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Education Reporter

Questioning College
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A spate of recent articles on the value of a college education has asked whether higher education is really worth what students are paying for it. Forbes went so far as to title its article "The Great College Hoax" (2-2-09). Writer Kathy Kristof accused "the education industrial complex" of deceptively cultivating "the image of college as a sure-fire path to a life of social and economic privilege."

Kristof interviewed a number of disillusioned students who had gone deeply into debt for higher education, only to find that their earning potential came nowhere close to what they had expected. College graduates earn an average of $57,500 a year, while high school graduates average $31,600. Over the course of 40 years, the difference between the two adds up to a little over $1 million. Kristof charges, however, that this difference in earning power results partly from differences in intelligence and other abilities — the student with a college degree might have earned more than the average student in the high school group, even without a degree. Kristof also points out that the difference between the two average salaries has held steady over the past five years, while the cost of higher education is rising at twice the rate of inflation.

Scholar Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has long criticized the "inflated status" of the B.A. degree and the pressure on young people to attend college. One major study shows that 90% of high school students say their counselors have told them they should attend college. According to Murray, Americans revere the B.A. as an essential education attainment, even though many people without a B.A. might be better prepared or more competent for the jobs they seek than other applicants who do have the degree.

In an August 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal, Murray facetiously described the plan behind the current system of post-secondary education:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "B.A."

Murray addresses the same problem in his 2008 book, Real Education. He points to the certification tests already used by accounting, and a few other professions, as a model that could replace the B.A. as a more accurate measure of job applicants' abilities and job preparation. "Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications that they can carry into job interviews," Murray asserts. "They need a certification, not a degree."

Murray says the B.A. actually "tells an employer nothing except that the applicant had a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance." This is even true of students with degrees in vocational majors such as business administration, since schools and departments differ so much in what they require of students who receive such a degree.

"Certification tests would disadvantage just one set of people," says Murray: "Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. Disadvantaging them is an outcome devoutly to be wished."

Meanwhile, the federal government appears to be moving toward the opposite end of the spectrum of opinion on the usefulness of postsecondary education. Pres. Obama recently urged Congress to promote the goal of college for every single American (2-24-09). The Associated Press chose six experts to ask whether the president's goal was realistic. Not surprisingly, given the AP's strong pro-Obama bias, five of the six experts selected agreed that Obama's proposal was realistic. Their responses ranged from "Absolutely!" to "Not only is the president's goal realistic, achieving it is also vital to the future economic well-being of our society." Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, called for the expansion of early childhood education, early college saving plans for all students, and several other big-government measures.

The token dissident selected by the Associated Press, Ohio University's Richard Vedder, called universal college attendance both unrealistic and undesirable. "Not everyone can or should go to college," he said. "Fulfillment of President Obama's goal would lead to many students failing, resources being squandered and the quality of postsecondary education being diluted." Furthermore, Vedder charged, "the president's approach is the equivalent of dropping dollars out of airplanes over student homes and college campuses. That will not change colleges' behavior to make them less arrogant and elite, and more affordable, efficient and accountable." (Associated Press, 2-28-09)

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