More and more money is being spent on higher education. Too little is known about whether it is worth it.

The article compares Europe v USA. There are pros and cons, yet, I feel that we are moving towards ever increasing costs in education (USA) with the pressure being on students to pick the school they think will get them the best job and rising tuition (Europe) with no real explanation or prove, that paying for uni will get students a better job.

-Andreas Kristinus

President, EduGate LLC

The world is going to university

More and more money is being spent on higher education. Too little is known about whether it is worth it

“AFTER God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship and settled Civil Government, one of the next things we longed for and looked for was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity.” So ran the first university fundraising brochure, sent from Harvard College to England in 1643 to drum up cash.

America’s early and lasting enthusiasm for higher education has given it the biggest and best-funded system in the world. Hardly surprising, then, that other countries are emulating its model as they send ever more of their school-leavers to get a university education. But, as our special report argues, just as America’s system is spreading, there are growing concerns about whether it is really worth the vast sums spent on it.

The American way

The modern research university, a marriage of the Oxbridge college and the German research institute, was invented in America, and has become the gold standard for the world. Mass higher education started in America in the 19th century, spread to Europe and East Asia in the 20th and is now happening pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa. The global tertiary-enrolment ratio—the share of the student-age population at university—went up from 14% to 32% in the two decades to 2012; in that time, the number of countries with a ratio of more than half rose from five to 54. University enrolment is growing faster even than demand for that ultimate consumer good, the car. The hunger for degrees is understandable: these days they are a requirement for a decent job and an entry ticket to the middle class.

There are, broadly, two ways of satisfying this huge demand. One is the continental European approach of state funding and provision, in which most institutions have equal resources and status. The second is the more market-based American model, of mixed private-public funding and provision, with brilliant, well-funded institutions at the top and poorer ones at the bottom.

The world is moving in the American direction. More universities in more countries are charging students tuition fees. And as politicians realise that the “knowledge economy” requires top-flight research, public resources are being focused on a few privileged institutions and the competition to create world-class universities is intensifying.

In some ways, that is excellent. The best universities are responsible for many of the discoveries that have made the world a safer, richer and more interesting place. But costs are rising. OECD countries spend 1.6% of GDP on higher education, compared with 1.3% in 2000. If the American model continues to spread, that share will rise further. America spends 2.7% of its GDP on higher education.

If America were getting its money’s worth from higher education, that would be fine. On the research side, it probably is. In 2014, 19 of the 20 universities in the world that produced the most highly cited research papers were American. But on the educational side, the picture is less clear. American graduates score poorly in international numeracy and literacy rankings, and are slipping. In a recent study of academic achievement, 45% of American students made no gains in their first two years of university. Meanwhile, tuition fees have nearly doubled, in real terms, in 20 years. Student debt, at nearly $1.2 trillion, has surpassed credit-card debt and car loans.

None of this means that going to university is a bad investment for a student. A bachelor’s degree in America still yields, on average, a 15% return. But it is less clear whether the growing investment in tertiary education makes sense for society as a whole. If graduates earn more than non-graduates because their studies have made them more productive, then university education will boost economic growth and society should want more of it. Yet poor student scores suggest otherwise. So, too, does the testimony of employers. A recent study of recruitment by professional-services firms found that they took graduates from the most prestigious universities not because of what the candidates might have learned but because of those institutions’ tough selection procedures. In short, students could be paying vast sums merely to go through a very elaborate sorting mechanism.

If America’s universities are indeed poor value for money, why might that be? The main reason is that the market for higher education, like that for health care, does not work well. The government rewards universities for research, so that is what professors concentrate on. Students are looking for a degree from an institution that will impress employers; employers are interested primarily in the selectivity of the institution a candidate has attended. Since the value of a degree from a selective institution depends on its scarcity, good universities have little incentive to produce more graduates. And, in the absence of a clear measure of educational output, price becomes a proxy for quality. By charging more, good universities gain both revenue and prestige.

What’s it worth?

More information would make the higher-education market work better. Common tests, which students would sit alongside their final exams, could provide a comparable measure of universities’ educational performance. Students would have a better idea of what was taught well where, and employers of how much job candidates had learned. Resources would flow towards universities that were providing value for money and away from those that were not. Institutions would have an incentive to improve teaching and use technology to cut costs. Online courses, which have so far failed to realise their promise of revolutionising higher education, would begin to make a bigger impact. The government would have a better idea of whether society should be investing more or less in higher education.

Sceptics argue that university education is too complex to be measured in this way. Certainly, testing 22-year-olds is harder than testing 12-year-olds. Yet many disciplines contain a core of material that all graduates in that subject should know. More generally, universities should be able to show that they have taught their students to think critically.

Some governments and institutions are trying to shed light on educational outcomes. A few American state-university systems already administer a common test to graduates. Testing is spreading in Latin America. Most important, the OECD, whose PISA assessments of secondary education gave governments a jolt, is also having a go. It wants to test subject-knowledge and reasoning ability, starting with economics and engineering, and marking institutions as well as countries. Asian governments are keen, partly because they believe that a measure of the quality of their universities will help them in the market for international students; rich countries, which have more to lose and less to gain, are not. Without funding and participation from them, the effort will remain grounded.

Governments need to get behind these efforts. America’s market-based system of well-funded, highly differentiated universities can be of huge benefit to society if students learn the right stuff. If not, a great deal of money will be wasted.

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When it does matter where you go to college – yet another viewpoint…

As is the case every time this year around “acceptance letter month,” everyone has an opinion on where to go to college. Or where not to go. Or if to go at all. All I can say is, no one really knows the reasons why some wealthy kids don’t get into HYP (harvard, yale, princeton) or why “poor” kids do not get in either. Is it based on race, grade, gender, wealth, or connections? In my opinion, there is a school for EVERYONE, but it takes time, desire, and understanding to find it. It may not be in the U.S. but rather in Europe, Asia, Canada, or Down Under. Although I do appreciate most opinions voiced by the experts, in the end, we are far from understanding education as it is now, and even further from where it is going.
-Andreas Kristinus
President, EduGate LLC
March 23 at 1:33 PM

My post last week on a new book by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” generated hundreds of comments here and on Facebook. Many people agreed with Bruni, telling their own stories of attending less-selective colleges and turning out just fine. But lots of others mentioned the very real recruiting practices of a handful of blue-chip companies, especially on Wall Street and among consulting companies, that only look at graduates of elite schools.Bruni’s book largely focuses on students who made choices between selective colleges and slightly less selective colleges or brand-name public flagship campuses. The difference between going to Penn State, for example, instead of Carnegie Mellon, or Indiana University instead of the University of Michigan.

Those are the choices most high-school seniors are making at this time of year. They applied to a bunch of colleges that are probably similar in many ways. They are all small, private liberal-arts colleges; or they are all large, public universities; or maybe all close to home or in a specific region. Rarely do students apply to both Yale University and Radford University, for example.

In most cases, as readers pointed out, students mostly make the college experience what it turns out to be in the long run of life. There are plenty of failures at Harvard just as there are plenty of successes at Shenandoah University.

But in some cases, where you go to college does matter. When the primary measure of a degree’s value is actually graduating, then getting the right match between a prospective student and a school is what matters most. In making that match, colleges are the more important player.

It’s called “undermatching.” That’s what happens when smart students, usually low-income, could succeed at an elite college but never apply to one or go to one. The idea has received plenty of attention from researchers in recent years, and even the White House, where officials see it as way to boost the college graduation rates of low-income students. (Some also question the idea).

One of the leading proponents of this theory is William Bowen, an economist and former president of Princeton. In a 2009 book called “Crossing the Finish Line,” Bowen and his coauthors found that the harder-to-get-into colleges that they studied had higher graduation rates for all types of students, even those the admissions office might have worried about admitting in the first place.

There are all sorts of reasons why students pick less-selective colleges. They might want to stay close to home or go to the least-expensive college (this is particularly true of poorer students). Or maybe they are worried they won’t be able to keep up with their classmates.

Bowen and the other researchers studied a rich set of subjects: 60,000 seniors who attended more than 300 high schools in North Carolina in 1999. Not only did they have access to wide-ranging demographic data on those students, but they were able to link them to their college experiences. Of the 60,000, they determined about 6,200 students were eligible, based on grade-point averages and SAT scores, to attend the best college they could have. They found that four in 10 of those students chose not to attend one of those schools, either because they didn’t apply or didn’t enroll.

What is interesting about their findings is exactly who decided not to go to the best college they could have: Just 27 percent of students from the wealthiest households undermatched, but 59 percent of those from the poorest households did. Among those students whose parents did not go to college, 64 percent of them went to the less-selective college.

These are students who could have been admitted to a school like Ohio State (where about 78 percent of students graduate in six years), but instead they went to schools like Youngstown State (37 percent) or the University of Akron (35 percent).

Bowen told me that there might be a good reason for why students pick against their own self interests. The criteria for picking a college often conflict with one another. In his mind, there needs to be a good reason for deliberately choosing not to attend the best college you can get into. Too often the reason students make these questionable choices is a “combination of inertia, lack of information, lack of forward planning for college, and lack of encouragement.” Sometimes students rebuff the best college because they are getting a free ride somewhere else.

The bottom line is this: You should be sure to check out the graduation rates of a college you’re considering, and take particular note of the graduation rates for students like you (for example, they differ between men and women, and even by major). If the real value of college is in actually graduating, then Bowen’s research shows that it really does matter where you go to school.

Forget Harvard and Stanford. It really doesn’t matter where you go to college… Hmmm… I agree…

I have been thinking about this for quite some time now – does it really matter to the majority of students where they go to college…? Or is it the parents (as is the case with China) who want to garner the glory of their oh-so-successful child..? Let’s face it, there are way too many parents running around these days, wearing sweatshirts with the logo of their child’s school… Or is it the student who will succeed and be become happy in his/her job, who picked the school THAT IS RIGHT FOR HIM/HER..? We seem to get sucked into the “ratings war” and “connections” psycho thriller, thinking, without an ivy league education, there is no future… And yet, there are literally hundreds of good schools in the USA AND in Europe, that have a long track record of laying the foundation for some rather important and successful men and women… Yes, competition remains fierce and many will fail (China, Japan, South Korea) but only because they set their sights too high… We must educate students and parents alike that, yes, an education is super important these days, but there are solid, strong, and affordable choices left untapped – the only thing it takes is to look upon them in a humble fashion…
-Andreas Kristinus
President EduGate
March 16

In the coming weeks, college acceptances will start rolling in for a select group of high-school seniors vying to get into the three dozen or so most-selective colleges and universities in the country. Most seniors planning to go to college this fall already have been accepted somewhere, either because they applied early or they chose less-selective schools that notify applicants almost immediately of their decision.

But for those waiting to hear from Harvard, Stanford, Williams, and other elite schools, this time of year is one of high anxiety. By May we’ll hear yet again from those campuses bragging about how they set records for the number of applications they received this year and how few students they accepted — likely about one out of every 10 applicants.

For all the attention showered on these elite college and universities, however, they enroll fewer than 6 percent of U.S. college students. To put it another way, Stanford received approximately 40,000 applications last year when about 3.4 million students graduated from high school across the U.S.

The competition for getting into elite colleges seems to be getting more intense, leaving frustrated students, parents, and counselors to wonder: Does it really matter where you go to college?

It doesn’t, according to Frank Bruni. The New York Times columnist is author of a new book coming out on Tuesday, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.

