What should higher education be?

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 “BA.”

So begins a thought-provoking op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Is this an argument for or against liberal education?

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5 Responses to What should higher education be?

  1. Leslie M-B says:

    What a narrow-minded approach to college education offered by this op-ed. Conflating learning with economics can be dangerous, as can be conflating learning with the results gleaned from standardized tests. Besides, how would a certification test look for students in the “studies” disciplines–American studies, ethnic studies, film studies, etc.?

    I think we should have more alternatives to a traditional college education, and I believe that college education today is broken in many places and ways. That said, the thought of standardized testing as a method of accountability and standardization of the disciplines frightens me.

  2. Steve says:

    Leslie, actually I think this is a broad-minded approach to college education, given that most students today seem to view college in largely vocational terms. What I found most interesting about this essay was the prospect of separating education from economics. If students saw the certification test as the ticket to a job, might they not take education more seriously? Students might see college as an opportunity for education, since it was neither necessary nor sufficient to certification. Of course, I’m ignoring the very real challenges of creating meaningful certification tests.

  3. Isaac says:

    It seems to me an undue assumption that businesses will simply cease to consider the BA/BS to be a good signal of what they’re looking for. Students might be approaching college in largely vocational terms, but whether they know it or not, they are leaving having developed some degree of critical thinking skills. I know that’s not true of all of them (I can think of a couple people who don’t deserve their degree off the top of my head), but I tend to think its true of most. So maybe doing enough to get by structures your mind enough to suit the needs of business.

    I think that if there were a standardized test system even close to approximating what the author suggests, individuals with degrees who test as well as those without degrees will have higher wages and/or employment rates than the latter within the field for which the test was taken.

    The cookie cutter approach to college might suck a lot, but there’s still added value beyond mere signalling. One picks up more than a mere vocation in four years of structured learning. The author emphasizes the cookie cutter nature and forgets the ephemeral but no-less-important intuition that one develops in college. Students might not realize they’re learning… but they are. Maybe not enough to make you and I happy, but… c’est la vie… That’s why we are going/went for our PhDs and they won’t.

  4. Chris says:

    I think that there are a number of issues with this piece both with the argument on its surface and then with what I think is possibly a hidden agenda. One problem is that the author offers no evidence that the CPA test he touts is actually effective as a barrier to entry. I’d like to hear from people in the field as to whether the test is an accurate measure or whether it is just what’s used so people deal with it and use it – kind of like how colleges use another national standardized test the SAT even though it isn’t necessarily the best predictor.

    The other problem with this idea is that a test and a BA in effect measure different things on very different time scales. Most tests like the one he is advocating measure someone’s ability to recall knowledge and apply know techniques to solve problems in a short timeframe (minutes for questions, hours for the test). The BA is a measure of years of work (high school, college), many tests (both in courses and standardized like the SAT) in a number of disciplines. So you can’t really directly compare the two in terms of what they measure.

    You can, and he does, make the argument that the BA doesn’t work as an assessment tool or barrier to entry for jobs so something else is needed. My guess is that for certain types of jobs in certain industries he is right. It also seems that in many of those jobs there are already tests required (like medicine and law). Maybe some would benefit from more national standards, I don’t know enough to say.

    A third problem I have with the idea is that what employers want is often difficult to measure in a test. I work in media arts and technology and recently hosted a panel of CEOs, VP and high-level managers in the industry. They were talking to students about what they did and what kind of person they were looking to hire. They didn’t talk much about technical competency. The kind of thing a certification test would measure. Yes, a certain amount of technical skill was required but really differentiated people for them were things like drive, determination, passion for the field, ability to communicate and work with other, write a good email, think creatively. A certification test can’t measure that. A ten minute interview with someone who worked their way through community college and then on to a BA while holding down a job and raising a child would tell you volumes more.

    I could go on but I want to quickly mention what I perceive as the hidden agenda. The author is employed by American Enterprise Institute. This is one of the major architects of Bush policies. I think that this kind of op ed piece in the WSJ is a tactic to take power away from educational institutions. Those in the Institute see higher education as having a large “liberal” bias and are always seeking to undermine its authority and this is an attempt. Just my opinion of course.

    I do however sympathize with the idea that there are failings in the current system and some changes need to be made. For another perspective on revamping assessment and education take a look at this post by Stephen Downes on Open Source Assessment http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/06/open-source-assessment.html. I don’t agree with everything there either but it’s an interesting perspective.

  5. Angela Gosetti-Murrayjohn says:

    Thanks, Chris, for the link to Stephen Downes’ post–fantastic!!! One of the most thought-provoking essays on assessment I’ve read in some time. Should be required reading!

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