Sunday, June 29, 2014

Back to School on the Quality of American Higher Education

Today’s New York Times carries an op-ed piece by Kevin Carey about the sorry state of America’s colleges and universities.  Carey is the head of the Education Policy Program at the New American Foundation, which, in conjunction with the Gates Foundation and others, wants to restructure higher ed along the lines of market and market-like incentives.  The evidence he offers is indirect: adults in the US who graduated from four-year institutions of higher education perform worse on a standardized exam, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies or PIAAC, than did similar adults in other countries.

Of course, the US scores poorly at lower grade levels, as we know from the PISA comparisons.  Presumably the students who enter college in the US come in with worse preparation than students elsewhere.  The proper indirect test of higher ed quality, then, would be whether the US relative standing for students who attend college rises, falls or remains about the same between when they enter and after they leave.  Indeed, if college grads in the US are less behind their peers in other countries post- compared to pre-college, that’s a gold star for American higher ed.  You can’t tell if this is the case from Carey’s piece because his reporting on PISA doesn’t separate out college-bound students; he just gives averages for the entire population taking the test.

If Carey ever decides to return to the shabby institutions of higher education he describes in his column, I’ll invite him to study economics with me.  He can learn about an obscure concept called “value added”.

1 comment:

eric said...

As you point out, the low PISA scores Carey mentions are averages. In fact, kids in US high schools with few poor kids (<10% low-income) get great scores. I kept waiting for Carey to mention this; he never did.

Anyway, you're right that Carey is not comparing apples to apples, but I think you're missing the key discrepancy: that many more Americans have bachelor's degrees. about a third of US young people have them, while in Austria, which leads Carey's list, the figure is something like 15%. So it's not only that PISA doesn't separate out college bound students, it's that college bound students in the US are much less elite than those in, say, Austria.

Relevant data is here: