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College Deunion?

June 5, 2011

If you’re familiar with academic debates spurred by dystopian assessments of the raw cognitive and intellectual capacity of America, you probably know the name Charles Murray. (In)famous for his work The Bell Curve, Murry has been professionally roiling the standard assumptions of liberal idealists for a while now. However, where The Bell Curve was a sad and statistically dubious analysis of the significantly lower IQs possessed by black Americans, Murray’s latest polemic has a bit more commonsensical rigor: Murray is now positing the relatively defensible proposition that more Americans are going to college than probably should (for their own economic welfare).

Murray argues that the Bachelor’s degree as a goal and structure that is at fault for the structural defects of college. It’s relatively intuitive; why should each and every academic program require four years? Shouldn’t some programs take longer/slower? And what does it say about the institution/program that you can achieve some level of subject-matter “mastery” without a very strict rubric of prerequisites and course requirements? What does such a facile program do in the way of informing prospective employers who are looking for a Bachelor’s Degree as some kind of certification of certain minimal job-applicable skills?

Instead, Murray suggests, academic programs would be better off emulating professional/technical degrees that have certification, licensure and testing such that skills are more standardized (e.g., accountants, engineers, architects, etc.). That argument makes perfect economic sense; if a degree is all about signals and indicators, making the bundle of knowledge and skills associated with a degree as uniform and transparent as possible will increase efficiency in hiring and employment in general.

Of course, the gut reaction and main criticism here is one that can be leveled at most libertarians and economic conservatives; efficiency is not the only value. Sure, some kids may end up dramatically over-paying for their time spent in college, and it may be debilitating later in life, but there are certain social/cultural/behavioral/sexual/psychochemical values that are less monetarily translatable. Those “inefficiencies” of collegiate experience are part of leading students to develop their own theories of “the good life,” which any post-secondary study has to be guided toward achieving on one level or another.

That obvious rejoinder aside, let’s take Murray at his word and confine the argument to the faults and follies of the four-year bachelor’s degree. The conventional wisdom defending the pedagogical cookie cutter is that there are hidden and unpredictable synergies in allowing students to broaden their academic experience by taking classes that less obviously inform their chosen course of study. Millions of potential and actual liberal arts students each year are convinced that having a broad base of knowledge to draw upon invariably helps even their specific field (e.g., the paradigmatic traveling businessman who benefits from his knowledge of Chinese history/custom/language or the journalist whose knowledge of physics allows him or her to digest, translate, and disseminate the latest newsworthy discovery to less savvy public). Having the built-in space to explore academics within a four-year program seems to make some sense on that level.

But when a liberal intellectual and professor like Louis Menand (a writer for The New Yorker, no less) takes up arms in the intellectual fight against the over-enrollment of college students, there is reason to question whether we ought to check our assumptions. Menand notes that with six percent of Americans enrolled in college, the demand for college (especially at the higher echelons) has skyrocketed and the sticker price has correspondingly increased in reaction to the potential oversubscription. So too has the competitive process of matriculating to and from college become a process of attempting to prove one’s worth; the intrinsic value a student may obtain from a high school or college experience is diminishing as students’ competitiveness increases.

And this analysis simply supplements President Obama’s exhortations that even a college degree is not necessarily good enough to guarantee prospective employment. A bachelor’s degree is losing its signaling value. As Menand notes, from an economic perspective, one might well worry that “with so many Americans going to college, the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential. Increasing public investment in higher education with the goal of college for everyone–in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion–is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism.” If anyone can get a bachelor’s degree regardless of the rigor of the academic experience, what does that title really say about knowledge or skills?

What’s more, why pay tuition for those four years if all one really wants is ready access to a keg of piss-poor beer at any given hour? There are certainly (imperfect) substitutes for collegiate academic experience. Students can attend the Khan Academy, the digital academic program that’s already changing the world with non-rivalrous, open access video education (i.e., Internet disruption for the win). Or, if you’re someone who cares about name-brands, you can take MIT’s OpenCourseWare. One can even crowdsource grading these days.

So, what’s left of college as an economically rational choice (see, e.g., the proverbial “you make $1,000,000 more over your life with a college degree” sales pitch)? Is college going to return to the pre-GI Bill historical status of a privilege of being able to afford that bit of frivolity as opposed to an entitlement on the path to the American Dream? I’ve always said that if I won the lottery, I would probably go to school for the rest of my life. Maybe it makes perfectly logical economic sense that, on net, we should have to pay for such a privilege, especially when so many of the benefits are positive externalities that cannot be adequately captured or internalized. The again, maybe a democratic society should decide that it would be better off “wasting” a little extra money to instill some inefficient knowledge rather than accepting an efficiently mindless body politic.

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