5 questions for the cross-examination of higher ed

1.  How long since the government spent as much on education as on prisons or on the military? And how long since there has been as much sustained public scrutiny on prisons and the military as on education?

2.  What is the cost of not getting a college education—both for the individual and for the public? For a few child prodigies, getting a college degree might have been unnecessary. For most young men and women, however, not having a college degree will double their chances of unemployment in a recession and decrease their average lifetime earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

3.  How much federal regulation of higher education will truly serve public interests? American higher education is still one of the most admired systems in the world. It hardly seems coincidental that—unlike most of the world—we don’t have a national system of higher education.

The strength of American higher education has been linked to its diversity; its ability to serve multiple populations in a pluralistic society, its ability to provide opportunities for “late bloomers,” its ability to draw funding from both the public and private sector and its capacity for self-regulation through peer accreditation.

4.  What are truly the best indicators that higher education is doing its job? Higher education may well need to ratchet up its accountability structures. It is not at all obvious that that will best happen through federal regulation or a one-size-fits-all rating system. At best, such a federal standard, by its very nature, will squeeze our diversity and create unequal burdens on institutions depending on the socio-economic populations they serve.

Furthermore, the current proposed standards will almost certainly create a disincentive for graduates to go into lower paying positions of public service. At worst, it leaves us with the same challenges of “affordability” and “accessibility” and far fewer individuals and institutions with a vested interest in meeting those challenges. Whatever these best indicators are, they must reckon honestly with the inherent tensions between making education excellent and making education universally accessible.

While no one in American society wants elitism for its own sake, and while everyone deplores the inequalities sustained by networks of privileged familiarity, we will not be better off as a society with standardized, lowest common denominator mediocrity. Whatever these best standards are, they must reckon with the multiple visions of what constitutes success and a “good life.”

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