Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Value-Added Conundrum

If a community college -- or, for that matter, an “adult basic education” provider -- takes someone who reads at a second-grade level up to, say, an eighth-grade level before she walks away, has the community college succeeded or failed?

How you answer that question will reflect a host of assumptions that usually go unexamined.

Is the point of public higher education to sort out those who can achieve at a predetermined level from those who can’t?  If this is its purpose -- replacing an aristocracy of money with an aristocracy of talent -- then relatively high attrition rates are just signs of rigor.  Not everybody can be in the top five percent, or it wouldn’t be the top five percent anymore.  I’ll call this the Professor Kingsfield camp, after John Houseman’s character in The Paper Chase.  In this view, a college degree functions as a signal that its holder is capable of things that other people aren’t.  Making degrees too common would dilute the signal.  It would debase the currency.  

Holders of this view can point, justifiably, at the fate of the high school diploma.  A high school diploma was once relatively rare; when it was, it meant something.  (Neither of my grandfathers had one.)  Now that most of the population has it, it doesn’t carry much weight.  As dropout rates nationally continue to fall -- yes, they’re falling -- diplomas will become even more common, and therefore even less distinctive.

The strength of the Professor Kingsfield camp is that it acknowledges the reality of supply and demand.  The weakness is that it assumes that the rules are fixed, when the world is changing quickly.

Another school of thought holds that -- to put it bluntly -- degrees create jobs.  I’ll call this the Everybody Gets a Trophy camp.  These folks point out, correctly, that in the aggregate, college graduates have higher incomes, longer lives, lower divorce rates, and lower incarceration rates than non-grads.  Applying the logic that if some is good, more must be better, they argue that the key to social improvement is to increase the number of college grads.  If everyone had a degree, just think of what would happen to average income, crime rates, and social well-being!

The strength of this view is its optimism.  It does a nice job of explaining the American economy in the mid-to-late twentieth century.  It offers plenty of wonderful rags-to-riches anecdotes.  It’s also hugely popular within academia, for obvious reasons.

The weakness is that it ignores supply and demand.  As any recent English Ph.D. can tell you, it’s possible to flood a market for credentials.  Within higher ed, that’s what makes the trend towards adjuncts possible.  Going beyond academia, this view really struggles to explain the last five years.  The job market fell off a cliff in 2008, but the ranks of the credentialed continued to grow.  The job drought is less bad for college grads than for folks without college, but it’s still pretty bad, and it has stayed bad for too long to write off as a blip.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after a few years of an awful job market, colleges are suddenly being told to prove that they’re “performing.”  Nobody asked that when grads had their pick of jobs.  If you sold the idea of political support for higher education on the grounds that degrees create jobs, and then the jobs go away, you find yourself in an awkward spot.  Trophies are great, but they aren’t magic.

My own view comes much closer to the “value add” position, though I don’t have a catchy name for it yet.  In this view, people have some general sense of what they need.  The job of an educator is to empower students to find their own way.  In this view, there are no guarantees, but there’s a basic faith in the idea that making people capable will make things better.  Capability doesn’t necessarily require degrees, of course.  Adult literacy programs may not always lead to college degrees, but that’s okay; a newly literate adult is meaningfully better off than he was when he was illiterate.  He’s better able to find his own way, whatever that way will be.  

In this view, higher education shouldn’t be the passive sorting mechanism that Professor Kingsfield represented, and it shouldn’t put so much faith in the degree that it forgets what the degree was supposed to represent.  It replaces a “many paths to one destination” model with a “many paths to many destinations” model, on the theory that any single destination isn’t right for everyone, and could easily get flooded anyway.

The strength of this view, I think, is that it takes diversity and change seriously.  That’s also its weakness; when the goal is student empowerment, how does an institution measure that?  What counts as success?

Yes, I think a program that moves someone from a second-grade reading level to an eighth-grade reading level has accomplished something meaningful and worthwhile.  Professor Kingsfield may blanch at that, and I won’t make any grand claims about transforming the job market, but I have faith that people who can find their way will be better off than those who can’t.