Cynical view: How do we get more college graduates?

July 23, 2010 at 8:31 am 18 comments

The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.

“The growing education deficit is no less a threat to our nation’s long-term well-being than the current fiscal crisis,” Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, warned at a meeting on Capitol Hill of education leaders and policy makers, where he released a report detailing the problem and recommending how to fix it. “To improve our college completion rates, we must think ‘P-16’ and improve education from preschool through higher education.”

via Once a Leader, U.S. Lags in College Degrees –

I’m in a cynical mood this morning.  (It’s been a rough week.)

How can we get more people through college?  My base assumption is that public policy, like water and electricity, always takes the path of least resistance.

  • Option #1: As the College Board suggests, we can improve P-16. We do a massive overhaul of K-12 so that students come to college prepared and motivated.  Not only is that prohibitively expensive, but you’ll be spending most of your effort on improving education for the kids not going to college.  That’s not an effective application of money to improve this particular metric.
  • Option #2: Change college.  We can lower standards (most likely since it’s least expensive), or we can improve quality, engage students, and reward teaching as well as research.  While not requiring as broad a change as Option #1, it’s still quite expensive. College is expensive, and it’s not clear that we have enough seats in our colleges to get enough students in the system to budge those numbers that the NYTimes is complaining about.  And if we built more colleges, they would try to be research-focused (or at least, research-infused) which means less focus on teaching and more junior faculty being forced to churn out papers (even if nobody, not even the author, likes them) to make tenure.
  • Option #3: We create more on-line opportunities for higher-education.  They’re cheaper to offer, lower quality, and don’t require building more schools.  Nobody gets tenure for offering on-line courses.  Even fewer students will pass than in Option #2, but if we lower standards enough (and it’s just software!), we can make that happen,too.

Pretty obvious to me from this analysis which way public policy will likely go.

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18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  July 23, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Option # 3. Cheaper? Data please. What evidence is there for this claim? University of Phoenix costs as much/more than many F2F schools. Certainly the history of traditional schools trying to get into online education doesn’t support this claim; it is MORE expensive in those cases because we continue to use the same “craftsman” model of a single faculty member doing everything: designing the instruction, delivering the instruction, assessing student learning and most faculty are not experts in all of these areas in traditional settings, let alone, online.

    I agree with the higher attrition rate for straight online schools, but that data can be disaggregated to show that it is mainly the under-prepared students. Online is most successful in places like master’s degrees for working professionals (teachers, MBA, nurses) where they have very high graduation rates.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  July 23, 2010 at 9:04 am

      Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media by John S. Daniel did the economic analysis to show that distance universities, whose number of seats is not limited by physical space, can amortize their costs across large numbers of students to have dramatically lower costs per student. The Open University UK has lower cost/student than many of the universities in the UK, but higher quality than many, due to impressive up front course development investments. You can’t use American online schools as examples of how to do it right. OU-USA failed because we haven’t found an American distance education model that’s as effective. I do agree about the value of focusing first at professional development and Masters degrees as the place to figure out the model.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Max Steel, Education. Education said: Cynical view: How do we get more college graduates?: The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25-… […]

  • 4. Alfred Thompson  |  July 23, 2010 at 11:02 am

    I see two trends in colleges. One is moving to shorter courses which are often evening courses for non traditional students and the other is more online courses. Many of both are taught by adjuncts who tend to be less expensive for the universities.

    The shorter evening courses allow for more courses to be offered during the course of the year thus being more cost effective of space. A number of faculty have told me that they are concerned about the quality and rigor of the shorter courses. Some topics require more think time and project time than shorter courses (often 8-9 weeks rather than 14 weeks) allow for.

    Less expensive or not, online courses are perceived by many as less expensive especially in the long run. In theory if the upfront works is done well enough the first time the course is offered there is a cost savings for future times. I think that many business people in education like it most for the potential to get students who would not be able to attend traditional classes in traditional classrooms.

    In the long run the ability to use more adjuncts may be the big “win” in costs. I am also concerned about the standards that will be required to keep people in these courses. Students who fail tend to give up at higher rates than those who pass courses. (I believe that to be true at least) Standards at some for profit schools seem to be particularly low with pressure on faculty to find ways to pass students. What good are graduates if they don’t have the knowledge that jobs require?

  • 5. Hélène Martin  |  July 23, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    I think we need fewer college graduates, not more.

    The expectation that nearly everyone go to college results in lots of folks who exit with no useful skills, no idea what they want to do, and a sense that they’re entitled to ‘better’ than a manual job. At the same time, the prestige of skilled labor takes a hard hit and fewer people want to do things like wire homes, unclog drains, etc.

    I think college graduate count is not a useful measure. I have plenty of friends who have degrees and are working low-skill retail jobs and I don’t think it has much to do with the economy. They could have saved themselves tens of thousands of dollars, years of time, and be essentially in the same position.

    • 6. Aaron Lanterman  |  July 24, 2010 at 9:02 pm

      I know some graduates from Savannah College of Art and Design who are either accountants or working at Borders.

  • 7. Hélène Martin  |  July 23, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    PS: I’m sorry, but I find the quote you pull out objectionable. Of course the College Board wants there to be a college enrollment and completion crisis fixable through P-16 — that’s how they sell more tests! In this case, Mr. Caperton is acting as a lobbyist and I have very little patience for the lobbying process.

    (also having a cynical day — my apologies)

  • 8. Alan Kay  |  July 24, 2010 at 7:57 am

    A look at what 130 years ago was covered in 1-8 and then in the “higher schools” that required a test for admission, shows that this has already happened once.

    As the proper English lady said to me 30 years ago “You Americans have the best high school education in the world — what a pity you have to go to college to get it!”

