It's about Quality - not Quantity (and damn that's hard)

One of the more interesting academic labor economists who I follow rather religiously is Anthony P. Carnevale at Georgetown, who focuses on the labor market and how it relates to higher education. I have cited one of his previous studies dozens of times to friends, discussing the quality problem facing science PhD programs in the United States.

Carnevale’s latest study (InsideHigherEd summary here) looks at the growing wage gap between college and high school graduates and argues that the lack of college graduates is a significant factor. The number of college graduates matched the needs for employers throughout much of history, but that has not been the case recently, and thus, college graduates are receiving a wage premium.

The author does attempt to discuss the issues surrounding the not insignificant number of college graduates who are unemployed, which is estimated in the millions. However, what always gets lost in these discussions is the need to critically assess the quality of the college experience as it currently stands. That debate has been going on all year in response to Academically Adrift, and I won’t rehash that books central arguments.

Instead, I want to focus on the issue of statistics and quantification. Counting the total number of college graduates in the economy is simple if not quite logistically easy. So is getting a solid estimate on the number of college graduates, and the mix of majors and degrees those students receive. Basic survey methodology and national educational data systems can develop the answers to these questions.

A far more difficult - yet in my view, far more important - issue is the quality of that education. Are students learning the material they need to in order to be successful in the careers they hope to pursue? Is the quality of a computer science degree across universities meeting a minimum level expected for a bachelor’s degree holder? In more aggressive terms, are some colleges and universities failing their students?

These questions have no easy answers. The methodology to answer them is by nature very complex given the diversity of programs (some biology degrees are quantitative, some focus on molecular biology and chemistry, others look at plant biology - should they all be judged the same)? Furthermore, getting accurate data on how students learn in the classroom and outside of it is difficult as well. Academically adrift was assailed in some corners for relying on a standardized test to measure learning (the CLA test), as was Margaret Spellings, the Bush Education secretary who wanted to create learning outcomes-based accreditation for universities.

As I said before, quality matters more than quantity. Every American could be mailed a “bachelor’s degree” and we would have a statistical 100%. Obviously, we have some minimal standard for what that degree should mean. The question then becomes - how many students are actually meeting that bar?

Measurability thus is substituting for intelligent public policy. We want more college graduates because we believe that will eventually create more of the graduates at the higher bar that we actually desire. The flaw, though, in such thinking is that the marginal student who goes to college is not what the market desires - or there wouldn’t be several million recently unemployed students.

Instead, the focus must be placed on increasing the quality and rigor of existing programs for existing students. These policies may not actually cost all that much, but will greatly increase the quality of the talent pool that is graduating from college.

If America wants to compete in the future global knowledge economy, it does not need just more college graduates, it needs better ones. We have to get around the ease of measuring one side of the coin and remember that just because an element of the policy is less measurable than others, it may be no less important.