The book is a quick read for stressed-out students and their parents. In it he has plenty of examples and lengthy stories of Americans of all ages and from all walks of life who have found success without degrees from brand-name universities. Bruni points out, for instance, that among the American-born chief executives of the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500, just about 30 went to an Ivy League school or equally selective college. (Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, graduated from my alma mater, Ithaca College, and unlike many other top executives never got an MBA).

Bruni told me last week that he decided to write the book because of the constant chatter among his friends who have kids in high school and among his nieces and nephews “all whipped up in a frenzy” over where to go to college.

“I was watching this and comparing it to my own life and the successful people I know,” he said. “I wondered if there was anything in their résumés, a uniform attendance at a few select schools, and I didn’t see it. It wasn’t the case. It was a patchwork of educational pedigrees.”

You wouldn’t know that from conversations at cocktail parties or college nights, particularly in competitive suburban and urban areas, such as Washington, D.C. and New York. There, the talk is all about how to get into the “right college.” I asked Bruni how you change that culture to persuade more of those students and their families to consider a broader array of schools.

In his opinion, the obsessive focus on elite schools begins with parents, some of whom he said are rightly concerned about launching their kids into a much more competitive world and want to give them every advantage. “I understand that motive,” he told me, “but some parents are simply trying to flatter themselves.”

In turn, guidance counselors take their cues from parents and are often evaluated, especially at private high schools, by how many of their students go to elite colleges.

Perhaps the shift away from the admissions frenzy needs to begin with employers who have long used admission to an elite school as a signal of a top job candidate. In the book, Bruni interviews a few employers and venture capitalists and also shows where recruiters say they find their best employees.

Many recruiters tell him they are much more focused on the experience of a candidate than where they went to school. And as Bruni points out when the Wall Street Journal asked recruiters the best universities for their entry-level hires, the top five were Penn State, Texas A&M, the University of Illinois, Purdue, and Arizona State. They are all brand-name schools, but they’re also public universities and hardly elite.

Bruni worries about the unintended consequences of putting so much pressure on teenagers to get admitted to a selective school. Last year, Bruni taught a course at Princeton and saw firsthand how many students view life as a series of challenges, a set of hoops to jump through, and getting into Princeton was one of them.

“A significant number of students had put so much energy into getting in, and then getting ready for the next competition, the job,” he said, “that they didn’t save their best energy and best selves for tilling the four-year experience for what it’s worth.”

A college alone doesn’t make a successful graduate. Sure, top college provides a peer network that greatly helps both while students are on campus and afterwards as alumni. But someone with grit and ambition can succeed at many different types of schools.

The reality is that if those students Bruni taught at Princeton didn’t go there, it’s likely they would have gone to another fairly selective school anyway. So they’ll do just fine. Few students who get rejected by Princeton end up at Northern Michigan University.

That’s where Howard Schultz went to college, and today he is CEO of Starbucks.

Higher education isn’t in crisis…?! Really…?

March 12

Imagine, if you will, an American business that other countries, from China to Saudi Arabia, seek to emulate. A business that routinely accounts for the advances in science, medicine, technology, arts and humanities that have established the United States as the most innovative nation in the world. A business whose customers number about 20 million in this country alone, spanning the spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. A business that conservatively contributes more than $400 billion annually to the U.S. economy. A business that is commonly recognized as one of America’s greatest contributions to civilization.

That enterprise is America’s system of higher education. Why, then, is it routinely characterized as in crisis? This diagnosis comes mainly from three groups: those who believe that technology inevitably, and radically, will transform how education is delivered, whether the traditionalists want it to or not; others who cite rising tuition prices and foresee an escalation of the divide between the privileged and the disadvantaged; and finally, and I consider myself in this camp, advocates for public higher education who are raising alarms about a retreat from the commonwealth ideal that gave rise to this nation’s great public universities in the first place.

