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Friday, February 10, 2012

Whackademia: Nutty Professors 6

College Education: A Good Investment?

     In his book, "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much," Richard Vedder makes the case that a college education costs too much and delivers too little. On average, tuition plus room and board costs more than $17,000 a year at four-year, state supported universities. The author believes that university presidents pay less attention to students--the customers--than to rich alumni, athletic coaches, big name professors who attract grants, key administrators who can raise money, and politicians. These presidents bribe powerful faculty members with low teaching loads, high salaries, and good parking.

     Today, students who borrow to finance their educations graduate with an average debt of $24,000. More and more college graduates are asking themselves if this money was well spent. Vedder, at least in some cases, doesn't think so. In 2008, 30 percent of flight attendants, 25 percent of retail salespersons, and 18 percent of airport baggage porters, had bachelor's degrees or higher. (To be fair, this doesn't mean that they will always have jobs like this.) More than 17 million college graduates, according to some estimates, were underemployed in 2008.

     Recently, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, using U.S. Census Bureau data, determined what group of college graduates, according to what they majored in, were the most likely to find employment in their fields. All of the graduates who did find work--from medical technology and nursing, to civil engineering and elementary education majors--held vocational degrees. Students who majored in liberal arts programs--English, sociology, psychology, history, and philosophy--seem to be the most likely degree holders on their way to graduate school, or to employment opportunities at the shopping mall.

     Employers are generally as interested in what a college graduate can do as in what he or she knows. The problem is, how much do they know? And how relevent is it to the job in question? Professor Richard Arum of New York University, and Professor Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, recently tracked several thousand undergraduates as they worked their way through 24 universities. The researchers found that nearly 50 percent of these students didn't significantly improve their reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. After four years, more than 1/3 of the students showed no improvement in these areas.

     In his book, "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," New York University Professor Jonathan Zimmerman argues that the nation's colleges and universities have no idea if their students are learning anything. That's because there are no effective measures in place to find out. Students pay all that money for college degrees that designate nothing other than they've killed four years, and put themselves in debt. (Okay, that may be a little strong.)

Phony Prestige

     To stay afloat, many colleges have to grossly overcharge their students, and the best way to get away with that is to convince potential tuition payers they are entering a prestigious institution. It's a lot like buying a bottle of pretentious wine. The fact the bottle is expensive is evidence of its superiority. This is probably true of perfume and other status purchases as well.

     The so-called elite colleges and universities, to prove they deserve their status, flaunt the high SAT scores of their students. In rating institutions according to how prestigious they are, "U.S. News & World Report" uses SAT scores as one of the factors. Recently, an administrator with California's Claremont McKenna College resigned after being caught falsifying SAT scores to "U.S. News & World Report." (The current "U.S News" rankings lists Claremont McKenna as the 9th best liberal arts college in the country.) It will be interesting to see how the college will be rated next year.

Poaching Students

     A survey released in September 2011 by "Inside Higher Education," reveals that public universities have been increasing their focus on recruiting out-of-state students. According to a "Wall Street Journal" report, eight state universities get more than 40 percent of their tuition from out-of-state students. These students are attractive because they pay as much as three times what in-state students pay for the same education. It's about money, and sometimes at the expense of in-state students who don't get in because outsiders have taken their places. Parents have raised such a fuss that some politicians are pushing for laws limiting the percentage of out-of-state enrollment.

From Academic Hero to Heel

     Professors who attract federal research money--and there is plenty of it out there--are considered faculty heroes by university presidents. Between June 2006 and February 2011, Graig Grimes, professor of material science and engineering at Penn State, after acquiring $3 million in grant money from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), established himself as an academic star. (Every year the NIH grants billions in taxpayer dollars to advance medical research.) Professor Grimes suddenly lost that status when the U.S. Attorney in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania charged him with research grant fraud. In addition to making false statements on his grant application, the 55-year-old professor is accused of failing to turn over $500,000 of the grant money to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. This money, related to detecting necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease that affects infants, was supposed to fund clinical/trials at the medical center.     

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