Higher Education

I do a lot of research when looking for stories, and I see quite a bit of amazing stuff. Most of it I use for stories, but sometimes even truly wonderful items just don’t quite make it into the final product. This is one such case.

I mostly didn’t use it because a quote in the story is the story. There’s nothing I could have added in my tagline to top it.

Advances in Productivity

Michael Marsh via Unsplash.

The story was about the economics of higher education. There have been precious few studies on the subject over the years, so Ohio University economist Richard Vedder decided to do one.

Vedder’s Conclusion: “It takes more resources today to educate a postsecondary student than a generation ago. That is not true for most goods and services…. Relative to other sectors of the economy, universities are becoming less efficient, less productive, and, consequently, more costly.”

Quite the indictment, but that’s not the wonderful quote. It’s the “conclusion to the conclusion” that Vedder finished with:

“With the possible exception of prostitution, teaching is the only profession that has had absolutely no productivity advance in the 2,400 years since Socrates taught the youth of Athens.”

A wonderful quote; I couldn’t possibly top it!

(Source: Rocky Mountain News, no longer online)

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8 Comments on “Higher Education

  1. I have friends that teach in both Public schools and at universities. Those at the public schools say they are teaching the “standardized” tests, not what the kids need to learn to go on to good careers and/or college. One other teaches English at a local State university. He says he has to basically teach what used to be middle school English to the freshmen and sophomores to get them up to high school English.

    I can see why the cost for college is going up when we have to have those professors teach what should have been taught in primary schools.

  2. Jason’s comments are correct. Politicians only know one way to measure success in education — point to the test scores — and so that’s what they require. Trusting the teachers to assess when students have mastered the material and when they need to swing around for another pass doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.

    All I know is this: we are expecting less of our students than of any group of children in the last century, and we are going to pay a price when this generation comes of age in 30-40 years. We’re already starting to see it, in the increasing importation of science and technical talent from overseas, and it is spreading to other fields as well. My father is a recently minted Ph.D. in business, and throughout grad school into his professorship, what has impressed me more than anything else is the sheer number of his colleagues who are not American. I easily foresee a time, not too far distant, when American students are forced to go overseas for advanced and specialized training because we no longer have enough people here who are capable of providing it.

  3. Quite a sore topic you’ve got here.

    Teaching, and advances in the ways of teaching… But, what exactly is there to advance?

    Add computers to the mix? Sure, already added.

    Add visual aids? Been done so long ago archaeologists dig some of them up, now.

    Add more advanced subjects? Gee, sure would be nice, if elementary was taught first.

    As far as I see it, main problem and main expense is NOT on the process of teaching itself, but on making people WANT that education.

    Per my personal experience… When I was young, being uncultured was considered a bad and pitiful thing. People actually strived to get more education, because out of obvious better job offers, it also added to their social standing. The more educated you were, the more respect you had.

    Nowadays, however… Simply not so.

    It seems that public is being conditioned to be “tolerant” and accepting of low intellect, sometimes substituting brawn for main point of respect, sometimes wealth. In fact, more often then not, people seem to be suspicious and disdainful of those better educated. I believe terms like nerd, geek and egghead would speak for themselves.
    When I’ve come in touch with USA culture and laws, it`s been even more, hrm, unpleasant for me.

    I’m going to be blunt here – political correctness, coupled with rabid anti-discrimination, has lead towards averaging the nation intellectually.

    In my opinion, discriminating on the issue of education is a very beneficial thing, as it makes people strive for better education, and therefore – get more efficient at the job they are trying for.

    However, that kind of discrimination is often intentionally bundled by people with other kinds (which have little or no logic to them – like discrimination by skin color). As everyone wants to omit being labeled racist or sexist, they avoid discriminating altogether… Which leads to average low standard for everyone.

    How to get rid of this? Frankly, I know not. Any idea I could possibly put forward would require an idealistic fundamental change in the society.

    Which, I don`t believe is possible without serious, and most likely bloody altercations.

    I think you missed the professor’s main point. He is not complaining that teaching hasn’t advanced. He is complaining that in the face of it not advancing, the cost of an education is rising much faster than inflation. Why? And if you click through to the source article [update: no longer online, so link has been removed], it notes that it’s now fairly common for college presidents to make $1 million or more. We complain much more about the rising cost of health care, where there have been significant advances. -rc

  4. Perhaps the productivity issue relates to the lack of standardization in the raw material.

    Human brains are notoriously resistant to standardized development. By design, the underlying specifications for each unit includes semi-random variations (with the notable exception of identical twins) strongly influenced by the emotional state and (too often) alcohol content of the initial design-and-fabrication team, whose work is mediated through a complex biochemical process not entirely under their control.

    Productivity improvements in most industries are driven by standardization of inputs, but until we can develop standardized brains, a high degree of inefficient individual craftsmanship in the educational process may be difficult to avoid.

  5. Nothing makes the point of low education standards more than the billboards I see around town proclaiming “Where you at?”.

    [sigh] My husband was a teacher but got tired of kids telling him that we honor Martin Luther King Jr. because he was a president who had a dream (if they know who he was at all). He also got tired of parents telling him that they didn’t care if their little precious was bullying the class and not passing the exams, just so long as the brats weren’t sent home, interfering with the free daycare the parents expect the county to provide.

    So what happens to little precious when college time comes around? My sister teaches at a community college and is constantly confronted with students who have to take remedial classes in English and math. Even when they pass those classes they are often barely able to compose a simple compare and contrast essay or do basic math without a calculator. These are nursing students who may one day be taking care of you in an emergency room. Scary, isn’t it?