For the past few years, this chorus of doom has grown steadily louder: The model is broken and outdated and must be replaced with . . . something. Costs have climbed past benefits, both for students and for society. Traditional pedagogy has become passe. What propels these grim prognostications? I’m tempted to say that eulogizing higher education sells books, fills newspaper columns and makes for fetching political sound bites. But a more optimistic view would be that the raging debate reflects an appreciation of the importance of universities and colleges in shaping American society and securing this country’s place as a world leader. The stakes, after all, are high.

So let’s be clear. Higher education in this country is not in crisis. Instead, it is in motion, and it always has been. Higher education evolves as knowledge expands, societies change and new technologies are introduced. This does not mean that we should relax: There should be no comfort taken in maintaining the status quo.

As our universities and colleges undergo an intense period of evolution driven by advances in technology and better understanding of cognitive learning, and by concerns about cost and job-market demands, we should be asking ourselves questions, but they should be the right questions: Is higher education evolving in the right way? Will it continue to be able to meet the needs of students and their families, to keep pace with an expanding list of responsibilities that range from promoting civil discourse to preparing the next generation of scientists and researchers, and to ensure that the fundamentals of American higher education — fundamentals that have served this country so well — remain strong?

When people think of higher education, they generally think of residential, four-year colleges and universities. In truth, just a little more than half of college students attend such institutions. Roughly 40 percent attend two-year community colleges, and the rest are enrolled in for-profit institutions. Yet the bulk of commentary about higher education concerns four-year, residential colleges and universities, perhaps because that is where America’s contribution has been greatest — and because the commentators themselves attended such institutions.

Two recent contributions to the higher education commentary are Ryan Craig’s “College Disrupted” and Kevin Carey’s “The End of College.” Craig, a former management consultant, is a founding managing director of University Ventures, self-described as “the only investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector.” Carey is a higher education policy analyst who serves as director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Craig’s point — when one cuts through the jargon and the unnecessary stories about pranks he pulled as a Yale undergraduate — is that American universities have too many non-education-related expenses bundled into their cost models. He characterizes these as the 4 R’s: rankings, which force all universities into “pernicious isomorphism” (i.e. unnecessary duplication); real estate, or absurdly expensive campus buildings, especially dorms and dining halls; rah, an awkward alliteration that refers to intercollegiate athletics, especially Division I football and basketball; and research, which he asserts subordinates teaching and is mostly superfluous.

Craig’s solution is to unbundle these types of expenses and convert higher education into “competency management platforms” that better match what students learn with what employers need. He has ideas about how this can be done. Pointing to Linn State Technical College in Missouri, he recommends “double click degrees,” with which employers can double-click a transcript to learn about a course and the competencies a student has mastered. His other recommendations are more mundane, such as improving “rigor” and moving more students from part time to full time. Nowhere does he confront the tremendous practical and political challenges associated with unbundling existing institutions — dismantling college sports, for example.

The more thorough, more thoughtful book is Carey’s “The End of College.” It begins with a discussion of the evolution of the modern American university, something that is particularly useful for those who presume that universities have never changed. In fact, universities have transformed alongside the societies they serve. Carey continues by explicating the rise of online technology, which, in a variety of forms, is permeating higher education today. The critical insight, however, is his combining of online technology, which after all is only a delivery device, with our increasing knowledge about the brain and how students actually learn. Not surprisingly, the more interactive the technology and the more precisely aimed at an individual student’s capabilities and understanding of the course material, the better the educational outcome. But inserting the right kind of technology into the classroom is not cheap. Not surprisingly, a lack of educational interaction contributed to the troubles experienced by the early iterations of online learning, such as “massive open online courses,” which in their initial incarnation were mistakenly believed to be a way to cut college costs dramatically.

