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American Higher Education: Not what it used to be (economist.com)
54 points by kartman on Dec 1, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 28 comments

I was reading an article in an OLD print magazine published in the year 1900 (probably around when that picture was taken). It spoke of the increase of college students in the U.S. and made some comments on how past countries had suffered because of too many college graduates:

"There can hardly be too large an attendance at our colleges so long as the sturdy common sense of American life keeps its balance — the common sense that forbids even an effort to make a distinct "educated " class which when "educated" is unwilling to do the common tasks at which young men must first try their mettle. In Germany there is a surplus of scholars who are worth nothing to the community. They might have been good craftsmen, but university training has left them unwilling to do the common work of the world."

Has the U.S. lost that "sturdy common sense" recently? Too many degrees are handed out (a large part thanks to for-profits) to those who probably shouldn't have a degree. If they were to attend a vocational school or become an apprentice instead of college, college degrees wouldn't be watered down by those who don't even need them, meanwhile colleges would have a student body of only those fit to be there.

What exactly is this "sturdy common sense"?

I am a mathematics professor, and I have the opportunity to work at what I love. Why should I forego this to instead do "the common work of the world"?

If the only paying job available to me were digging ditches, then I would do it happily and well. Presumably the same for most people. But this comment doesn't seem to describe a choice that anyone actually faces.

Recently, a fairly large number of people where unemployed for 6 months to 2 years which where receiving unemployment checks significantly above minimum wage. There was no point in them being ditch diggers as they would have earned a negative wage by doing so. Arguably, if most of these people had spent 20 hours a week doing manual labor they would have been far heather and even more motivated.

Now, there where plenty of reasons to set things up like this, but it also distorts what people thought was reasonable 100 years ago.

Yes, because in the construction boom that followed the Global Financial Crisis, foreman would love to hire overweight middle aged accountants to dig their ditches.

If you are a mathematics professor than your education got you a job worthwhile to the community. Many people get degrees which have not prepared them to contribute because they can't find a job that matches their qualifications.

I went to school with plenty of people who were there because thats just what you do. They partied too much and studied too little and now they are overqualified and underemployed. The fact that you can be overqualified to me is the loss of "sturdy common sense", not everyone is as centered as you appear to be and I think you overestimate more than a few people.

> They partied too much and studied too little and now they are overqualified and underemployed.

If they studied to little they are hardly overqualified. Someone in the position you describe seems to be at a point where their own perception of their qualification, based on the fact that they did somehow get a degree, is inflated compared to their qualifications as perceived by potential employers.

"Overqualification" is a strange term anyway. It's not that a potential employer wouldn't want someone better than strictly necessary for a job. It seems to have more to do with some people expecting a certain "baseline" of job offers once they have a degree on paper, despite their actual qualification perhaps not warranting this.

Obama made the following statement in 2009:[1]

“I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training,” Mr. Obama said in February 2009. “This can be community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.”

The problem is I haven't seen any concrete initiative to do such a thing. That being said, the system is ripe for it's inevitable crash. Which in my opinion is a good thing. What the US needs is to crash and hurt. That will ultimately force change.

[1] - http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/27/obama-defends-...

My impression of my country, the US, is that we don't change with pain, we double down, so we can convince ourselves that we aren't wrong. Education methods ineffective? Assign more class hours and homework. War not going well? Pour more money and blood into it.

We don't have an education crisis and improvement cycle coming, we have a crisis and "surge" coming.

Why don't we just make high schools better?

Degrees are useless. It's turned into a piece of paper that everybody has to have.

These days having a degree doesn't mean you actually know anything about the field that you have studied in. It just means that you have a degree thus you are allowed to get a job that doesn't require manual labor. This isn't just America, it's everywhere.

What it means is you were smart enough to get into college and you persevered enough to finish your degree. The first part is critical, and why degrees from academically exclusive colleges are worth more than others.

If the first part is critical, then we should just go back to IQ testing job applicants instead of wasting $100,000 and 4-5 years to skip class and cheer at football games. Unfortunately this practice was banned by the Supreme Court as discriminatory.

Yep. Millions of kids have been turned into debt slaves by Griggs v Duke Power. But it's not just the courts - elite colleges collude to suck the absolute last dollar from every student, and Congress refuses to do anything about it.

