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College: What Is It Good For

"New information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the growth rate of the income gap between those with an undergraduate degree and those with only a high school degree has come to a stop. It had been slowing for a while after dramatic growth in the 1980s and 1990s." Jumping off from there, Timothy Burke reflects on whether colleges aren't failing their students. It's a good question, bolstered not only by the BLS data, but by the recent study by, I believe, Alan Krueger which appears to indicate that very selective colleges provide no measurable value-added whatsoever to their students relative to less selective institutions. But if hiring a bunch of super-smart faculty doesn't improve the quality of the education you provide, even when you get to have the very best kids in the country go to your school, then what's the point?

Is it possible -- just maybe possible -- that if you want to design an effective teaching institution you need to have a hiring process for your teachers in which teaching ability plays a role? After all, if I were running a car dealership and started promoting salespeople based on the quality of their sales-theory publications rather then number of cars they sold, no one would be shocked when it turned out that I wasn't moving much product.

January 20, 2005 | Permalink


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» Teaching from CasdraBlog
Matthew Yglesias just made a post called College: What is it Good For. He talks about recent statistics that show the income gap between those with high school and undergraduate degrees slowing and now coming to a stop and also about the statistics sh... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 21, 2005 12:10:26 PM

» Declining ROI on a college degree -- are colleges just doing a bad job of teaching? from chez Nadezhda
I'm feeling like a bear of very little brain this morning. Usually I get right away the points Matt Yglesias makes. This time, however, I think we've got a leap of faith in here somewhere in his two recent posts on university education.

Matt... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 21, 2005 12:45:25 PM

» College: What Is It Good For from Can I Get A What What
Link: Matthew Yglesias: College: What Is It Good For. In other words, teachers should be able to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 23, 2005 12:06:48 PM


Just because I think this proviso is important: the Krueger study *did* show significant independent value-added by selective institutions for lower- and lower middle-class students.

Posted by: Jacob T. Levy | Jan 20, 2005 5:35:28 PM

Yeah, I had a Nobelist teaching a course not far removed from his field... and it was awful. He might be a mental giant, but not so good at explaining things. Just not a priority for many places.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 20, 2005 5:40:06 PM

Teaching ability should be the primary concern of faculty hiring, which is the reason I chose to attend a small liberal arts college. My school doesn't attach the same weight to faculty publishing that a major research university does, so the professors can focus simply on teaching.

I'm not saying that professors whose primary focus is research have no place in the university system, but a distinction should be made between those who are actually teaching and those who use a teaching position to further their research.

Posted by: matt f | Jan 20, 2005 5:40:55 PM

I think that this obscures the basic mission of selective colleges. If you think their mission is to provide a tremendously valuable education, I have a bridge to sell you! They have many missions; one is certainly to turn out graduates who are successful. One is to transfer federal research dollars from NIH, NSF, DOD, and DOE to the coffers of their institurons. Yet another is to train graduate students and post-docs, and professional degree students in many realms to go on in various ways. Yet another is to collect money from the wealthy in the area to build buildings (Like the Matthew Yglesias Rec Center I hear so much about). It is very nice to think that the goal is to produce successful well rounded bachelors degree'd graduates, but that's not all of it, by a long shot.

Posted by: Paul Orwin | Jan 20, 2005 5:41:51 PM

if you want to design an effective teaching institution

Since when do elite colleges want to be effective teaching institutions? Certainly wasn't the case when I was going to a certain college about 40 minutes south of the one you went to.

Seems to me that such universities want to be "effective research institutions" that have to put up with undergrads because undergrads pay a large portion of the funds supporting such research.

