Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Higher Education Act and the Problem of Success

Monday on LinkedIn Pulse, Carlo Salerno argued against the reauthorization of the United States Higher Education Act by noting that schools already pay indirectly for dropouts through recruitment and other efforts. Therefore, subsidizing of dropouts by schools isn't needed, as it creates a situation in which schools pay twice. The US government clearly doesn't agree.

The argument for what the Department of Education calls "focusing higher education on student success" can be found here. Its chief arguments, in sum, are that (a) "In today’s economy, higher education is no longer a luxury for the privileged few, but a necessity for individual economic opportunity and America’s competitiveness in the global economy"; (b) "Colleges have not focused on keeping costs down, and tuition has spiraled out of control"; (c) "more students need access to vastly more affordable and quality higher education opportunities"; and (d) "We must shift focus toward creating an accountability and incentive structure that provides educational opportunity by ensuring that students are graduating on time with an affordable, meaningful* degree or credential".

I'm far from against making higher education more affordable. As a Canadian, it's practically my duty. It's the commodification of  education that makes me bristle.

The DoE's argument has two major problems:

1. It underestimates the efforts that go into graduation

Tuition payment, enrollment and attendance are not guarantees of graduation. There is an increasing attitude that someone who pays to attend a university should receive a degree simply for having paid, such as these discussions in The Economist, US News and the University of Florida's online newsletter. Notions of return on investment for degrees play on this simple theme; a degree is something to be purchased that will pay off after some amount of time, much like a stock paying dividends. Purchasing a stock requires no more effort than the purchase itself, though. There isn't a series of tasks ensuring that the purchaser is qualified to hold it. Purchasing a seat in a classroom isn't purchasing a degree.

Salerno makes a good, but incomplete, point in saying that
"If institutions could control how much students learn, then why would they consciously choose to send unprepared graduates into the labor market where they struggle to find and keep employment? And if they could control who graduates and who doesn’t, what economic rationale do they have for producing a mix of graduates and dropouts?"
Institutions can't control the labour market, nor can they control how much students learn. However, there may be an incentive for certain undergraduate programs to have a positive failure rate in order to emphasize the difficulty and rigor of the program. Note that a failure rate and a dropout rate aren't the same thing. A student who gets an F in one class may perform wonderfully in all the others.

When thinking of a dropout rate** as an accumulated failure rate, it starts making more sense. If professors are willing to award Fs, and students are the ones in charge of how well they perform academically, it follows that certain students will have higher failure rates than others. The ones who fail most frequently are more likely to drop out. While I can't imagine schools like when students drop out, between academic probation and professor availability there's only so much a school can do. A collegial atmosphere that encourages independent attendance of professor office hours does more to help students learn the material than any number of ROI-based talks can.

To conclude with a clunky yet apt analogy, think of paying for tuition as buying a lawnmower and graduating with a degree as having freshly cut grass. Buying a lawnmower doesn't lead to having freshly cut grass. It's the actual mowing of the lawn - in other words, the work the student puts into his or her university courses - that leads to the desired outcome. The better the mowing, the nicer the lawn. Paying tuition gives a student a chance to succeed, not an irrevocable ticket to success. To expect otherwise is to place an obligation on professors that belongs on the students.

2. It focuses on a limited definition of success

The above news columns, as well as Kevin O'Leary's attention-grabbing anti-BA, anti-movie-making videos from last year (and their rebuttals), discuss O'Leary's favourite topic: making money. There's nothing wrong with making money. It just isn't a useful metric for success in isolation.

Consider two students, each with a Bachelor of Arts. For sake of argument, let's say neither advances to graduate or professional school, and neither enters a traditionally high-paying field like investment banking or public administration that often recruits from non-traditional disciplines.

Student Q takes a retail job out of school that pays $30,000 annually. This is about double the United States's federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and higher than almost all state/municipal minimum wages. Possibly the employer even said the higher wage was directly due to the employee's university degree, which is consistent with the Department of Education's article linked above stating that "College graduates with a bachelor’s degree typically earn 66 percent more than those with only a high school diploma". There is no real opportunity for advancement at this hypothetical retail job other than possibly becoming a store manager at some unspecified future time. Given turnover rates in the retail industry, this promotion is a die-roll at best.

Student R doesn't work much after graduation, maybe a few part-time jobs, maybe ones that don't even require a university education. However, Student R does any of:
  • Train to be an Olympic athlete (possibly beginning this training during university)
  • Complete a creative project such as a book or movie that garners more critical or aesthetic appreciation than income
  • Participate in and/or coordinate global volunteer efforts, possibly in places he or she learned about while in university
  • Any number of other things that would take too long to list
Critical successes often resonate more than financial successes. They often last longer too; in 2014, the New York Times posited that someone whose income is in the 98th percentile's children will only earn in the 65th percentile. The only metrics for success the ROI-based articles, the Department of Education or Salerno use are graduation rate, time to graduation, and future earnings. None of these accurately predict success on any grand scale. The subjects learned in university can lead to these successes that are nearly impossible to quantify.

These two problems dovetail.

The ROI attitude toward university - that a degree is a purchase that yields dividends - and the narrow definition of success speak to strikingly similar attitudes. They combine to state this: in the short term, a degree is a piece of paper to be purchased, and success is embodied in the attainment of that purchase. In the long term, a degree's results are in future earnings, and success is embodied in those earnings. It should be evident by now why this attitude is wrong.

Success isn't showing up and receiving something that's given to you. Whether in university, in business or in anything else, it's about understanding the challenges you face and putting in the smart, hard work to address them. The same way no one would ever start a business and then put in no subsequent effort to make it succeed, no one should ever expect to enroll in a university and then not be expected to put the necessary effort into success.

Hopefully people don't miss that.


*"Meaningful" is never defined. Some sources attempt to allocate meaning by major (for example, engineering tends to be thought of as "meaningful"), but none focus on what the student is actually learning.

**This is a dropout rate due to academic factors. Financially motivated dropouts are a different issue entirely.

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