The Agenda

Kevin Carey on the Need for Meaningful Academic Standards

I am a great admirer of Kevin Carey, but I was a bit frustrated by one aspect of his latest NYT op-ed on higher education:

The lack of meaningful academic standards in higher education drags down the entire system. Grade inflation, even (or especially) at the most elite institutions, is rampant. A landmark book published last year, “Academically Adrift,” found that many students at traditional colleges showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing, and spent their time socializing, working or wasting time instead of studying. (And that’s not even considering the problem of low graduation rates.)

The rapid migration of higher education online exacerbates these problems. The notion of recording academic progress by counting the number of hours students spend sitting in a classroom is nonsensical when there is no actual classroom. Perhaps students themselves will decide what constitutes quality, as they choose among the so-called “massive online open courses” being offered free by brand-name universities including Harvard, M.I.T. and Stanford. I suspect those courses that will be most valued will be those where students actually learn.

But the most promising solution would be to replace the anachronistic credit hour with common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do. [Emphasis added]

It might be true that the rapid migration of higher education online heightens the contradictions, Carey has made a convincing case that it also creates an opportunity for constructive solutions, including the kind of competency-based credentialing pioneered by the online-based Western Governors University.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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