Thursday, February 2, 2012

The University as Rumpelstiltskin

And when the girl was brought to the King he took her into a room which was quite full of straw, gave her a spinning-wheel and a reel, and said, "Now set to work, and if by to-morrow morning early you have not spun this straw into gold during the night, you must die." -- Rumplestiltskin, Brothers Grimm.
David Leonhardt in “Colleges Are Failing in Graduation Rates” (New York Times of September 9, 2009 , B1) tells us that universities are failing in their “core mission”: to turn teenagers into college graduates, (straw into gold?) The evidence? Highly selective, usually private, universities have a higher graduation rate than open-admissions or non-competitive, usually public universities. As a result, Leonhardt claims, social inequality has “soared” and productivity growth has slowed down.

But is “turning teenagers into college graduates” really “the core mission" of universities? And has social inequality increased since the beginning of the 1900’s when very, very few of middle and working class students were able to get into college?

A third question: has economic productivity over these last 110 years fallen also?

Answers: no, no and no.

Leonhardt based his column on an article by Mark Schneider, a political scientist who is a tad more circumspect about making broad claims. (See Schneider,M. The costs of failure factories in American higher education. Educational Outlook. No. 6. October 2008. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research)

Although Schneider’s title contains the rock’em-sock’em hype, “failure factories” to characterize public universities, he hedges his bets: what he actually says is, if we worry about students not graduating from high school and attempt to coerce high schools with low graduation rates into doing something about it, then why ignore the public university “failure factories” whose graduation rates are significantly lower than our public high schools?

Why, indeed? But why hold high schools, with their compulsory attendees, more responsible for outcomes than are public universities? Those that attend public universities are not forced there by law.

To examine these issues further, see Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: 
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?