Tuition and Quality Don’t Mix, but BA’s and Bartending Do

Right now we’re in a fallow period in the academic calendar: most students and faculty have arrived back on campus from their December-January vacation, and are busy putting on their critical thinking caps to figure out where best to decamp for Spring Break in a few weeks’ time. Cancun? Florida? Gstaad? It’s important to have that extra “me time” before the hectic dash to Commencement, that end-of term free-for-all when scheduled, spontaneous protests take place and the bleak reality that nobody will care about your race, class, or gender after graduation begins to set in.

Not planning a spring break for myself, I turned to two remarkable reports from the frontiers of higher ed research. It defies credulity to me that the release of these documents was not timed to coincide. One, from the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, came in the form of a paper delivered at the annual conference of the American Association of Colleges and Universities and dropped this bombshell:

there’s little correlation between how much colleges spend on education and how much their students will benefit. The amount institutions spend per student can range from $9,000 to $50,000, but there’s little difference between the teaching practices and experiences they provide that improve student learning.

The COI website, after making this shocking revelation, directs readers to Inside Higher Ed for the details. Writes reporter Scott Jaschik:

45 colleges and universities, most of them liberal arts colleges, but also other kinds of institutions, [were studied] to identify measures of good practice that result in students at all educational levels learning more. Four such practices (for which there are scales) are “good teaching with high quality interactions with faculty,” high expectations and academic challenge, interaction with ideas and people different from one’s own, and “deep learning” through characteristics identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement.

[T]he 45 colleges were examined based on their spending on educational purposes while also looking at their scores on the measures that are correlated with increased student learning.

The result was that there was only a very small relationship between spending on education and the quality of the educational experience as measured by those four factors. The relationship is so small that [Study Director Charles] Blaich said that a college would have to spend an additional $5 million per 1,000 students to increase the “good practice” score (on a scale of 100) by a single point.

But the finding that really caused visible discomfort in the room was a scatterplot Blaich shared showing the colleges on axes of educational spending per student and points on the scale of good teaching. Blaich isolated 10 colleges (he said later that most but not all were liberal arts colleges) that had very similar scores on the good practices related to teaching. Their spending per student, however, ranged from $9,225 to $53,521 (with corresponding tuition rates). Others at the high end of per-student spending were at $44,429 and $34,172. Three other colleges, however, were achieving the same educational impact with spending per student of about $15,000. And yet all of these colleges were showing similar levels of good practice with regard to education.

Most of those listening — with growing discomfort — were private college administrators. But faculty members might not have been comfortable either. Slides by Blaich suggested that spending on faculty members is where the differences exist between the colleges at the low and high ends of the spending spectrum among those 10 institutions.

Average faculty salaries ranged from the $50,000s to the $90,000s. The percentage of the faculty that was employed full-time ranged from 40 percent to 87 percent. Student-faculty ratios ranged from 21:1 to 8:1. And yet all of these institutions were reporting similar scores on the educationally valuable practices.

So, to sum-up: You don’t always get what you pay for, ma and pa, when you write those tuition checks. At least in terms of “education.” But you might, in terms of prestige for your kid and enhanced career prospects.

Or, you might not.

Consider the second study that caught my eye, released today by the Center for College Affordability & Productivity with the dispiriting (but hardly surprising) title, “Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed?” The study’s authors, Richard Vedder (who heads the Center), Christopher Denhart, and Jonathan Robe, offer up a welter of evidence in support of their argument that

a growing disconnect has evolved between employer needs and the volume and nature of college training of students, and that the growth of supply of college-educated labor is exceeding the growth in the demand for such labor in the labor market.

You can download the entire report here, and I highly recommend that you do, if for no other reason than to read the section entitled “Three Different Perspectives or Motivations for Attending College,” which will give those of you contemplating sending your kid to anything other than a highly selective and prestigious institution great pause.

For those of you unwilling to make that effort, here’s an excerpt from the report’s Executive Summary that might convince you:

Increasing numbers of recent college graduates are ending up in relatively low-skilled jobs that, historically, have
gone to those with lower levels of educational attainment. This study examines this phenomenon in some detail,
• About 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
suggests requires less than a four-year college education. Eleven percent of employed college graduates
are in occupations requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s, and 37 percent
are in occupations requiring no more than a high-school diploma;
• The proportion of overeducated workers in occupations appears to have grown substantially; in 1970,
fewer than one percent of taxi drivers and two percent of firefighters had college degrees, while now more
than 15 percent do in both jobs;
• About five million college graduates are in jobs the BLS says require less than a high-school education;
• Comparing average college and high-school earnings is highly misleading as a guide for vocational success,
given high college-dropout rates and the fact that overproduction of college graduates lowers recent
graduate earnings relative to those graduating earlier;
• Not all colleges are equal: Typical graduates of elite private schools make more than graduates of flagship state
universities, but those graduates do much better than those attending relatively non-selective institutions.

The lessons here are clear: what you pay for higher education is no guarantee of quality; where you go matters not, either. And make your kid choose the college with the very best reputation–it will increase her chances of making martinis at a Mandarin Oriental and she won’t have to settle for pulling brews at Chili’s.

10 thoughts on “Tuition and Quality Don’t Mix, but BA’s and Bartending Do

  1. Pingback: What to Teach: and Why « nebraskaenergyobserver

  2. Pingback: Politics, Climate, Dishonor, Fraud, and a Bit on Education « nebraskaenergyobserver

  3. The eternal verities are what they are – even if senior management remain obsessed with newspeak. Interesting piece.

  4. I can tell you why 15% of firefighters have college degrees. Union contracts. Many, many labor agreements provide for increases to the base rate of pay for increasing levels of education. Those same contracts also offer varying levels of reimbursement for tuition, books, registration fees, etc, etc. I know I’ve been stuck with these silly contracts many times. Try bargaining for a draconian standard of passing the course with something more than a straight C, or requiring the course(s) actually have something to do with the job held by the union brother or sister, or offering some palpable proof that the class or classes actual provide some additional benefit to the employer or the employers citizens. It’s a big barrel o’ fun.

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