Backlash brews over media’s focus on value of college

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

A San Francisco State University instructor writes in Poynter today that the media is misrepresenting some basic features of the debate over the value of a college education.  In reviewing recent coverage, Sarah Fidelibus argues that journalists are taking surveys out of context in making the case that a college education isn't worth young people's time and money anymore. The critique comes on the heels of a piece in the New Republic titled "Why the media is always wrong about the value of a college degree."

In the latter article, Education Sector's Kevin Carey mocks media stories that profile woeful Ivy League grads who haven't landed the prestigious jobs they'd hoped for right out of college. He points out that these stories have been running in newspapers for decades--while also noting that an Ivy League education has only become more coveted (and lucrative) over the same period. "They always feature an over-educated bartender, and they are always wrong," Carey writes about the stories.

While The Lookout, too, has noticed a rash of over-hyped headlines about the value of college (ahem, New York magazine), we think these critics are too quick to brush off scholars' concerns about the higher education industry. The often overheated tenor of debate on both ends of the higher-ed question may make it harder to carry out an honest accounting of an industry that already tends to shy away from transparency.

Yes, it's absolutely true that college graduates, in aggregate, can expect much lower unemployment rates and much higher lifetime earnings than their peers who only received a high school education. But that doesn't mean it's pointless to ask whether individual colleges are doing a good job educating their students, and if they are doing so in a cost-effective way. This is especially pertinent because the cost of a four-year degree has tripled since 1980, adjusting for inflation, and the average college graduate who took out loans left school $24,000 in debt in 2009.

The recent revelations of abuse by some for-profit private colleges show that an unquestioning belief in the value of higher education can leave students with towering debt and few marketable skills. The institutions primarily serve low-income and minority students, who are more likely to be underprepared for college courses than their better-off peers and also more likely to drop out before finishing their degree. For-profit students have typically signed up to pay much more for programs available at public community colleges and four-year universities.

But the question of value doesn't just apply to the for-profit sector of higher-ed. Another clue that more scrutiny couldn't hurt is the depressing results of the "Academically Adrift" study of 2,300 students who attend two dozen different universities. Nearly half of those students performed worse or the same on a critical thinking and writing test after two years of college than they had prior to starting their college education. Poor and minority students were over-represented among the students who did not improve. More than half of all the students studied did not have to write more than 20 pages for any class they took in a single semester, and most spent only 12 hours a week studying.

The New Republic's Carey is right that it makes little sense to worry about Ivy League grads going jobless, in part because most of those schools offer generous need-based aid. But Ivy League grads are a tiny portion of the total college-educated population.

In fact, in an essay he wrote in January about "Academically Adrift," Carey argued for tougher, uniform standards for colleges. " 'Trust us,' they say: 'Everyone who walks across our graduation stage has completed a rigorous course of study,' " he wrote. "Now we know that those are lies."

He added: "The students on the margins of college completion are much more likely to fall into the danger zone of poor preparation, low admissions selectivity, and lack of academic rigor. New federal policies need to ensure that they don't just earn a degree, but actually learn something along the way."