Tag: inside higher ed

Secretly Happy Colleges Should Mean Overtly Angry Taxpayers

Yesterday, House Republicans introduced their preliminary list of spending cuts, cuts that were, they declared, ”to go deep.” Unfortunately, coming in at just $74 billion, they were about as deep as onion skin. After all, the total federal budget is well over $3 trillion, and the national debt now exceeds $14 trillion

The relatively lilliputian size of the proposed cuts should give any taxpayer major queasiness over Republicans’ desire to truly rein in government. But if that doesn’t scare you, this report from Inside Higher Ed absolutely should:

Shhh. Don’t tell, and they’ll never admit it publicly. But college officials are (very quietly) feeling okay – at least for now – about how Congressional Republicans would treat the programs that matter most to higher education in their first whack at the federal budget.

Why should ivory tower denizens be secretly peppy, and taxpayers openly upset? Because the House GOP pretty much left higher ed funding untouched, despite the fact that the ivory tower is soaking in putrid, taxpayer-funded waste. Quite simply, the federal government pours hundreds of billions of dollars into our ivy-ensconced institutions every year, but what that has largely produced is atrociously low graduation rates; at-best dubious amounts of learning for those who do graduate; ever-fancier facilities; and rampant tuition inflation that renders a higher education no more affordable to students but keeps colleges fat and happy.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: If federal politicians won’t significantly cut ”education” spending – spending that has done next to nothing to increase actual learning – then they are not serious about reining in the deficit or cutting government down to size. They are still, sadly, much more concerned about appearing to “care” about education than doing what needs to be done.

Hollow Ivory

Rumor has it that President Obama, no doubt because it is always a warm and fuzzy subject, will feature education prominently in his upcoming State of the Union address. If so, he will almost certainly stress his goal of having the United States lead the world in the percentage of its citizens with a college degree by 2020.

Unfortunately, doing what feels good often isn’t the same as doing what’s smart.

Today, we get more evidence that simplistic, rhetoric-driven education policymaking – more degrees equals more learning equals economic bonanza! – is ultimately counterproductive.  It turns out, students generally learn very little in at least their first couple years of college, and many learn little over four years.

According to Inside Higher Ed, that’s the main story of a new book being released today, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. IHE says the book reports that ”45 percent of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ during the first two years of college” and 36 percent “ ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years.”

But if students haven’t been nose-to-the-grindstone learning, what have they been doing?

Think of just about every television show or movie you’ve ever seen about college, and you’ll have your answer: They’ve been focusing on havin’ fun, or what Ivory Tower officials  euphemistically call “student engagement.” And they’ve been doing it with hundreds-of-billions of taxpayer dollars annually.

Now, all of this needs be taken with a grain of salt. The measure of learning used in the book was the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test that according to IHE “is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other ‘higher level’ skills.” Such fuzzy outcomes are notoriously difficult to pin down and aren’t necessarily major areas of concern for pupils studying, say, biology or engineering. It’s also worth noting that results varied significantly both between schools and within schools, so the findings are not at all universally applicable.

That said, the findings are a very troubling addition to the already mammoth heap of evidence that government pushes higher education way too much, not too little.  But don’t expect to hear that in next week’s State of the Union. It is decidedly not warm and fuzzy, and that’s all that seems to matter in education policymaking.