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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Debate on Higher Ed Failure Rates

Inside Higher Ed has a good piece on Mark Schneider's critique of the American university's graduation rates, especially in the context of our higher spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. The core claim:
Even though the U.S. spends more of its gross domestic product on higher education than do other countries, and contains many of the world’s best universities, the country’s performance on measures of postsecondary attainment for its citizens, particularly young ones, is declining compared to other countries. Graduation rates provide further proof that “American higher education as a whole is failing to live up to its reputation as the world’s best,” he writes.

Schneider compares the median four-year graduation rates of American high schools (which, he acknowledges, have mandatory attendance policies that do not apply to colleges) with the six-year graduation rates at four-year colleges, and shows that across the board — at selected percentiles, by races, and across differing types of institutions (public, private, for-profit) — postsecondary institutions lag high schools.
There's good coverage here too of Cliff Adelman's critique of these numbers.

What needs more coverage is the causal link between weakening educational attainment and budget cuts. This point would cut against both Schneider and Adelman: higher ed's share of GDP is a number bloated by all sorts of activities that don't involve undergraduate education (most lab research, professional school education - its really expensive to create so many hedge-fund managers and M&A attorneys, etc). The "undergraduate education" share would be smaller. The share would also be split between a small number of wealthy schools who spend more and more and more and a large number of public universities whose expenditures in real dollars per student are flat or in decline. Since national attainment is about the mass population, you need to have high-quality mass higher education. That's what we used to be good at, and what we're less good at now.

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