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The College Payoff

One reason I was so excited to join Brainstorm was that it presented a chance to go toe-to-toe once in awhile with my colleague and friend, Kevin Carey. Over the years, I’ve read Kevin’s work frequently, and often found myself respectfully disagreeing with him. What’s the best is that our points of disagreement are always worth arguing over — as we are both so clearly interested in seeing major changes when it comes to equity and educational attainment.

This past week presented an illustration. I wrote a critique of an American Enterprise Institute report Kevin co-authored, and he responded with a post taking on some of my points. Since I have plenty to say in turn, and since I think this is a discussion very much worth having, I want to continue the debate here.

My main point in the original post was that the AEI authors jumped to conclusions I don’t find particularly helpful. They want to do something about low graduation rates, but prematurely conclude the solutions lie in changing institutional practices. Kevin replied with “colleges make a difference” and who would want to argue otherwise?

Well, in some sense — me. To put a finer point on it, I argue that they individually make a difference, but mainly on the margins and for uncomfortable reasons.

Here’s the outline of what I’m thinking. First, I emphatically believe that there’s an economic payoff to years of college, and credentials in particular, and that most students learn at least something during the time they spend in college. I also buy the research of Jennie Brand and Yu Xie (and others) who find that students least likely to attend college are in fact most likely to benefit from attending. That is why I’m for greater equity in access and completion. Second, I definitely do not believe that the sources of observed differentials in student outcomes among colleges — things like levels of student engagement, graduation rates, and returns to the degree — are about institutional policies and practices of the kind Kevin’s referring to. Why? Since at least to some degree, most of our colleges select kids for admission based on evidence that they will be engaged and “able to benefit” from the experience — and they do this in different ways and to differing degrees — then variation in graduation rates is clearly going to result.

So that’s why colleges themselves probably only matter on the margins. And here comes the “uncomfortable” part. We have to recognize that (like it or not) the primary functions of our colleges and universities are (1) facilitating the creation of social networks and (2) credentialing. We go to college to hang out with people who will later be our friends, spouses, colleagues, and Facebook buddies — and these people will help us find jobs and make good connections throughout our lives. We also go so that future employers will find us more desirable — whether or not they should.

Ultimately, I don’t think that detracts from the importance of higher education, and in particular from the goal of broadening access to higher education. It’s a gatekeeper, and more people need to get in. But it does — and should — detract from the sense that some colleges “do a better job” than others. What does that really mean when what they “do” is help you meet your socially advantaged counterparts and send smoke signals to employers? If that’s what you’re buying, and you understand that, OK. I don’t think most people do.

Now back to Kevin’s points. Sure, some colleges have high dropout rates and that’s a shame. Part of the reason is that they’re enrolling students who — a decade or two ago — wouldn’t have attended college. Now, in a college-for-all culture, they go. Some get a degree — and in this sense, opening doors is serving them well. Others suffer enormous personal costs, financial investments and feelings of personal failure. These things are hard to measure, but are undoubtedly affecting the numbers we observe. We hardly pay attention to (or measure) important factors like individuals’ health and development, and yet we assume that any remaining variation in outcomes (e.g. engagement or graduation rates) not accounted for by observable factors can be credited to college practices — instead of attributing the variation to the vast array of important predictors of individual functioning that we just don’t measure. Why?

If we want to make better policies to increase attainment and close gaps we need to get a better handle on what the real problems are. What if the differences in graduation rates are explained by differences in how mentally and physically prepared students at different colleges are for postsecondary education? Right now, that doesn’t show up in the data. So Kevin says the remaining variation is in the colleges’ domain. Yet if, based on that, we direct policy interventions at the colleges when the real problem is health, we’ll fail to generate change. That’s simply not useful, and potentially a waste of money. Why wait for research? This is why. We need more numbers, and less conjecture.

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