    Today, I fear she would not be able to find a quip that fits.

    To me the issue is not a degree (or even attending college) but whether the original aims of public education in the US can be fulfilled through any process today. These goals have been almost forgotten in this century’s ever growing concern for jobs, but they were about instilling the many perspectives and breadth of knowledge and outlook required to be a functioning citizen in a representative democracy.

    There is quite a bit of evidence that college is not accomplishing this for most graduates, and grad school is mostly aimed at specialization. It appears that there are a vanishingly few organized processes in place these days for actual education of this kind.

    Best wishes,


    • 9. Jeff Graham  |  July 26, 2010 at 3:55 pm

      Hi Alan,

      I am not so sure that public education was ever aimed at anything other than providing just enough skill to make some one an acceptable employee. Perhaps there were higher aspirations for it once upon a time, but it has been devoid of those for as long as I can remember. Higher ed is pretty much the same game now for most. We still save a few once in awhile though.


      • 10. Erik Engbrecht  |  July 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm

        That sentiment doesn’t jive with any American public school curriculum I’ve seen or heard of. Most of what’s taught schools is near useless from a vocational perspective. The subject matter is either irrelevant to most vocations, far too shallow for any vocations to which it may apply, or quite sadly both.

        The outline curriculum reflects a belief is a well-rounded education. The cursory coverage subjects such as literature, civics, history, science, math beyond arithmetic or basic algebra, and health receive provide nothing vocational. A person either doesn’t need it, or needs far more depth than public school provide.

        How do you explain the existence all these subjects if there isn’t some other purpose besides vocational training?


      • 11. Alan Kay  |  July 27, 2010 at 7:37 am

        To Jeff

        From Jefferson: “I know no safe depository for the ultimate powers of a society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to better inform their discretion by education.”

        One of the central problems of “designing a country” was that they could see that a republic would be workable if some way could be devised to “guard the guardians” — this had never worked well in the past (Rome, Holy Roman Empire) but other aspects of the republic form suited the needs.

        Similarly, a direct democracy was thought to not be workable for a variety of reasons (including the tyranny of the majority, the problems of referenda — and of course, Plato’s reason for not liking it — it was the direct democracy by lot that put Socrates to death).

        Hence, Jefferson’s quote above. It is true that most Americans do not understand the origins of public education in the US (and do not understand most things about the system design that has kept relative stability with many degrees of freedom), but that is just one more argument for real education not (just) vocational training.

        For this to work, the citizens of the US have to be educated enough (and enlightened enough from it) to make choices that go beyond their own immediate needs but are also for the integrity of the system they are embedded in.

        Best wishes,


      • 12. Jeff Graham  |  July 29, 2010 at 8:12 pm

        Hi Erik,

        I was really thinking about low paying jobs that don’t require much beyond the ability to read at about the six grade level and do some basic arithmetic. Leave it to higher ed to put the stamp of employability on them.

        I don’t know how it is at other places, but a lot of the curriculum seems to me to be to provide the student with the mythology of the country and create a patriot out of them.

        You are no doubt right about the attempt to make well rounded people out of them, but there is a lot of vocational courses available from “home ec” style to full blown voc edudcation.

    • 13. Jeff Graham  |  July 29, 2010 at 8:17 pm

      Hi Alan,

      I was vaguely aware of all that information, but it is good to see it again. And good to be reminded yet again about what a miserable failure public education seems to be.

      I expect in the next hundred years or so, we will either get it right or it will cease to matter.

      • 14. Alan Kay  |  July 30, 2010 at 9:30 am

        Hi Jeff

        I’m guessing that it will take a 50-100 year bootstrapping process to get many things to better places.

        For example, if everyone were able to look at things through a systems view, then they would immediately get interested in the systems in which they live that account for their levels of sustenance, choice, powers, etc. Why do they work? How are they fragile? What kinds of lead times are needed to sustain and improve them?

        They would be able to see that they were once children who had to learn to see things this way. And so forth.

        An interesting and important question is — if parents and teachers are ultimately the keys to how children grow up — what rate of compound improvement is needed in homes and schools to gradually produce enough good parents and teachers to make the larger system of the country much better?

        This is not quite “chicken and egg” but with most adults not having the need perspectives required to motivate action, we have not just a stall, but a gradual regression, which makes the bootstrapping ever harder to get going.

        Seymour Papert once said that he wished the US was “a developing nation” because one of our biggest problems is the false belief that “we are there”.



  • […] better here than there). Americans wonder why they keep slipping down the ranks when it comes to college enrollments, science scores, high school completion, and so on. Of course, the logical result of these things […]

  • 16. Aaron Lanterman  |  July 24, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    At this risk of making my job as I know it now obsolete, wish we could “burn the disks packs” on universities. Why do we have these things called “degrees?” Why do we have these things called “courses,” which haven’t changed in their basic structure in over a century?

    Why pay for an “online course” at all when so much information is just out there, and there are so many online discussion boards on so many topics with knowledgeable participants? To some extent, I think professors, in their educational mission, may become more like “curators” (finding the best “free” information out there, using experience to separate wheat from chaff.)

    • 17. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 30, 2010 at 1:46 pm

      We have courses because students do not know how to find information, how to organize it into coherent frameworks, how to judge the sources it comes from. Information is cheap, but coherent thinking about it is still rare.

      We have degrees because employers like to have some evidence that people can complete a task that takes some sustained effort, and that they have learned something (if not much). They are also used like levels in video games, to motivate students to keep learning.

  • […] significant problem (that isn’t made better with online education)!  I do understand that increasing the pass rate without maintaining quality is an empty achievement, but the economic cost of the high dropout rate is enormous. Each desk represents one of the 857 […]


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