Does Everyone Need a Baccalaureate Degree?
The American society (and followed it seems by most OECD and some developing countries) has decided that a four year baccalaureate degree is the standard for education. Once, not that long ago, the standard was a high school diploma. I will recount some of the factors that contributed to the evolution of this assumption, but the main question will be: Is this right? Is a baccalaureate degree the level of education to which everyone should aspire?
Because there are real, observable problems that have attended this evolution. Most people have heard of the grade inflation problem. That problem is associated with performance measures for colleges and teaching that include retention (keeping most students in classes and progressing toward the degree in a reasonable amount of time, e.g. a four-year degree in no more than five calendar years), student evaluations of courses and teachers, and several other more subtle pressures that basically push teachers and college administrators to fudge when it comes to quality issues (rigor). Moreover, competition for students forces colleges (and this also means universities) to spend money on peripherals that do not directly affect student learning achievement such as sports complexes. You would be hard pressed to look at a modern university/college budget these days and be able to link the larger share of expenditures directly to the core mission of education. Even the research component of universities/colleges, while nominally supporting teaching (keeping the professors current in their fields), actually results in a diminishment of time spent by those researcher/teachers in the classroom. The only sustainable model for funding classes is to have huge service course sections that are taught by TAs (grad students) to obtain income to support the smaller advanced subject classes (upper division and graduate). In sum, the modern American university/college is in deep trouble from trying to be all things to all people. It is ending up being almost useless to most.
Higher education was not always considered as the basic standard for education. It was the gold standard with graduate school being the platinum standard. It was, for lack of a better word, elite. But that was back when that word did not carry such a negative connotation as it seems to today. The world is full of examples of elitism that still performs some kind of positive social function (see populism for an explanation of why elitism has a negative connotation). For most of history elites were an essential part of social organization. Even today, most Brits (and some other European citizens) still think having a class of royalty is a nifty idea in spite of the fact that there doesn't seem to be any logical reason for it at all (economics may eventually force the disbanding of the royal families but not logical reason). There are managers of companies. Not everyone can be the president of an organization. We recognize that there are special skills, talents, and knowledge that attend doing jobs that entail coordinating others in an organization. Or, as in the case of the queen, providing a proud figurehead for national egotistic purposes.
Why then, have we come to believe that there should be no such thing as an exclusive college-educated elite? We did believe that there should be such a class not more than fifty years ago. This figure shows what the general beliefs about general intelligence and school-level potential for a population that was normally distributed (the bell curve) for intelligence.
The standard evidence for this case was the results of intelligence quotient (IQ) testing which showed that there was, indeed, a normal distribution of intelligence capacity in the general population. The mean value (the peak of a normal distribution) was given the index value of 100, meaning that half of the population had higher IQs while the other half had lower IQs. The bulk of the population have intelligence measures close to the mean. Only a smaller number have much higher intelligence measures and only a very small number have substantially higher measures. These corresponded with the notions of baccalaureate-level capability (as a terminal degree), post-baccalaureate potential, and doctorate-level potential.
In spite of a rather large body of evidence showing success in various levels of school and intelligence, as measured by a variety of methods, that corresponds generally with the above model, the attitude today has shifted considerably. This figure shows a rough approximation of the change in beliefs about the level of schooling achievable regardless of intelligence measures.
Notice that the areas of potential for college and graduate schooling have shifted considerably to the left. The new baccalaureate potential now covers much of what had been high school and trade school potential. The intelligence distribution hasn't changed. The curve has not become skewed to the right somehow. People are no more intelligent today than they were in 1940. What has happened is that the definition of school potential has shifted to the left. And to what effect?
Elitism or the existence of an intellectual elite based on native intelligence capacity and accomplishment in rigorous higher education has lost its luster in our society.