In Carey’s view, universities that develop personalized online platforms will succeed in the global higher education market. In addition to traditional degrees, they will offer “open badges,” essentially searchable, open-source credentials that will allow employers to look up the assignments and exams a student was required to master. They will invest in immersive digital learning environments, rather than building $100 million student unions. They will become the “university of everywhere.”

This is thought-provoking, fascinating material. But one finishes Carey’s book with a sense of unease. Our universities are among the most complex, difficult-to-manage institutions around. While they most certainly will evolve over the long term, there are near-term challenges that must be addressed. This is especially true for public universities, which educate almost two-thirds of all undergraduates at residential, four-year institutions. These schools have undergone a decades-long period of public disinvestment — during the years of the Great Recession, 44 out of 50 states cut funding on a per-student basis to their public institutions of higher education — resulting in increases in tuition and a diminishment of the student experience.

No doubt the severity of cuts varies from state to state. For the University of California, nearly $1 billion in funding was cut after the economy went into free fall in 2008 — a 30 percent reduction to the university’s core budget. The state has restored only about half of the recession cuts, even as the university system has continued to meet demand and increase enrollment. Indeed, at the University of California, the costs of education on a per-student basis have not risen; tuition increases have occurred only to fill the gap left by state cuts. Neither Craig nor Carey offers any realistic — or magical — solutions to the problem of public funding.

Likewise, neither book really addresses new roles that our universities have undertaken. They are now being asked, for example, to prevent and prosecute sexual assault — and rightly so. The demand for mental health services continues to mount. As large employers, universities must pay ever-growing retirement benefits and satisfy union contracts. All of these (and many other new roles) result in additional legal and regulatory oversight, all with considerable cost.

At the same time, chronic underfunding of the true costs of delivering a quality education has been mirrored by underfunding of the basic research that underlies so much of the innovation in our economy. Basic research is time-consuming. It has a high rate of failure. No wonder the private sector is increasingly abandoning the field to institutions like the University of California.

These are the sorts of issues that are on my desk and on the desk of every leader of public research universities today. But beyond those immediate real-world concerns lie more fundamental questions. What do we lose in the college experience if we over-rely on online learning? How amenable are online-learning platforms and open-source badges to teaching in the arts and humanities, and to producing a well-rounded, well-educated citizenry? If we focus on preparing a student for his or her first job, are we ignoring the likelihood that students will have many jobs over the course of a lifetime? How do we best prepare students to be lifelong learners and adapters, to be critical thinkers?

Universities are not factories; students are not widgets. They come from different backgrounds, with different degrees of preparation, and with different talents and skills that they might not even know they possess when they enter. Universities are not venture-capital-based software companies, the vast majority of which fail. When it comes to public higher education, failure is not an option.

If every crisis presents an opportunity, then the opportunity is now to ensure that higher education remains a distinguishing feature in the fabric of our republic. To that end, some immediate measures can be taken to meet our near-term challenges: simplify financial aid applications and extend Pell grants from the school year to the full year; ease the extensive and expensive regulatory burdens placed on all schools and focus instead on removing low-performing ones from eligibility for federal aid; and prioritize the flow of federal research dollars.

In exchange for these types of reforms at the federal level, the states should invest in their public universities, even as those universities continue to adapt to new forms of learning. Too many states, including California, spend more money on prisons than on higher education. Community college is not enough. It is time for both the White House and our state capitols to apply a laser focus to the challenges facing our four-year universities and colleges.

Besides near-term fixes, however, these times call for the development of, and dialogue about, a much larger vision for higher education in America. We need to end conversations about colleges that linger too long on costs, computer learning, Cassandra-like predictions and canards such as PhD baristas.

Instead, we need a national dialogue that gives rise to serious, thoughtful perspectives and creates a common belief in what our great schools have meant and must continue to mean. We are not degree factories. Our business, if you will, is to transform individual lives and to transport new knowledge into the world. As university leaders, we must strive to convince the general public that higher education is a common goal worthy of public investment. This is our grand challenge. This is our great hope.