational Productivity Has Collapsed — NAEP

The latest Long Term Trends results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress are out. They reveal a productivity collapse unparalleled in any other sector of the economy.

At the end of high school, students perform no better today than they did nearly 40 years ago, and yet we spend more than twice as much per pupil in real, inflation-adjusted terms. I can’t think of any other service that has gotten worse during my lifetime. Our school system has failed alone.

While the stagnation in overall achievement masks a 3 to 5 percent gain in the achievement of African American 17-year-olds since 1970, the scores for whites at the end of high school are virtually unchanged.

Anyone who points to the slightly higher scores in the early grades as cause for celebration is missing the point. What parents care about is that their children are well prepared for higher education and future careers at the end of their secondary education. The fact that scores have risen somewhat in the early grades means little since those gains evaporate for the vast majority of students by the time they graduate.

Update: The Associated Press story is now out on the Long Term Trends NAEP results… and it doesn’t mention the long term trends. The story only reports changes in achievement over the most recent 4 year interval of a test whose raison d’être is to reach back to the early 1970s. I wonder why…. Fortunately, the Detroit Free Press does a better job.

Here’s A “Toxic Asset” for You…

The Obama administration seems obsessed with making American taxpayers eat toxic assets. And I’m not talking about bad paper, derivatives, or any other inscrutable financial stinkers. I’m talking about good ol’ American public schooling.

Truth be told, after listening to the president’s presser last night, even I started to think that the key to American economic success is “investing” in education. After all, once you’ve heard something for about the twentieth time, you start to believe it. I mean, that’s how propaganda works, right? But somehow my mind refused to give in, and it forced me to remember:

We’ve been “investing” in government schools for decades, and have been reaping nothing but AIG-like results!

I actually laid out the startlingly awful returns we’ve gotten for our education dollars in several blog entries last month, but thought I’d revisit the basic, revolting facts one more time. I want it to be absolutely clear that lavishing more money on education isn’t change, nor, given what we get for the money, could it possibly be the key to long-term economic success.

So what have we invested? Let’s start with total outlays for elementary through post-secondary education, taken from table 26 of the latest Digest of Education Statistics. In 1969 we spent a total of $347 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2007, we spent $981 billion, a 183 percent increase.

How about public k-12 spending on a per-pupil basis? Again using Digest data (table 181) – which understates total expenditures by excluding such things as “state administration expenditures” – we can see that we’ve been spending increasingly sizable amounts. After adjusting for inflation, in 1969 we spent $5,161 per child. By 2005, that number had more than doubled, hitting $11,643. And what has that “investment” yielded?

Other than massive bloat, bupkus! Looking at National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend scores for 17-year-olds – essentially, our schools’ final products – we see almost complete academic stagnation. In mathematics, the average scale score was 304 (out of 500) in 1973, and only a measly 3 points higher in 2004! That’s a one percent increase in math outcomes for a roughly 100 percent increase in funding! And that actually beats the “return” in reading, where 17-year-olds were at 285 in 1971 and, yup, 285 in 2004!

How about higher education? Here we don’t have very good outcome measures and it is difficult to break down overall per-pupil expenditures. What we do have, however, suggests another bad investment.

To get a feel for expenditures, we can examine the State Higher Education Executive Officers report (figure A) showing that total revenue collected per full-time-equivalent student at public institutions, adjusted for inflation, grew from $8,463 in 1983 to $11,037 in 2008, a 30 percent increase. We can also look at aid per student, most of which came through government. According to data from the College Board (table 3), in 1983 the average full-time-equivalent student received $3,769 in inflation-adjusted aid. In 2007 she got $10,392, a 176 percent increase.

What are the returns on these investments? Again, lots of bloat, but from what we can tell, relatively little of educational value. Graduation rates, for one thing, seem to be falling.

According to the Population Studies Center, within eight years of graduating high school, 51.1 percent of students in the high school class of 1972 had finished college degrees. In contrast, only 45.3 percent of 1992’s high school class had done the same. And grads seem to be getting less well educated; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, between 1992 and 2003 literacy levels dropped for both Americans whose education maxed out at a bachelor’s degree and those with graduate degrees. Whether it was graduates’ ability to read prose, documents, or handle math, scores went down while costs went up.

So all told, what do we have to show for our education investment? Pretty much just empty bank accounts. And yet, some politicians just can’t seem to get enough of those toxic assets!

Science: The Final (Budget) Frontier

There are many people who think that little or no “science” will get done – at least “basic” science that has no evident, immediate, practical applications – unless the federal government pays for it. That is a dubious proposition, but it’s not what really alarms me right now. What really troubles me is that scientists, apparently, can conceive of no end to research worthy of your hard-earned dollars, and see things in Washington looking a lot friendlier to their exploring the final, spending frontier. This quote from an article in Inside Higher Ed today says it all:

Pressed by [Rep. Alan] Mollohan and others for how much money the government ought to be spending on science research and education,  [National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J.] Cicerone was clearly reluctant to throw out figures; danger loomed that he would look either greedy or unambitious in appearing to speak for the science establishment.

But he made clear that he would welcome a way of ensuring growth for federal spending on science, perhaps, he said, through a mechanism that tied spending to “the number of highly competitive proposals” agencies receive, to ensure that there is enough money to cover all research proposals that scientific peer review processes grade above a certain level.

When Mollohan asked what was the appropriate “end point” for growth in federal science funds, Cicerone said that “we are so far away from that level that it’s hard to say.”

So science can tell us a lot, but not how far we are from adequate science funding. I, however, can put it in a little perspective: In 2006 the federal government spent more than $31 billion on research at ”educational institutions.” If the funding end point is, say, Saturn, then to at least some scientists it seems we haven’t even gotten to the moon.

Get ready for scientists to blast off with your wallets anytime now.