The Agenda

Kevin Carey on College and Credentialing

This is a terrific post by Kevin Carey of Education Sector on the higher education sector:

Vedder et al do make some good observations about college credentialing. There’s a lot to be said for developing more creative, efficient, and flexible ways of certifying what people know and can do and matching those credentials up with the emerging labor market–as long as it doesn’t have the effect of shutting students out of future opportunities to advance further down the post-secondary path.

But in the end, a lot of those questions really come down to whether or not the solution to various difficult higher education problems should or should not serve the narrow interests of institutions and people who enjoy disproportionate wealth and power in society and have already benefited from access to college themselves.

Some of these institutions, as Carey goes on to argue, are institutions of higher education that haven’t been held accountable for whether they’ve been using public resources effectively. 


If many students drop out of college, which they do, we can can pretend that this represents fidelity to high academic standards or we can starting holding colleges accountable for graduating a reasonable number of students as compared to peer institutions with similar academic missions and admissions profiles, and do a much better job of giving at-risk students the academic support they need.

If the ever-growing cost of college pushes more students on to the wrong side of the cost/benefit equation, which it is, we can pretend that skyrocketing tuition is an immutable force of nature, or we can create a more transparent higher education market where colleges have strong incentives to restrain costs and ban colleges that plunge their students into unmanageable debt from federal aid programs.

As Carey argued in a persuasive essay in Democracy, affordability isn’t the main challenge facing U.S. higher education.

But the biggest problem with American higher education isn’t that too many students can’t afford to enroll. It’s that too many of the students who do enroll aren’t learning very much and aren’t earning degrees. For the average student, college isn’t nearly as good a deal as colleges would have us believe.

Carey described one of the most effective ways to tackle the challenge of delivering value for money — relying more heavily on high-quality, low-cost distance education providers. These new institutions have every reason to push for greater transparency and tougher performance metrics, and, assuming incumbents fail in their efforts to regulate these new entrants out of existence, they promise to disrupt the higher education industry in a very constructive way. 

David Leonhardt makes the important point that the college wage premium is large and growing, ending a thoughtful post with the following:

To put it another way, if you were an 18-year-old trying to decide whether to go college in the fall, would you be willing to bet your future on the idea that the charts above [on the college wage premium] are simply reflecting a big coincidence?

But this doesn’t really speak to the micro problem re: whether we have a terribly efficient higher education sector. It certainly does seem as though students actually benefit from college. But “college” is a bundle of services, and it would be nice to know which of the services are most valuable and cost-effective. Before we decide to make larger investments in higher education, we need to give serious thought to asking and answering these questions. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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