10 November 2009

college, why yes, I am an elitist scumbag

You may keep your money though

Several of these are more or less where I come down.
"It has been empirically demonstrated that doing well (B average or better) in a traditional college major in the arts and sciences requires levels of linguistic and logical/mathematical ability that only 10 to 15 percent of the nation's youth possess. That doesn't mean that only 10 to 15 percent should get more than a high-school education. It does mean that the four-year residential program leading to a B.A. is the wrong model for a large majority of young people." - The old days only about 10-15% of people went to college (there were also fewer institutions calling themselves colleges). Now it's possible that we could expand the number of people who are qualified to go by providing a quality primary education. But to presume that we should also be putting more social resources on the back end instead of where they clearly belong at the moment is wasteful and unproductive. Fixing the front end is where my money would go. What we put in is garbage, so one should expect that the ratio of quality college candidates is low as a result. "That not all students have the skills necessary to keep up with college course work says more about the effectiveness of our K-12 education than about the cognitive ability of American students." - Told ya.

"Students' lives are at stake, not just enrollment targets." - That whole segment was very good as well. My experience was that there were many people in college (not most, but a significant percentage) who had no business being there and were not going to graduate or receive some monetary advantage worth the loans, headaches, and overall costs to net worth. Even from two year degree programs. What we are lacking is a better apprenticeship system or career training focus as an alternative. People can always try to go to college when they want later on if they think it will help. In some cases I just don't see that it will.

Pretty much everything Caplan said in the piece was on my brain.

"There are two ways to read this question. One is: "Who gets a good financial and/or personal return from college?" My answer: people in the top 25 percent of academic ability who also have the work ethic to actually finish college. The other way to read this is: "For whom is college attendance socially beneficial?" My answer: no more than 5 percent of high-school graduates, because college is mostly what economists call a "signaling game." Most college courses teach few useful job skills; their main function is to signal to employers that students are smart, hard-working, and conformist. The upshot: Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn't encourage it." - College as I saw it is basically a networking game rather than a system of scholastic provision. And it seems like a lot of effort for a piece of paper that proves you are smart relative to actually being sort of smart to start with and to pursue things on your own initiative.

"Encouraging talented people to spend many years in wasteful status contests deprives the economy of millions of man-years of output. If this were really an "investment," of course, it might be worth it. But I see little connection between the skills that students acquire in college and the skills they'll need later in life." - I recall one of the problems I heard from grandparents being that they ended up doing a lot of extra work because they had acquired practical skills over many years that the newly hired pups fresh out of a college degree mill had no idea how to do. College is not a job training system. It's something else.

"I question the conventional wisdom that enormous positive spillover effects of college attendance justify large public subsidies for universities. If subsidies are to be given, they should go directly to students." - This much I agree with, it amounts to a cash transfer rather than a forced subsidy to spend on education. If students begin wasting the money on pointless coursework, then it's more obvious where the rising cost is coming from rather than if the college is building and rebuilding infrastructure at public expense and thus doing very little in many cases to advance the learning powers and options of individual students.

Pretty much my analysis of the problem is that there seems to be some idea that we should have a universal college system. This is false. What we need is what we had in the first half of the 20th century, one of the best universal primary education system available. Since that is floundering, then the focus on college admissions and graduations is bound to:
1) increase the cost of attending college astronomically. Unnoticed in the furor over health care is the fact that there is one area of the economy increasing in expense faster than even health care: education. This cost factor needs to be addressed as it is one reason why academically qualified people sometimes do not attend colleges. Colleges used to be relatively cheap and accessible, in part because of generous subsidies. But also because the emphasis on "you must have a college degree" to get a decent job did not exist. I'm still not sure that it should.
2) Waste the time of people who are not academically qualified to finish college because of inadequate preparatory school. We should not have people in college campuses receiving what amounts to remedial education in mathematics or writing. That's a high school problem of basic education and deserves public money to fix, but not at the extra expense of doing so in a competitive college environment. The options of two year community colleges, at lower expense, should be improved and considered as options and proving grounds for more marginal academic candidates as well as functioning as more practical job training centers or career advancement programs over the impetus to have a B.A. in particular. I think there's a stronger case that a B.S. degree is still of some value because of the technical knowledge required to attain it and the amount of technical work available. But this again requires a student body population capable of doing such work as required to learn in these fields.
3) Inevitably the public will demand easier college courses/grading scales/majors that are not economically viable in the real world to make our graduation rates look better rather than focusing on the actual impact of college academically. That is to encourage people to learn more and more about complicated issues that they were not exposed to in high school from an academic perspective. And not to provide people with degrees to make them feel like they accomplished something.
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