There’s an interesting semi-review in The New Yorker of two sociology texts – “Academically Adrift” and “In the Basement of Ivory Tower” – with a dash personal history and some convenient data, in order to to look at the value of higher education in America: “Live and Learn – Why We Have College” by Louis Menand (via @MindHacks). While the whole article is worth a read, I’ll pull out a few of the statistics that are interesting:
- Last year, 35,000 students applied to Harvard. Acceptance rate = 6% (and other Ivy’s commonly around 8%). By contrast, Cambridge has a 21% acceptance rate and Oxford 18%.
- In 1950 in America there were 1.14 million students in public higher education and the same in private higher education. Today there are 15 million in public and around 6 million in private.
- The average tuition fee in a public college is $7,605 a year. 68% of American high schoolers go to college.
- In a test to see whether college was working, 45% of students showed no sign of intellectual improvement after two years.
- After 4 years, 36% showed no signs of intellectual improvement.
- Institutions that require more of you – more work, more reading and more writing – are better performing in the test.
- Liberal arts students show more signs of improvement on the test than vocational/professional students. Only 40%, however, are liberal arts students.
- Students who score lowest with least improvement are business majors. 22% of all American bachelor’s students, are business majors.
- Half of Americans who enter higher education, do not finish.
While Louis Menand does not introduce his own opinion much into the piece, it is clear from the review that the authors of the reviewed texts believe that there are too many people in education and considering the cost, they want to consider if it really works.
The reason I found the article quite interesting was what, if anything, it can tell us about British higher education. First of all, despite the leftish cries around the country about the difficulty of getting into our greatest universities, they are far easier to get into than an Ivy. The average tuition in an American public college is $7,605 a year, which soon will be less than Britain though only just.
For a large proportion of people, doing a vocational or professional course does not make you more intelligent or improve academically and most students in America do vocational or professional courses. Over the past fifty years it is the public education sector that has boomed, now doubling the numbers of those in private higher education.
The problem there, like the problem here, is this absurd ideal that everyone should go to university. In fact it is detrimental for them to go to university considering the levels of debt they will incur and the years from their career advancement that they would lose. Any number of vocational or ‘professional’ courses that forty years ago would have involved on-the-job training, now require a degree and two-to-four years of your life signed away.
In an example that Menand gives, students who study Culinary Arts Management with a Beverage Management major will also have to do modules in: World literature, philosophy, chemistry and economics. It can be argued that all would end up being useful to your degree, but more useful than applying those years in on-the-job training? I sincerely doubt it.
America, as with here, needs to seriously reform higher education. If people want to carry on studying after they turn eighteen and are likely to go to a lesser university, we must stop kidding ourselves that this equates to a degree. Perhaps those institutions should offer more of a College+, rather a BA for example. Likewise, while vocational subjects in many fields are necessary, we need to get rid of all those which are not.
America has a more over-saturated higher education system than we do but if we’re not careful we could end up going the same way. Trying to bring in, by any measure, students who would not benefit from university does not as the left likes to believe, increase social mobility but instead squanders it; lumping them with unneeded debt and wasting their time. In America, 68% of high school students carry on into higher education through perceived necessity, we must ensure that the same does not happen here.