Posted by: Al | Jan 20, 2005 5:45:07 PM

You have to have a teaching profession in college that cares about and rewards teaching, not just research. American higher education is rapidly becoming a caricature of itself: over two-fifths of all faculty are adjuncts (which says the institutions don't care about teaching or the continuity of their own programs); rewards for full-time faculty are now almost exclusively based on the quantity of publications and the ratings on student evaluations (what motivators for substantial amounts of time devoted to the critical tasks of teaching). And we wonder why students may feel short-changed? It is more and more expensive to go to college (didn't you appreciate Bush's offer to raise the value of Pell Grants $100 a year for the next five years? That ought to cover the annual tuition increases.) Very soon, we will have mostly part-time faculty teaching mostly part-time students. And we'll wonder where American college education went.

Posted by: charles | Jan 20, 2005 5:46:22 PM


And why are we STILL waiting for the best teachers to be exploited widely via video?

Posted by: yesh | Jan 20, 2005 5:58:01 PM

"New information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the growth rate of the income gap between those with an undergraduate degree and those with only a high school degree has come to a stop. It had been slowing for a while after dramatic growth in the 1980s and 1990s."

Since no one has linked to the source material, one can't know for sure, but I'd strongly assume that the income gap between college educated and non-college educated is still very high by historical standards.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 20, 2005 6:09:46 PM

You certainly pay for more than class hours, but look at the costs. At many of the private schools or as an out-of-state student, your tuition means that you're paying well more than $100 per class hour. I had maybe two teachers out of 30 in college that I would even think about paying more that. (Sorry and thank you, parents.) You're also paying to be part of the community, for access to recreational facilites and the library, but many schools cover that in non-tuition fees.

Barring the exceptional teacher, you can easily get the same out of a liberal arts subject with a decent reading list, a library card and, dare I say, a healthy group of blogs.

Posted by: Jeff | Jan 20, 2005 6:11:28 PM

I'm lucky my college has decided to focus on teaching and not research. The research focused University near-by I could have gone to is rated in the bottom of Univesities nationwide.

Research Universities are probably great for someone who already has a degree. But for someone trying to get one, give me someone who TEACHES, please!

Posted by: The Key | Jan 20, 2005 6:14:31 PM

Following Matt F. above, I think a study could be designed to address your question: compare outcomes for students from selective, research-oriented institutions (like the Ivies/Stanford/Chicago etc.) with the outcomes for students from selective liberal-arts colleges in which teaching is highly valued (Williams/Haverford/7 Sisters/Reed/Rice etc.). I think that should clarify the matter. (I remember seeing my Western History prof at Chicago, who had the well-deserved reputation of being one of the best teachers on campus--students, including me, stood in line to get into his classes--get denied tenure because of what was deemed inadequate research. You're quite right that the selective universities fundamentally don't give a damn about teaching.)

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Jan 20, 2005 6:16:22 PM

So, if I have this right, a college degree does not lead to higher lifetime earnings than a mere high school diploma and the quality of the college you attend also makes no difference. Therefore, a person with a high school diploma can expect to make as much as a person with a degree from Harvard. Even correcting for family background, intelligence, etc., I don't think so.

Posted by: cdw | Jan 20, 2005 6:27:22 PM

Italics. OFF!

As for the comment, you're seeing more of this in the legal field as well. At the moment, a top-notch law school is useful for getting legal clerkships and teaching positions -- and not so much for legal practice. (A top-notch law school also gives you a leg up if you want to be a federal judge, although being close friends with a Senator is considerably more useful.) If money is your driver, you're likely to do better going to a mid-ranked school, getting a scholarship, and finishing in the top 25%.

Posted by: von | Jan 20, 2005 6:29:36 PM

Just to be clear here, the BLS study shows that the second derivative is negative, while the first derivative is still positive. That is, the income gap between college grads and those with a GED is growing, it's just not growing as fast as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. That's okay, right? After all, if the income gap were to increase forever, that would be phenomenal ... it would be ... a phenomena ($1 Josh Lyman).

What happens when you plot this series against the percentage of 25 year olds with college degrees? Does the fall of in income gap growth coincide with an increase of college grads?

Posted by: niq | Jan 20, 2005 6:37:52 PM

I think that students might not quite realize the difference between the average starting salary of an Electrical Engineering major ($51,372) and that of, say, a journalism major ($27,646).