The basic problem seems to be that there has been a growing attitude of anti-intellectualism in the USA, in particular. Many more people don't like the idea that someone else is smarter than they are (and I often wonder if there might not be a deeper connection with the growing sentiment of entitlement in this country). What is incredible about this sentiment is that it can co-exist with the notion that we need really smart people to design and build stuff that we like to use. I suppose one might describe this as a love-hate relationship. But the fuzzy thinking that it entails allows many to believe that everyone could be smarter if they had the chance to go to college, ignoring any biological facts about potential for intelligence.
Simultaneous (probably co-evolutionary) with the growth of anti-intellectualism we have the competition among organizations who want the very best and brightest employees. I first became aware of this back in the 1960s when I first attended college as an undergraduate. The general story going around was that a college degree — any degree — indicated an ability to think and learn which employers were starting to realize was important in an increasingly technology-based economy. Ergo, in a competition between prospective employees for a job, the one(s) that had earned degrees would have the advantage. Seems perfectly reasonable. But the idea was still based on the notion that college graduates were among the thinking elite. Thus hiring them would give the companies that did a competitive advantage that was protected. Once it became clear (say for example to high school advisors) that there was a high demand for college-degreed employees it was an easy move to start preferentially recommending college to high school students. Coupled with studies that indicated a correlation between level of education and expected pay levels, the conclusion was inevitable: everyone should go for the college degree.
Finally the desire to have more college graduates was a governmental policy in the same vein as every family should be able to own their own home. In the post-WWII years GIs were able to get low interest loans to go to college or technical schools as an attempt to support the growing demand for college-educated and skilled workers.
Thus in the post-war era there started a flood of students seeking college degrees. College became the new populist standard for education. Universities and colleges all over the country expanded. The demand for college professors caused an increase in the number of PhD granting institutions. Growth in higher education is, as it is in industry and commerce, intoxicating. It is self-reinforcing. A little growth begets a greater desire to grow more. And to justify such growth everyone started telling the story that just about anyone who wanted to go to college could succeed.
But, if we are expanding higher education to incorporate a larger proportion of the population (as noted above) then it would easily explain why we have to resort to grade inflation among other coping mechanisms to make college-level work accessible to more students. It would explain the rapid conversion of many areas of skills that were traditionally blue-collar type jobs into “professions” that require four years of in-depth education in order to qualify them as baccalaureate-worthy. We are witnessing the rapid conversion of many technician-level trades into BA or BS degrees and departments opened in even major universities in order to accommodate growth in demand for college-level education. Trade schools are looked down on as not worthy.
I could go on for a long time along this path. Indeed there are a growing number of books devoted to the subject of what is wrong with higher education institutions that do just that. And very many analysts have identified what I have called the ‘commodification’ of education as a root cause of the decline in quality. That decline, in turn, is what is seen as causal in the decline of competency for graduates. The explanation is simple. The curriculum is targeted at the middle of the class — the average student. And the average intelligence of the college population is declining so the rigor of the subjects has to be softened so that the average student can handle it. You also don't want to drop too many from the bottom because that would look bad on your retention numbers. Compounding and reinforcing this trend, the average intelligence of newly minted PhDs is likely to be going down as well. Certainly the softening of rigor in the lower degree programs is migrating into the doctorate level as well, meaning that many of the newly graduated PhDs going into teaching are quite happy with softer subject contents since it is possible that they themselves would be unable to handle the more rigorous content.
And here is the core problem. Standards have declined to keep volumes up. Now people who manage to graduate are, themselves, much less motivated and comprehending of the rig our and their responsibilities in being a professional. And they misbehave! Too many incompetent or uncaring people are getting jobs that should go to those with a stronger sense of moral duty as well as higher levels of intelligence. But the whole economy is growing (or was) so fast that demand for anybody who could breathe and got a BA in business could end up being a division boss. And even the brighter graduates in those positions are not necessarily better suited. Remember: We watered down the rig our so that the average student could get through. The brighter students suffered without necessarily being aware of what was happening. If they noticed anything at all it would have been how bored they generally felt with many classes.
