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American Politics’ Obsession with College

A few months ago, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum attacked Barack Obama’s stated desire to have more Americans pursue higher education. Santorum’s reasons for doing this were fundamentally political: he wanted to portray Obama as a snobby liberal against the image he was hoping to convey of himself as a down-to-earth practical guy who doesn’t want to see money wasted on liberal indoctrination (or whatever it is Santorum thinks happens in colleges…)

While I’m no fan of Santorum’s hypocritical intentions there (anyone else notice how he neglected to mention his own college degree – let alone his MBA and JD?), I do think its worth considering the skeptical view towards American politics’ fixation (dare I say obsession?) with driving up college attendance.

shutterstock_50212558300x450This skeptical view came to me one day when I posed myself the following question: if the goal is to  get more Americans to go to college, why don’t we just make high school last eight years rather than four?

That scenario is not exactly what people think of when they think of driving up college admissions but keep in mind, if we were to somehow able to achieve 100% (or even something like 60-70%) college admissions, an extended high school education (where the last four years might be more advanced and based on applications to different institutions) is basically what you would be creating.

If we think of getting the majority of kids into college in that sense, it begs the question: What would a world like that look like? I’m going to gaze into my imperfect crystal ball and make two guesses:

  • First, the costs would be enormous. Even today, with many colleges being independent of the government and with many students bearing the brunt of the cost of college directly, there is huge government involvement with financing. An “eight year high school system”, even if we assumed miraculous levels of efficiency and public-private partnership never before seen in the education system and government, would likely require a huge amount of dollars spent by the taxpayer and by students – if only to provide the financial support lower-income families would need to attend higher education.
  • Second, I believe you would see the number of people going into advanced degrees (Masters, PhD’s, MBA’s, JD’s, MD’s, MPH’s, etc) would skyrocket. The reason for that is simple: if everyone goes to college – then its the same as if nobody went to college: the mark of attending college ceases to have any value in setting yourself apart from other people in the eyes of an employer. The funny thing is – one of the reasons I chose the “eight year high school” analogy is precisely because of the analogy that results: that college grads would became the equivalent of today’s high school grads: in the same trouble in terms of competing in the workforce and finding themselves needing to go to “college” (in this case getting an advanced degree).

Its hard to know for sure, and one might even argue that a much more educated workforce is worth the cost but what I think this little thought experiment shows is that just extending high school by four years (the logical equivalent of getting much higher rates of college admissions) is not the obvious universal good that most politicians seem to suggest it is. The fact that students need to go to college at all to participate effectively in the workforce, in my opinion, says more about the lack of effectiveness of our K-12 system than about the value of college.

I think a more meaningful (and time-and-cost-effective) solution to our education system’s woes would actually be to address what I perceive to be the real problems: (1) how students seem to not get enough out of K-12 to contribute to the workforce and (2) how students are forced to pursue expensive degrees just to compete.

  1. Bring K-12 quality up to what is needed for people to succeed in today’s workforce. I think this means investing in early education – study after study shows that some of the most effective education investments are those made in pre-kindergarten Head Start programs – embracing new technology-enabled approaches like Sal Khan’s brilliant Khan Academy, changing how we train and compensate teachers, and doubling down on training employable skills (like some of the ones I mentioned here). None of these are that controversial (although the devil is in the details) – what matters is being committed to the notion of increasing the value of K-12 rather than the just the years kids spend in school.
  2. Build an actually meaningful system of educational accreditation. Today, one of the most important ways to signal to employers that you can be a decent worker is a piece of paper that costs some $100,000+ called a college diploma. That piece of paper is not only extremely expensive, it also does a terrible job of elaborating what a person is good at (forcing many people to pursue further degrees). This system of accreditation really only serves colleges and the companies/people who make money off of them (i.e., admissions counselors/prep services, etc). This is just my hypothesis but I believe that an accreditation system which actually meaningfully communicated what people’s talents were (i.e. this person is extremely good at math, even though he did not major in math at a top 50 college; or this person is really good at machinework, even though she spent most of her last job planning events, etc) would be beneficial for both employers — who now have a better sense of who they are hiring — and workers — who can now be more discriminating about the value of their education and not needlessly participate in the rat race of tallying up schools/programs which only serve as a rubber stamp on your ability to pay expensive tuition.
I have no illusion that these are quick-and-easy fixes: they are after all major changes to how people/politicians view the world and require not only resources but some very slow-moving institutions to change how they think and operate, but it makes a lot more sense to me than continuing a very dumb piece of dogma about how education should work, rather than taking a hard look at the real underlying issues.

(Image credit – SFGate/The Mommy Files)

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  • Mike

    Some of my law school classmates batted around the idea that this expensive college business was the result of Title VII, which limited the ways that folks could use standardized testing in hiring absent “business necessity”.  Employers that really WANT the SAT can’t just directly ask for it, so they use colleges to screen for SATs and then screen based on college degrees.

    I don’t think that’s entirely a satisfactory explanation, but it does mean we’d have to be a little careful about how we design your accreditation.

  • Ben

    Interesting — I wasn’t aware of that. Although, the examples of the bar and the Step I/II medical licensing exams on the mandatory side and things like Cisco/Microsoft certification on the voluntary side suggest there are definitely ways around it…

  • Mike Lee

    Haha I have Step II tomorrow! But the Steps and the Bar are so closely tied to government restrictions on entry that they’re a special case.

