Higher Education Misconceived


In a recent article, Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University, pinpointed several misconceptions about higher education that are driving our national discussion and policy.

He tackles, for instance, the almost exclusive emphasis on college as an agent of economic growth that has led to President Obama’s strong push for more college degrees and to a variety of “completion” agendas.  While these goals and the measures of success they have spawned seem self-evidently valuable, Bok argues that they are warping our conception of higher education in dangerous ways.

For instance, in the push to achieve more degrees and higher graduation rates without increased revenue, the least measurable variable in higher education, “quality,” predictably gets short shrift.  As Bok points out, “With graduation rates and government spending easy to calculate, educational quality, which is difficult to measure, is likely to be the objective that slips. No one need know – and thus no one can be held accountable – when graduation rates rise but the hoped-for economic benefits [which are dependent on the quality of those degrees] fail to materialize.”

Bok also questions another assumption informing much discussion of college these days—the idea that its primary benefit is to give graduates middle-class jobs, economic prosperity, and a role in national economic growth.

As he points out, this conception of college overlooks other important values a college education provides individuals and societies:

Apart from finding a first job, college graduates seem to adapt more easily than those with only a high school degree as the economy evolves and labor-market needs change. They also tend to vote at higher rates, engage in more civic activities, commit fewer crimes, educate their children better, and get sick less frequently by adopting healthier lifestyles.

Researchers estimate that these additional benefits are worth even more than the added lifetime income from a college degree. If policymakers overlook them, they run the risk of encouraging quicker, cheaper forms of education that will do far less to serve either students or society.

Unfortunately, the list of “quicker” and “cheaper” forms of higher education being touted grows daily.  As Bok suggests, this “shrunken” conception of higher education is unprecedented; and its potential cost for our students and our society is enormous.

We in the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education believe that our principles point toward a richer and ultimately more socially valuable conception of higher education.