American Universities: A Failing Institution

The universities, as an institution, are failing American society.

To a large extent, universities have a monopoly on giving people credentials. Many jobs that were done just fine by high school graduates a generation ago now require a college degree. Most of the value of a degree from an elite college is that it demonstrates to employers that you got high SAT scores in high school, which are correlated with IQ, and employers are legally prohibited from finding out about one’s IQ any other way. Any test an employer gives a job applicant has to be very narrowly focused on specific job-related skills, which is only workable in highly skilled disciplines, but in the case of a liberal arts or business major, the employer has nothing to go by but the name of the school.

The US News and World Report ranking of colleges does not in any way take into account how much students learned in college. College students only take the GRE’s or other standardized tests in their senior year of college if they are planning on going to graduate school, which is a minority of the students, not enough of a sample to gauge the learning of the whole student body. The reputation of a school is mostly driven by research done at the school, which obviously doesn’t apply to teaching colleges. In addition, one thing that frequently happens at research schools is that professors neglect their teaching to focus on their research, and then give most of the students A’s so they won’t complain. All of this means that neither hiring employers, nor students applying to college, have any way of assessing which schools are doing the best job of teaching. It may well be that a student of a given IQ will learn more at an affordable, obscure teaching college than they would at a gold-plated research school, but in the absence of any measure of learning, how would we know?

Among people at or below the age of college seniors, American society is extremely age-segregated, and college students have a very big decision to make that will affect their whole lives — they have to choose their major. And they make this decision mostly in isolation from people who are earning a living. The only adults they are exposed to are the faculty and grad students. I was visiting a college and there were only a few people in the room, one was a college professor, and the other was a student trying to decide on her major, and she asked him for advice. He gave her a long speech about “Follow you passion, blah, blah, blah, do what you truly love.”. That’s great advice if you want to become a college professor, but it’s terrible advice for most people. To make tenure as a college professor, you have to be in the top 5% of people in your major, in fact probably better than that. And most people aren’t that smart. A wise choice of college major is one that leads to high probability of a career that you will find reasonably enjoyable that is going to provide at least a decent standard of living for the rest of your life, and the likelihood of that coinciding with the subject where one finds the classes the most fun is remote.

Universities are spending a fortune on highly-paid administrators and, of course, lavish landscaping. Part of the need for all the administrators stems from the fact that over the last few decades, American middle-class children are raised under unprecedented levels of constant supervision, so that by the time they reach college, the need for a lot of supervision continues, so that cost is unavoidable until we reform our child-rearing practices. And the landscaping doesn’t really contribute much to learning, but it’s vital to the all-important claim, credible or not, of being a supposedly “elite” school.

Inflation of college tuition and textbooks outstrips pretty much all other types of inflation by a large margin, and it’s breaking American society. The average student graduating with a bachelor’s degree is $37,000 in debt — and that’s just the ones who make it through! American society is funneling as many students through college as possible, including many who really lack the aptitude to benefit. Such students often fail out, deeply in debt and lacking any credential to help them dig their way out of the hole. And many students who do graduate haven’t really learned much.

Part of the cause of the inflation is that student loans are so easy to get, and students are told that the education is guaranteed to pay for itself, so students keep borrowing more and more, and paying whatever is demanded. The absence of any measure of learning quality is also deeply problematic, in that it is hard for obscure schools, or new ones, to prove themselves, establish a reputation, break into the ranks of the “elite” schools, and provide some competition in the system that would lead to a downward pressure on costs.

This epidemic of debt is ruining the lives of young people. They’re taking longer to establish new households of their own, often living with their parents for most or all of their twenties, which is no picnic for them or their parents, taking longer to get married, and taking longer to have kids, even though opinion polls show they want marriage and kids just as much as the generations before them. The whole experience is driving many young people to conclude that capitalism is a failing system, when what’s destroying their lives is just one institution in American society, not capitalism.

What is to Be Done?

One solution being bandied about a lot is to have the government offer everyone free college. This would do nothing whatsoever to solve the quality control problem, and in the context of runaway cost increases, be like pouring gasoline on a fire, as costs would skyrocket even faster, posing an unacceptable burden on the public purse.

Break the monopoly that colleges, especially the elite colleges, have on credentialing job applicants. Let employers see standardized test scores. This would lead to more students taking standardized tests at college graduation, to impress employers. We would have some measure, however imperfect, of learning quality, so that unknown schools could really compete. And employers could even opt out of hiring college graduates and make do with high school graduates who got reasonable scores on their SAT’s for those jobs that don’t really require a college degree.

And not all standardized tests are necessarily as bad as the American “No Child Left Behind” tests: Testing Done Well.

One objection to making test scores public would be that some ethnic groups score worse on tests, particularly tests that correlate highly with IQ. The current system deals with this in that college admissions departments are less demanding of high test scores for applicants from certain minority groups. Perhaps the standardized testing agencies could adjust scores according to the ethnicity of the student, to the same amount that college admissions departments do. In fact, given that cheap DNA testing of ancestry is available, it would be possible to demand a DNA test of any test-taker demanding preferential treatment, to avoid people gaming the system by lying, or inflating the significance of a barely detectable amount of preferred ancestry.