Phi Beta Cons

Economy & Business

The Low Return on America’s “Investment” in Higher Ed

The cliche that our higher education system is “the envy of the world” gets more risible by the day. In his latest SeeThru piece, Rich Vedder further undermines it by pointing to a recent study by the Educational Testing Service that compared Americans with adults in other industrialized nations.

Vedder writes, “We have more schooling than ever, but are, relatively speaking clueless about the most basic knowledge needed to communicate and make decisions in a complex market economy. We are doing less with more — ‘learning per year of school’ is almost certainly falling with respect to the most basic forms of knowledge….”

The ETS study shows that even our “best and brightest” don’t shine in comparison with their counterparts in other countries and that our weakest score well below any other nation. For all of our vast spending on higher education, we are getting little educational value in return.

Why? Vedder offers some ideas. “In part,” he writes, “the answer relates to a growing disdain for learning facts, basic concepts, etc. It is reflected at the collegiate level in the decline in the relative importance of general education, and of core liberal-arts type learning. The ’self-esteem’ movement and the idea that we should not say anything ‘hurtful’ to students is a further manifestation that education is increasingly viewed as less about learning and more about feelings.” Indeed so. We see that in the erosion of the curriculum, as hard requirements are dropped or watered down, and grade inflation that enables students to pass many courses with minimal effort.

Vedder also argues that costs are up and learning is down due to rampant rent-seeking by faculty and administrators.

I have said this before and will no doubt have to keep saying it: Only a nation as wealthy as the US could possibly afford an education system that costs so much and delivers so little.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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