As the median salary of all people with a high school education is $36,500, you can see that the journalism major starts out in a bad position.

Posted by: Mr. Econotarian | Jan 20, 2005 6:51:05 PM

I think that a lot of students go to the "best" colleges not for education but for contacts, connections, prestige, etc. GWB being a case in point. The number for whom subject matter and content are primary is probably no more than 20% or so. The four-year-party is another major non-educational motive. And keeping the parents happy.

From what I've seen the good teaching is so erratically distributed that it's hard to say anything. A school might be great in one field and horrible in another.

Posted by: John Emerson | Jan 20, 2005 6:57:23 PM

For anyone else curious, here's a link to a PDF version of the Krueger study. Or at least, I think it's the study we're all talking about. Reading that "the Barron's rating of school selectivity and the tuition charged by the school are significantly related to the students' subsequent earnings" in the abstract does make me wonder... but I haven't read the whole thing.

Posted by: yami | Jan 20, 2005 6:59:30 PM

Your car-salesman analogy gets it exactly backwards, Matt. The proper analogy isn't "failure to promote car salesmen based on their skill in car sales"--it's "failure to promote car salesman based on their skill in cleaning toilets", which is pretty much how research faculty and the chairmen who evaluate them see teaching chores. Universities are not high schools.

And if the students actually (gasp) studied (!), they might make a little more when they graduated.

Posted by: some guy | Jan 20, 2005 7:29:03 PM

Buh? It seems rather odd to assume that if Universities were fulfilling their role as undergraduate-educators optimally this income gap would rise unboundedly. Even odder to assume that its second derivative would remain forever positive.

(Uh, Matt. You mentioned you can't integrate by parts. Do you need someone to explain what a second derivative is?)

I mean, I'm not an economist, but I would think this would be one of those situations where one can't ignore supply and demand issues without reducing one's position to absurdity. (Or perhaps tangentiality.)

But keep up the good fight, guys. I mean, if you can convince Universities that there's a crisis and it's imperative that they start valuing publications less and teaching more, I might actually get a tenure-track job offer!

Posted by: some guy | Jan 20, 2005 7:33:48 PM

Is the only value that a college education provides measurable by income? How about learning how to drink? As someone with only a ninth-grade education, I have to say that what I envy about college graduates has nothing to do with their earning power.

Posted by: Rafael Yglesias | Jan 20, 2005 7:33:49 PM

In this, you have made an excellent point... one which demands repeating. I'd like to offer a point for reflection as well, and that is that teaching quality has run inversely with average university wealth.

Posted by: Federalist X | Jan 20, 2005 7:34:17 PM

Oh, that should read "teaching of undergraduates."

'cuz, you know, if all you manage to do is make them judge me on the basis of how a soul's going to do if he's stuck with me as his PhD thesis advisor, that doesn't help me out much.

Posted by: some guy | Jan 20, 2005 7:42:12 PM

My suspicion is that some of the difference noticed recently is due to high-salary college educated women marrying wealthy men and staying home to raise children. Thus income = zero.

Posted by: Mary R | Jan 20, 2005 8:06:11 PM

It's a tough question. The advantage of having teachers who publish is that their work is peer reviewed, and getting papers past the reviewers is tough, at least in engineering. On the other hand, since this has become the standard, journals have come out of the woodwork. And if a subject in engineering has been reduced to practice, nobody publishes about that subject anyway.

I also blame the students. At the university where I work, student evaluations are a significant aspect of the tenure decision. And if you expect a reasonably high level of performance, your evaluations are gonna suck. And since an ever-growing percentage of instructors are part-time and not tenure track, it's pretty important to get good reviews.

Posted by: Eric | Jan 20, 2005 8:06:41 PM

Hmmmm.....I thought the lyrics were "War...What is it good for?"

Posted by: Deborah White | Jan 20, 2005 8:16:39 PM

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