There has been a general slackening of the emphasis on professionalism, which includes ethical considerations and responsibilities to society. In its place we are seeing the rise of accountability measures to be taken and used as sticks to get teachers and their schools to perform. This is just now gaining traction in public higher education with legislators and business leaders pushing the agenda, but parents swallowing the rhetoric as well. It is already rampant in K-12 education, it is the ‘law of the land’ — No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top! And, unsurprising to those of us who remember what professionalism was really about, it is having exactly the opposite effects than desired. Its main mechanism for measuring effectiveness is the standardize test on standardized curriculum. The latter is not completely objectionable, at least less so for K-12, but the former is abhorrent. No one yet has made a convincing argument that these tests actually measure anything worthwhile beyond a student's capacity for rote memorization and test taking abilities. Most people have heard about the teaching-to-the-test phenomenon that accompanies the uses of these tests. I have been a witness to the agonies over this very thing in the State of Washington (see this Wikipedia article on the WASL but beware that there are questions of bias in that article).
Some Ideological Premises
Basically I find that there are a number of premises that are accepted blindly when talking about the problems in higher education. Many of these are also accepted as true for high school and the reason that high schools are failing (in some sense much worse than colleges). Let's take a look at some of these and see how they contribute to bad conclusions and decisions with respect to, say, education reform.
The first is based on ignoring the possibility that not all people have equal IQs (or general intelligence levels). We assume that all children and young adults can learn the same curriculum if we but organize it and deliver it in such a way that they can absorb it, thus transferring the responsibility for learning from the students to the teachers. And transferring the blame when learning doesn't appear to be happening to the teachers. But the anti-elitism that prevails dulls our ability to recognize that there really are brighter and duller people when it comes to learnability and (self)motivation. I reassert that much of this attitude has been strengthened by seeing so much abuse of power by those nominal elites who, having gotten their education and high paying positions (due to loosening the standards) turn around and screw up. Who wouldn't start to hate intellectuals if they represent a crowd that takes advantage of their positions at the expense of others? A good coping mechanism for cognitive dissonance over such a problem is to assert that we can all become elites. Or, rather, we can all become highly educated — that we are all equally endowed intelligence-wise.
This sentiment is reinforced by another ideological premise, that higher education leads to higher pay! If you want higher paying jobs you need more education. On the face of it this is true. If you correlate the incomes of more educated folks you find that they do, on average, have higher incomes. But, and this is a big but, you have to recognize that just because there is a correlation doesn't translate into a causal relation that asserts, in effect, that if everyone got more education they would ALL have higher incomes! Higher than what? The average income? This kind of thinking is so incredibly fallacious that it astounds me that any thinking person would accept this premise. Yet most do. If you, dear reader, grasp this argument you can now understand why I claim that even very smart people can be unusually foolish (lack sapience). What I suspect drives society to accept this premise is that every parent thinks only about their own children's future and they want the most for those children. That is certainly natural. But given the force of the higher ed = more pay meme, those parents sell their kids the idea that they should only want to go to college and not, for example, want to be a trades person. What often comes as a surprise to many people is finding out that most plumbers (blue collar) make more money than most lower level managers (white collar) with business degrees. But even if they were aware of this, how many parents would suggest to their kids to become a plumber? Those same parents will quite happily pound on their children to do well in school so they can get into college and get really good jobs when they graduate.
But leave it to our education reformers to suggest fixes (work arounds) for the failings that occur when we accept these premises as true. The first work around is to claim that all students can learn a standardized curriculum. There is a tiny bit of justification for this assumption, but only, it turns out, for very young students. This harkens back to the days when most children who got any education were expected to learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. This was the standardized curriculum. How many of you learned to read via the Dick and Jane books? Later, as the industrial revolution and its application to farming freed more high school-aged students from needing to go to work after grade school, the idea was extended to high school education but with more elaboration on the basics (e.g. learning geometry and algebra, poetry and prose, etc.). College was still viewed as a place where just the most elite (learners) would go to learn about the world through liberal studies. Some very elite would go on to graduate school and learn the law, medicine or some other specialty. But it was still generally believed that a standard curriculum could be applied to high school education, preparing all graduates for their lives in the more complex industrial society. That, of course, is when the trouble began. States started requiring all children of school age to attend through at least some minimal grade, at first middle school and now high school. It is, in fact, against the law for children in these age groups to not attend without some special conditions (e.g. home schooling). But almost as soon as society adopted, without question, the premise that all children could learn and could learn a standardized curriculum the trouble started. High schools soon found a need to broaden their definition of what a standardized curriculum entailed because there were simply too many students in that age bracket who could give a rip about world history or poetry. So shop and home economics were invented! [as an aside the most valuable class I took in high school outside of the science classes was typing!]
At each stage in the development of our industrial society the breadth and depth of what was considered relevant and necessary knowledge was expanded. This was partially in response to the complexification of society as the industrial revolution proceeded and was followed by the information revolution. The amount of knowledge needed to do even clerical or blue-collar work expanded such that not even a four-year high school education seemed adequate. The explosion of professions further mandated that more than high school knowledge would be needed by professionals. Business schools are a good example. The first objective of a business education is to familiarize students with the principles of how a business is run, what the mechanics are, and develop skills in managing these. The only real model that we had for education beyond high school was college. So business schools as colleges within universities became the rage. No one really stopped to ask if a huge volume of graduates from these schools was really necessary for the business world, as opposed, say, to a modest number of accountants. It seemed, and still apparently seems, the unexamined answer is YES. But I dare you to go ask some mid-level manager, ten years out from getting a business degree, how much of what they were taught has actually made much of a difference for them.
Attempts were made to produce two-year degrees modeled after the first two years of a baccalaureate degree. These were called associate degrees and were relegated to a new, and presumably cheaper version of college called variously community or “junior” colleges. Many trade schools, catering to skill training in the trades, upgraded their offerings to look more like college classes. They now go by the name technical college. One way to make the education offered in these schools affordable for state support is to not pay faculty as much as their counterparts in universities. There are a number of repercussions that fall from this, many have been documented in the literature. Let's just say the adage, “You get what you pay for” has some traction here. Another factor is what amounts to an amplified dumbing-down of subject matter since these colleges are generally open to all citizens regardless of their high school performance. Between cost-cutting measures and open access policies, community colleges too often find themselves providing something less than an equivalent to the first two years of a four-year schooling. Having witnessed the fates of way too many transfer students, coming from a community college expecting to take up at the junior level of classes in the four-year college, and seeing how many of them have to take remediation courses, or retake subjects because what they had learned was not sufficient, I can attest to the fallacy of thinking that an associates degree is actually, and always, equivalent to the first two years of a baccalaureate. The increased cost of providing remediation courses in the four-year schools puts further pressures on those institutions. But we are so committed to the higher education for all principle that we grin and bear it.
Another premise generally accepted without reflection is that schooling can be accomplished most effectively following the assembly line model of moving products through in lock step.
Once more the sheer volumes of students forced through the (public) education system mandated finding some efficient method to crank out graduates. The age-related grade system provides this kind of staged development process. Assuming that all children of a given age can learn the same things, or are ready to learn the curriculum that their age-peers seem to be able to learn, we bunch kids up by age group and work hard to push them through to the next stage (grade).