Hasn't it always been that way? Human primates want to impress other human primates, so they get themselves titles. Doctor beats Master, Master beats Bachelor, Bachelor beats Drop-Out, Drop-Out beats Secondary School Graduate. Higher Education is part of a schooling system designed to perpetuate a stratified society. Graduating demonstrates agreement.

I would love to know the source of this quote. Any chance you have it available?

Sure, it's titled "The World's Work" and I guess it's sort of "The Economist" of its day. Here's a Google Books link (the article on education is on page 21) http://books.google.com/books/about/The_World_s_work.html?id...

Thanks for the link. Very interesting stuff.

There'll always be someone to point out that such degrees are necessary for higher(!) degrees which are necessary for academia. While the myth that we have a shortage of PhDs and scientists - combined with a huge portion of academics retiring - continues, it is a very profitable excuse to get more public funding.

But that's okay, we have plenty of money to spend on all kinds of research - we're aiming at a lofty goal! But the discomforting bit is when the majority of the graduates regard everyday-life mundane stuffs are below them, that all high is in the textbooks, and simultaneously have no urge to do something (themselves or earthly people value) instead of just "learning".

- Only 25 percent of college graduates are deemed proficiently literate. How did the 75 percent complete college (and how did they get in to college in the first place) if they can't read and write at a proficient level?

- 43 percent of all grades are As. Isn't an A supposed to be the best grade? I was always very impressed when someone was mentioned as "a straight A student" but I guess it just means she got average or slightly better than average grades :-)

I'm currently in a Computer Science University program that I'm doing Online and it pains me to see so many high grades.

For instance, on one of the C++ homework we had, the median was 100%. It's fun to have good grades when deserved, but sometimes they feel thrown away and the only to not get good grades is to willingly not do as asked. (Oh and by the way, in this class, A+ is given for the 90-100% bracket.)

"But rising fees and increasing student debt, combined with shrinking financial and educational returns, are undermining at least the perception that university is a good investment."

Of course it's not ALWAYS a good investment. It depends on what you're investing in. That's like saying investing in equities is a bad idea, because poor choices lead to poor returns.

Why do all of the ballooning student loan conversations lump "college degrees" together? Area of study has a significant impact. I know of very few engineers who are being crushed by student debt. Of course if someone chooses to spend over $100k obtaining a bachelors degree in art, and has problems getting a job out of school, this has somehow become the fault of the university, or the United States, or society in general.

> [...] students share online tips about “blow off” classes (those which can be avoided with no damage to grades) and which teachers are the easiest-going.

Do they really think this is a new phenomenon? I can't imagine nobody spread the word about what classes were easy before the Internet.

It has always been known what classes were good for little work and easy grades. On-line information must have made this more accessible in the largest schools, but has it really made a difference in those with fewer than 10 thousand undergraduates?

A college education is only four years. A good portion of the value of those four years is the contact with other intelligent young people. So quality of the graduates coming out is likely proportional to the quality of the students admitted.

That is to say, aside from the important other factors mentioned in the article, the decline of American secondary education clearly is a factor in the decline of American college education.

I'd extend that thought and say the problem with American secondary education is American primary education; and the problem with American primary education is American pre-school education or lack there of; and the problem with American pre-school education or the lack there of is that investing in 3 year olds requires a long term outlook and patience; two things politicians and decision makers are incentivized to be deficient in.

Um, investing in 3 year olds is done (assuming raising children is not the states responsibility) by parents, not politicians... not sure what your point is here.

I'd don't have any particular love for public schools but k-12 is covered by government in the US. There's no reason that it couldn't or shouldn't extend down. In my view, education gets harder the older the students are. Regardless of how many years of school the public decides to fund, I think we should start as early as possible. There's a compounding effect to education; put in the time, effort, and money early and you make the future a lot easier.

Nothing can replace good parents but there's only so much that can be done to improve the general quality of parents. Given that society has a vested interest in the future of every child, I don't think it's unreasonable for government to try to do better. That doesn't necessarily mean the public school system; it could be vouchers, various incentives, etc. But just saying parents need to do it is a cop out, shortsighted, and unrealistic.

Isn't the next step to say the problem with American 3 year olds, is their parents?

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