Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Higher Education

So this report says that higher education needs a bit of an overhaul. They are right and wrong. Is there wasted money? Sure. Are students learning less? Yes, actually. Will the government be able to recommend real change that will help? Oh, God no.

The wasted money issue is a tricky one, so I'll get back to it. The fact that students are learning less is not surprising, and the reason is that there are more students entering college (as a percentage) than ever before. More students means that the average student will be...less capable, intelligent, whatever. No, this is not because poorer people are less bright, but because college has become a default for the middle class, which is where most new and, therefore, most poor quality students come from.

Notions that all people are the same are complete bullshit. Some people are better than others at certain things, and that includes education/learning. When college becomes a default there will be more of the less capable type entering than before. When this happens several problems result: Schools need money to educate them. Schools need students to get money. Schools need to be desireable to get students. Schools need more money to become desirable. Desirable comes in several categories from social life, to academic quality.

All this leads to a horrible mess of spending money while trying to figure out what works best. Another problem is the way money is distributed within a university. More students in a program means more money for that program, but, aside from required courses, one of the best ways to get more students is to be seen as either a soft or a fun option. Soft means grade inflation and fun means less total work, but both mean less education and more money for the time spent in class. (Yes, there are exceptions; I'm talking in general terms.)

Factor in a much more common feeling (among students and parents) that cheating is not wrong, the fact that university students are adults (they don't have to learn what is presented to them if they don't want) and the difficulty of failing poorer students (it's a hassle that most professors do not want) and your result is spending more money per student to force more inept kids through some degree granting program (the most inept group--on average--is undergraduate business majors, followed by undeclared pre-meds). Can government make rules and regulations that will fix this? No, and that is because it all comes back to money. Universities, even those that recieve government funding, require tuition to make ends meet. If the various schools could be guaranteed full funding, then they could take all required measures to improve education, and would do so. Government dollars always come with a hitch, though, and most universities can see the stick tied to the carrot. The end however is simple: higher education is meant as an indicator of ability to learn so that newly hired employees are less risky in terms of their abilities. If a new employee turns out to be a dud, then they are shuffled aside or fired (this is not France). If a school repeatedly turns out duds then companies will stop hiring from that school and students will stop going there. All told the system is self correcting, it is just that the influx of students and the expense of educating them has not yet been balanced. It will happen. The government should just back the hell off until it does.

In the meantime, for all students: cheating is bad, there are stupid questions (and students), and a grade of "A" is not and should not be the result of effort or money, but of demonstrating understanding.

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