Food for Thought on Academia’s Costs and Benefits

Several years ago a cottage industry of books devoted to critiquing America’s colleges and universities popped up and revealed widespread dissatisfaction with academia. The Independent Institute entered the fray by publishing the books The Academy in Crisis: The Political Economy of Higher Education, edited by John Sommer (1995); The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Intolerance on Campus, by David Sacks and Peter Thiel (1995, 1998); Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education, by Ryan Amacher and Roger Meiners (2004); and Restoring Free Speech on Campus, by Donald Downs (2005).

That’s a lot of pages, but it’s a safe bet that two or three times as many additional good books could be written on the problems the beset higher education—just as it’s a safe bet that many of these problems will continue to plague academia two or three decades from now. On the bright side, a Washington, D.C.–based organization called the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), run by economist and Independent Institute Senior Fellow Richard Vedder, conducts empirical studies of rising costs and institutional underperformance, and thereby provides a more solid foundation for meaningful reform.

In the CCAP’s blog entry of June 13, 2008, Vedder and Matthew Denhart report on their study of the causes of variations in graduation rates, using data from 500 American colleges and universities. Among their conclusions are two that seem to fly in the face of popular belief:

1) Generous financial aid tends to length the time for a student to graduate. (Generous aid is a disincentive to graduating on time.)

2) SAT scores (verbal plus math) are a good predictor of whether or not a student will complete college. (High SAT–scoring dropouts are exceptions to the rule.)

Thomas Sowell has written an incisive column (National Review, 6/17/08) summarizing another study by the CCAP—its critique of widely used college rankings, such as those published by U.S. News & World Report. These rankings, as well as official academic accrediting agencies, writes Sowell, “typically measure all sorts of inputs—but not outputs. . . . [Richard Vedder] gives the U.S. News rankings a grade of D. Measuring the inputs, he says, is ‘roughly equivalent to evaluating a chef based on the ingredients he or she uses.’ His approach is to ‘review the meal’—that is, the outcome of the education itself.”

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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