Yes, this is pre-judging. *UPDATED*

By Ian

But when the introductory material is so poor, I find it hard not to do so.

From the Phantom Prof's site I read this synopsis of a PBS special currently airing.

The upshot of the show, from what I can tell, is not only to point out that college is not perfect at preparing kids for a professional life, but also to suggest that part of the problem is that a lack of state and federal funding is largely to blame, since the kids are showing up at college unprepared.

"Declining by Degrees" also highlights the impact of market forces in higher education today. The reality of the college experience today often depends on the bottom line: money. As one university president described it, "The state taxpayer support for public universities is eroding. That creates financial stress that we all understand and we just manage it. We just deal with it the best we can."

The two-hour documentary examines the public and government's decreasing financial commitment to higher education. Sixty years ago our country entered into what amounted to a social contract to ensure access to college for all despite family income. States supported public colleges and the federal government helped with money for the poor. Today, the funds and the support for the social contract are diminishing.

As Pat Callan, President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, explains, "The federal Pell Grant program is the nation's largest program that focuses on the lowest income students who actually get to go to college. In the early 80's, that program had about 3 or 4 billion dollars in it, and it covered over 95 percent of the average tuition at a 4-year public college or university." Today it's about 57%.

I'm not sure who they've got looking into that "impact of market forces", but it doesn't seem, from the synopsis, that they bothered to talk with too many people who might be able to expound on the full range of those forces. One need only open the pages of Forbes to find a good discussion of the correlation between funding and educational attainment (measured in part by the number of people going on to college).

There are additional issues, however, that arise when we consider high levels of public funding: there will be more people going to college that shouldn't be. For a good number of people the traditional cobblestone-lined walkways of a four-year college is simply not necessary. Some because their talents lie elsewhere, some because the time isn't right, and some just because they could make more money than by being in school. With increases in public funding for any host of characteristics, it becomes more likely that schools will let in people who do not meet the minimum standards for doing well at college, simply because the financial burden of carrying them is reduced (or, in terms of grants to schools with a student body composition that meets certain criteria, it could be a net gain). College is certainly getting more expensive, but that's simply compared to what it used to cost, and doesn't approach anything like what it "ought" to cost -- not that such a thing is easily definable. But those students who are prepared, or for whom academic pursuits come most easily (as in the kid from the synopsis who does little work in college but still does well) could and would still attend even if college were more expensive, since there are extensive merit-based scholarships, and I daresay schools might be more willing to funnel money back into things like undergraduate teaching if the level of work coming from students improved. Bringing in people less prepared simply increases the variance in abilities that a professor faces when staring at a class; a fact that I'm certain results in massive headaches when the poor students complain that things are too hard and show up for office hours two days before a test to ask remedial questions, or when the kids who get it are less than engaged, don't attend to avoid the others, and barely particpate only to float through.

While I have some symptathy for the notion that high expectations result in better performance, I still view with mild skepticism programs that have only college as the ultimate goal. (In the case mentioned on Newmark the Younger's site, I appreciate that it's a goal parents are keen enough on that they work with their kids to make happen. The attitude that numbers of people making it into college marks some important degree of success for a school, on the other hand, bothers me more generally.)

In a position I would ascribe to the likes of Matt Yglesias, I think some people simply want more kids to attend college because it makes them feel better about...well, themselves, society at large, the future of humanity, who knows. This is akin, in my mind, to those people who talk more about covering people with insurance than worrying about better health outcomes. Sending people to college, or giving them health insurance, isn't going to make the end result -- a roomful of people Yglesias would be happier talking to or lean, healthy people getting a full ration of fruit a day -- a certainty.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, it was as poor as I expected. The two hours were spent, essentially, lambasting the "general public" for not understanding how important it is to have massive taxpayer-supported funding for higher education. Continued reference was made to a "social contract" being broken -- as far as I could grasp, this contract includes some sort of declaration that higher education should be as close to free as possible for everyone. The evidence for this? The GI Bill which, oddly, the documentary supports with the (in my opinion correct) commentary that this was little more than a pleasantly-wrapped but crass way to deal with the influx of millions of able-bodied men back into the workforce, that is, by keeping them out of it and training for a wider range of jobs. While talking repeatedly about the "benefits" (read: spillovers) of higher education, the commentaries in the doc repeatedly admit that not only are people unsure of what "happens" at college (calling it -- no joke -- "magic", at one point) to make people more productive or better equipped for the work world, but there are also no good measures of how much it makes a difference (no level to judge how much "magic" happened). No one talks about the maturation that occurs naturally between the ages of roughly 17 and 22. Additionally, though I've not got time to find the data, there was much talk about the nature of the US middle class, and college being the only way to reach it and thus be able to support a decent lifestyle and family. That would be surprising, I think, to the numerous plumbers, electricians, contractors, mechanics, and plethora of small business owners I know who make a good deal more than I do (not that I'm wealthy, but do fall squarely into the "middle class" range), all without having attended "college" (though plenty of them took technical training outside the academy).

Possibly the most objectionable part of the document was the twin condescenion and paternalism expressed towards community colleges. They were depicted as "last resorts" for some, while the narrator/interviewer highlighted financial pressures that meant some community colleges had to turn some people away. Could greater demand from, say, immigrants be putting pressure on these schools? Would greater demand for qualified professors at these colleges that are turning students away mean that the teacher profiled in the doc was in a position of strength for bargaining on his salary? (And, frankly, after 30 years of teaching in multiple places and never getting a permanent position, shouldn't the teacher from the movie have either reconsidered his choices or couldn't we assume he is at least decently satisfied with the non-monetary reward of teaching and discussing his favorite subjects?) The entire tone when discussing the community colleges was "look what some people have to resort to" and "gee, shouldn't we all pitch in so something like this doesn't have to keep happening to good people?"

I've always viewed the profusion of small and technical schools as a good thing, as the spread of specialization in education. People can head towards training that would be more useful to them in the long run. Not everyone needs to sit through college lectures to end up a productive member of society.

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