    Universities have a different problem. I discovered that the only way to get a license to practice psychology in North Carolina is to go to a campus-based school (internet schools are shunned). The universities get about three hundred applicants PER SCHOOL for the graduate psychology program, but accept only 30 students per year! Other programs like nursing, computer sciences, and business can be even harder to get into.

    One would think that if there are so many people trying to get into a particular program, then you should expand the program and bring in more students. More students means more money. More money pays for more professors. Even the simple tactic of keeping the classes full seems to escape them. They don’t have any provision for filling in gaps in the class when students drop out, meaning that through simple attrition you go from a graduating class of 30 down to 15-20. To have this kind of hurdle to overcome, and then be asked to pay the outrageous fees for tuition and books, is completely unacceptable. For today’s price of a higher education I would almost expect the kind of one-on-one mentoring that Socrates gave.

    But then again, many colleges and universities are not doing right by their professors any more than they are with their students. At California State University, Chico, for example, you will find a small handful of tenured professors in each department. These professors teach maybe one class, perform some basic management duties, then spend the majority of their time doing research for their next paper in order to keep their tenure or position. The majority of the classes are taught by part-time professors, as fully qualified as the full-timers, but with a fraction of the pay and (usually) no benefits. Maybe it’s just me, but I want my money going to professors to teach me, not perform research. That’s what grants are for.

    The system is messed up from the parents out through university board members. The only way I see to fix it starts with changing the parents’ attitudes.

  6. Au contraire, Randy.

    My point is, that in the face of fact, that more and more people defend stupidity as a valid state of mind, education becomes progressively more expensive, as the amount of people willing to undergo the process of education diminishes.

    There is no room for advancement, because even what there is now is looked down upon.

    Once again, getting back to my youth – when I was studying in school, it was self-evident, that I WILL go to university or college or another establishment of high education. It`s been a standard, and it`s been possible to fund high education establishments simply because of sheer number of students passing through.

    Nowadays, however, it`s looping. The less people go through college, the more colleges have to rise the price, which in turn discourages people further.

    It does not helps, that colleges are staffed by ordinary people as well, who prefer more money for same job.

    And so it spirals down. Not just because colleges intentionally raise the monetary bar of education, but because less and less people would even try to get over that bar.

  7. Advances in education? There have been a few but many have been overlooked.

    One small but astounding example occurred back in the 1980’s, The British Broadcasting Corporation aired a documentary, one in its Everyman Series, where TV cameras came to a school. A class of eight year olds was divided into two groups at random. One group was taught the normal curriculum. The other was taught the same with a couple of new subjects added. If I remember correctly, the other subjects were “logic” or “how to think” and “philosophy”.

    Five years later the TV cameras came back to interview the two groups, now 13 years old. The differences were astonishing. The “control” group, who were fed the normal staple of knowledge, scored normally in exams — a mix of Bs, Cs, Ds, and Es, with the occasional A. They were typically shy, had expected behaviour and were bashful in front of the cameras.

    But the group that had been taught “logic, how to think and philosophy” had been scoring well above average. In fact, almost all the time they were scoring straight As or Bs — in every subject! They seemed to have acquired a rare thirst for knowledge. What’s more, their love for a subject was less dependent on the skills of the teacher. They were confident in front of the camera and could elucidate their thoughts like adults. They seemed more mature, more in control of themselves and weren’t shy at all. They had an active sense of humour. Oddly enough, they seemed to like all their subjects, ranging from sciences to the arts. The “normal” group, meanwhile, when asked why they didn’t like a certain subject that they had not done so well in often blamed the teacher!

    Other advancements have also been overlooked such as the teachings in “how to think” by the well known lateral thinker Edward de Bono from in the 70’s and 80’s. Memorionics is also known to improve memory, one of the pillars of good education. Chess is thought to improve academic performance, as in the famous Bronx School Chess Program.
    Schooling can do more, however. They should provide deep training in getting organised in life generally, in making and following a plan, in the good habit of making a list and and priority management. There are various modern and fun ways of improving task performance. Business knows how and so does the military. Some of their methods should be employed.

    My gripe about education is that the parents seem to think the schools can do it all. It’s better that the parents blame themselves. They pay a heavy price when the home is not imbued with a learning culture. Instead of reading and acquiring knowledge, they waste time being entertained by games and TV. The quality of parenting is the key determinant in a child’s education. What happens at the home migrates to the school.

  8. People have been grousing about the lowering of standards in public school education for a long time now. After subbing in public schools for a couple of years now, I say it’s a growing problem, and the dumbing down is intentional. Very simplistically speaking, the text messaging craze has resulted in a streamlining of parlance that ripples out in teenage communication. I know this because I’ve heard kids say it. If I had a dime for every time a kid asked me to explain a word I used, I’d have a nice little stack about now. An overly simple explanation perhaps, but valid, considering the handwritten notes and text messages I’ve intercepted in class. I’m grateful when the communication is illiterate rather than pornographic, but that’s another soapbox rant 😉

    I think it’s important to make a distinction between literate and educated. Public schools are under fire for failing to educate our children. I think we lost that war years ago, around the time zero-tolerance (another soapbox rant) debuted as the ideal enforcement and disciplinary tool for public schools. Political correctness (yet another rant) was and still is more important than actual education. I personally think public schools are lucky to be turning out literate graduates. If we can squeeze some education among the basics, then so much the better. In the end as I see it, education is what we do with the gift of literacy as well as how we learn to think for ourselves. It’s not how much we learn, as much as how to find information when we need it.


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