This model weakens in college where multiple ages might be found in the various class levels. However the belief in a standardized curriculum for professional and science degrees runs as strongly as ever. Curriculum is largely dictated by disciplinary areas. Departments roughly approximate the kinds of knowledge and skills found in the practice of their disciplines. Courses are taught in a rough sequence from fundamentals and survey of the field (freshman) to courses delving into subspecialties that collectively define the overall subject (sophomore and junior) to courses that go into great depth in selected subspecialties (senior electives). This all seems quite reasonable for many fields. The only real problem with it is that the courses are often presented in disparate fashion. Necessary interrelations may not be made explicit so at times the field can appear to be a disjointed assemblage of interesting topics. The survey courses are meant to provide a grand overview that students can use to form a conceptual map of the subject territory. But those courses are generally taught at the freshman level when younger students have not yet really grasped the method for forming such maps on their own. They will tend to even forget that a subject taught in a junior level course was introduced and placed into context in a freshman level introductory/subject survey course. Ergo they end up graduating still not comprehending the system of knowledge they just acquired!
Can Any of This Be Fixed?
In some ways the problems I've just covered are going to go away, but not because we, in higher education, fix them. They will go away because public higher education is going to implode. It will certainly go through radical retrenchment as state revenues continue their downward spiral and legislatures continue to cut budgets. The administrations of these institutions will respond by cutting programs and downsizing others, meanwhile generally protecting their own jobs. The number of students entering whatever universities will go down drastically as tuitions rise to try and boost revenue. Unless the universities mindfully attend to the quality of the students who do get in (instead of selling seats to the highest bidders) this will not help the educational outcomes very much. Indeed it may make matters worse.
There may, however, be another way forward. It involves radical cost cutting of peripheral activities, especially administrative fussing around.
We begin with a recognition of what the core mission of the university is (always has been and, one hopes, will be in the future). It is not, surprising to some, putting on great football games. Over the years the university has taken its name root (universe) a little too seriously. It has tried to become all things to all people (as described above). The proliferation of collateral departments with their plethora of mid-level managers has been the dominant cost driver. Growth in terms of enrollments and programs has become the operative paradigm and in order to grow you have to out-compete your rivals. You can't necessarily do that with pure academics, so you resort to fancy athletic facilities and other amenities of “student life”.
As this evolution has proceeded university governance has also morphed into a business management model as opposed to a faculty deliberation and consensus model. Essentially, in competing for resources to maintain growth, the institution becomes a capitalist enterprise even if it is nominally non-profit. To manage a business has required so-called professional management (did you know that you can get a PhD in educational institutional administration?) The old governance model, in which various senior faculty rotated through department chair, dean, and provost jobs fell apart as more and more of the administrators morphed into professional chairs, deans, and provosts. Rather than step down at the end of a period of service, these now-professional administrators would either stay put or get caught up in the rat race of promotion by looking for a higher position at another school.
University governance shifted from the old senate/president/regents working in concert model to the faculty senate becoming more of an advisory role with the president and regents looking more and more like business executives and boards of Directors. Indeed, members of the boards of regents were taken more and more from the business world rather than the ranks of emeritus professors and civil leaders. This is all part of that larger pattern of turning schools into training facilities for workers.
The fix would be to go back to the old model, letting faculty take the roles of deans and provosts, if for no other reason than to reverse the cost appreciation trend. Professional managers seem to have a need to expand their little empires. Temporary servants have no incentive to do so. But it would be nice if we did it because we were going back to the core mission. We, in higher education, need to re-imagine the university in its ancient form. It is there to provide growth of minds, not training for jobs. We don't even know what kinds of jobs will be available or needed by society twenty years out. So why would you design academic programs to train students for jobs that might just well be obsolete (or disappear)? I'm betting the bulk of work that will need to be done in the future will be food production and that we will be right back to the agrarian society within the next fifty years (provided we don't destroy ourselves by reacting badly to the decline of energy available). And only a smaller fraction of the population will ever have the mental capacity for the kind of growth of mind higher education can provide. We will return to the days when only some category of elite will attend college and succeed, We'll get there not because we, as a society, made a decision to do so. It will be because we will not have the wealth resources to invest in years of additional education for the masses. The real question will be, will it be an intellectual elite or will it be a wealth-hoarding elite. I'm betting the latter won't really be able to survive for long in the future. So eventually...