The debate over admissions and standards


The debate over the question “Will expanding college admissions downgrade college standards?” on MPR’s Insight Now has been a wide-ranging one, raising questions on what education is for, who should pay for it and who benefits.

Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne of the National Association of Scholars say yes, expanding admissions will indeed lower standards. And Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, says no, increasing accessibility (such as under the GI Bill) has not hurt standards, and that cutting off the lower class from higher education would be a great injustice.

Today the two sides present their closing arguments, though Carey hasn’t posted his yet, as of this writing.

Unless he comes up with some solid closing arguments, I might have to hand this one to Wood and Thorne.

Carey didn’t argue his case convincingly enough for me, and gave me the impression he had a college-for-everyone-as-long-as-they-get-remedial-classes attitude, which Wood and Thorne rejected:

But college is not a second chance at high school. It is higher education, and catching up should be done before college; Carey himself advocated this in a previous essay. And remedial education has been shown to be ineffective; a recent study found that it “does not increase the completion of college-level credits or eventual degree completion.”

Our K-12 system is indeed troubled – do we really want to model higher education after it?

Carey also ignored the merits of the vocational-technical education system that has provided solid middle-class lives for millions of Europeans. (And I’ve reported here on efforts to revive elements of that system.)

He writes:

Our society has chosen mass higher education as the primary means of public investment in adult human capital. This is a choice, I would note, that nearly all of our economic competitors have chosen to emulate. Indeed, the rapid increase in college attainment among competitor nations in recent decades, to the point that some have surpassed America’s historic pre-eminence, is frequently cited as a major economic problem by Republicans and Democrats alike.

… The American way of education has long rejected the impulse to sort and track students at an early age, elevating certain children to the enlightened path while relegating others to lives of service.  Our vibrant, productive society stands as evidence of the wisdom of this approach. There’s a reason other countries are chasing our lead.

His arguments that opening up universities to unprepared students requiring ever more remedial work would benefit everyone seemed counterintuitive at best. But I’m open to more debate.

Readers’ comments, meanwhile, indicate mixed opinions on the reason and value of a college education. Some see it as a way to broaden one’s horizons intellectually, and others see it as a glorified form of job preparation.

Perhaps the most unusual statement to me came from Brad Horras, a Brooklyn Park musician who received a Bachelor’s Degree in Music from the University of Minnesota and a Master’s in Music from Northwestern.

His comments don’t sound like the ones I’ve heard from arts people:

Of course such a large student body is going to yield a wide array of people, but the more serious students tend to be the engineering, business, and medical students. That no one is raising questions with so many (graduating with) psychology, mass communications, or other basket-weaving degrees is a little scary.

I think removing the stigma of technical or 2-year degree would be incredibly beneficial to our economy in the long run. A technical degree’s worth at this point far outweighs a 4-year Psych or English degree.

(Interesting little finding: The latest news suggest the serious students aren’t necessarily gravitating toward business. But perhaps his experiences were different.)