THR Web Features   /   September 17, 2015

College Degrees or College Education?

Johann N. Neem

A college diploma. Our Lady of Disgrace via flickr.

The much-awaited, much-debated Obama College Scorecard has just been released. Some reports have described it as a retreat by the administration, with President Obama caving to pressure from a chorus of college and university leaders. But if the failure to include a numerical ranking of the evaluated schools is a compromise, it is an insignificant one. Close examination shows that the Scorecard effectively supports the administration’s broader effort to redefine the purpose of higher education as the preparation of young Americans for high-paying jobs. The real question, of course, is whether we should be happy about this administration victory.

To be sure, the Scorecard provides Americans with some useful information on schools’ average annual costs, graduation rates, and graduates’ incomes. For example, despite posted tuitions, many private universities and colleges offer significant discounts and financial aid, making them much more affordable than their sticker price would suggest. Revealing this fact may inspire more applicants to consider schools that they thought were out of reach. It may even inspire more schools to devote resources to financial aid.

Still, the clear implication here is that the point of a college degree is to get in and out as cheaply and quickly as possible in order to secure a job with a big salary. And let us not pretend that colleges won’t respond to these incentives.

The Obama administration, for its part, knows the power of this kind of nudge. They want parents and potential students to be make choices based on those bottom-line criteria. Given how colleges and universities responded to US News and World Report’s highly influential rankings, the risk that colleges will begin to change themselves is real. If this means emphasizing accounting over literature, so be it.

But how will the universities fall into line? Let’s look at the first two criteria. How to make schools cheaper and graduate more students? One option is to increase class sizes or use technology to standardize courses. Another is to reduce the number of tenure-line faculty. A third option is to reduce time to degree significantly, perhaps even by promising students the opportunity to earn a college degree in a few months. Institutions could lower their academic expectations and guide less-able students away from harder majors, including some of those in the arts and sciences. Admissions offices could avoid admitting students who might deserve a chance but may also fail. Would these changes make college better?

The news gets worse. As Sara Goldrick-Rab notes, none of the Scorecard’s numbers are contextualized. Different schools with very different kinds of students, resources, goals, and aspirations are lumped together. Moreover, there are good reasons to question the reliability of the data.

But the real problem, as other commentators have indicated, is the third criteria: graduates’ salaries. A visitor to the Scorecard cannot help concluding that the quality of an education is determined by how much graduates make. If the purpose of getting into college is getting out of college, then the Obama Scorecard offers us good information. But if what happens during one’s time in college also matters, it offers us little of value.

The problem is that we do not know how to evaluate what makes a good college education. For starters, because we don’t agree on what college is for, we have permitted our colleges to become curricular food courts, serving up degrees in everything from physical therapy or business to philosophy. How do we distinguish among these offerings? How do we judge which is more worthy? Do we have any criteria?

One might argue that college is not for anything and everything, that there are specific goods that compose a college education. But where would that get us? Nowhere—unless we could agree, at least provisionally, on what those goods are. Is college for creating liberally educated adults? If so, then most of the programs they offer—remember that business is America’s largest major—are incompatible with a college education.

And if college is about liberal education, how do we measure whether it has been effective? A liberal education, above all, is a phenomenological experience: It is about a coming to be over time that is experienced subjectively. It is about reading—and discussing and writing about—specific texts that happened to reshape our perspective about ourselves or the world. It is about how we emerge, after several years spent in institutions devoted to thought, as different people.

How to measure this? The best we can do, perhaps, is to offer an assessment tool that makes it more likely that more students will have the kinds of intellectual experiences that compose the best college educations. What is the quality of faculty-student interaction? Are most of the faculty tenured? What kind of work do students complete? What percentage of students major in the arts and sciences ? What kind of general education program is in place?

And how would we know if such a rating would work? Shouldn’t we be skeptical about subjective judgments? Perhaps, but we still might ask: What do people do with their lives? How many of them are still reading literature? Do they keep up with the news and subscribe to magazines? How many work in public service? How many go to the theater, or vote, or belong to civic and religious associations? Of course, even the answers to these questions can tell us only so much.

More fundamentally, such measures would be meaningful only if we thought college was a place one attended to gain a liberal education. The sheer diversity of American post-secondary institutions—which range from community colleges that offer both liberal and technical education to schools that emphasize engineering to religious institutions—makes finding common ground difficult. A successful carpentry program at a technical school or community college would be evaluated by criteria different from what Swarthmore might use. And both are right to do so.

We could turn to generic measures, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures abstract skills like critical thinking. The challenge here is that thought can never be abstracted from the material at hand—the facts, the theories, and what a person makes of it. To evaluate a historian of ancient Greece on how well she teaches a student to “think critically” is akin to evaluating a classical guitarist on how well he teaches a student manual dexterity. Yet it is unfair to students and families to offer no guidelines or measures. The collegiate landscape is too confusing. For-profit institutions prey on their customers, offering expensive degrees for people willing to go into a lot of debt. Are they worth it? How to choose? As taxpayers, we want to know that our money is being spent well. And students want to know that they are making good choices.

Absent any consensus, the Obama administration chose the lowest common denominator, a measure that perhaps we have no choice to embrace: How much money will a degree from X or Y lead to? That clearly is what is wrong with the Scorecard, but it may also reflect what’s wrong with us. In the end, perhaps we Americans agree with President Obama about what college is for.