    The Cisco/Microsoft things are, I think, a good example — but they’re also REALLY DIRECT tests of very specific skills, if I understand them correctly. The problem with Title VII and standardized testing, if I remember right, is that anything which has a racial disparity (“disparate impact”) has to be justified under the relatively high standard of “business necessity”. (Title VII excludes the Federal government and the city of DC, so lower standards apply.)So folks like McKinsey probably could get away with using SAT score, since their job description emphasizes problem-solving in a variety of contexts. (Despite that, they feel obligated to write their own test, which is somewhat more business-y than the SAT.) But in a job where I couldn’t claim that standardized testing was a “business necessity,” I’d probably be in trouble over it.Ricci v. DeStefano is probably instructive here, even though the ruling kind of seems like the opposite of what I’m describing. Goodness. You forget a lot of law when you’re studying for Step II…

  • Ben

    Haha, I’m amazed you remember anything at all!

  • Davis Buck Farmer

    I am of mixed feelings regarding this post.

    First, the problem is not so much college admission as college completion. Having less than a 4-year degree earns you only marginal higher pay than a high school diploma. For the first time in history, more than 50% of America’s unemployed have /some/ college (not a bachelor’s).

    Second, you are entirely correct that our mandatory education (K-12) needs to be improved. This would impact 70% of Americans instead of the 30% or so with college degrees. However, moving the needle on 70% of an age cohort is the kind of society-wide transformation that requires sustained monumental effort. The political support is not in place for this kind of investment in our future. Instead all of our sacred cows are held by older generations.

    Third, 8-year high school need not be nearly as expensive as you might imagine…it just wouldn’t be the liberal arts college equivalent. High school doesn’t pay its faculty for research, doesn’t support labs, doesn’t (outside of athletics in certain schools) support Olympic and spa-quality facilities, job placement programs, et cetera. Drew Faust pointed out only a few weeks ago that today’s colleges do everything, and if fiscal austerity is the watchword of the day it will have to start to pick and choose.

    Fourth, you are entirely correct that we need a robust alternative system of certification. Unfortunately, what colleges really certify are personality-type skills such as self-discipline, reliability, sociability…not things typically tested for cheap. These skills are generally far more important in the work place than fluid intelligence or crystallized knowledge. That’s why college completion matters so much more than college admissions.

  • Elizabeth

    Or, in theory, you could move towards the more vocational model they tend to follow in continental Europe and here in Argentina. Ask me sometime about how much I don’t like that model though… I think we need your solution (1) without devaluing a liberal arts approach.

  • Ben

    I’m definitely no fan of the vocational model (which to the best of my understanding is pretty common everywhere BUT the US) and see a lot of value in the more liberal arts approach of schooling in the US. With that said, I do think the *main problem* with K-12 today is that graduates just don’t know enough basic math, writing, reading, and science, and I would even go so far as to say maybe we’ve gone a little too far in the US…

  • Ben

    Haha, I don’t think we really are in *that* much disagreement at all…

    Point 1: totally agree on the importance of the completion/time-to-graduation; I focused on the admissions piece because my point was on what I perceive to be the ridiculousness of US politicians’ fixation on admissions

    Point 2: I agree reform is difficult because of entrenched interests, but even the cynical VC in me doesn’t think the investment/necessary change needs to be *that* monumental — things like broader access to Head Start and the way that some schools have taken to extremely cost-effective technologies like Google Apps/Khan Academy suggest to me its possible to improve education without rocking the boat too much (i.e. the way that you would if you proposed changing teacher compensation or privatizing education)

    Point 3: You are definitely right — but the simple mental math I’m doing is hypothetical 8 year high school = today’s 4 year K-12 + today’s 4 year colleges + the extra institutions/teachers necessary to get the remaining folks who don’t go to college an extra 4 years of school; you could argue that “today’s 4 year colleges” could be killed off or become much more minimalist (a la what Faust was talking about), but I think that’s far less realistic than implementing Head Start for everyone 😉 and its definitely not the analogy to what American politicians are espousing when they say they want to raise the college admissions numbers

    Point 4: I have mixed feelings here. On the one hand, I do believe secondary/post-secondary degrees are strong signals to employers for those sorts of personality attributes and its not easy to replicate that sort of assessment. But I don’t accept the conclusion that (a) that’s the only or even the main thing being certified via degree or (b) that alternative certification is not valuable. Re: (a), I think most employers definitely view degrees as indicators of communication skills, reading/writing, basic math, and fluid intelligence — each of which are important (esp. in “upper middle class jobs”); moreover, certain secondary degrees (i.e. engineering, sciences in some cases) and most post-secondary degrees (esp. medicine, law, science PhD, culinary, etc) are clear indicators of subject matter comprehension. Its not just personality traits being assessed

    Re: (b), I think employers have relied on one inaccurate signal to convey all information (personality and non-personality) mainly because of the lack of a decent alternative source of information — I’ve talked to a number of startups and employers working in this area and there is great interest from many companies to identify high quality talent that they wouldn’t have normally found; And, while this is a guess, I also suspect that if an alternative certification system were to become prevalent, employers would be happy to switch to a different means of assessing those attributes (interviews, resume) in favor of the additional information

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