Education: Inflation

My wife mentioned this subject last week and I have been considering it in my mind and on my to do list ever since. Here goes.

If The Saxifrage School is committed to offering students more for less–a better higher education experience for less money–then, beyond the tuition cost, we have to consider, just like financial professionals, the effect of inflation on the students who are investing in this education (both with their dollars and the value of the opportunity cost). Of course, ideally, an educative experience is not subject to inflation, but has intrinsic value. There are three ways, however, that the American higher ed. experience has been losing value by way of “inflation”.

College is Easy (and Unmotivated)

I cannot tell you how many books/articles I have read recently (a lot of them referencing Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa) which have discussed the failure of college learning outcomes. I know many people who have uttered the sentiment “college is the new high school” and have taken collegiate courses that were easier than some of their high school classes. While the push to have more and more Americans obtain a college degree is laudable, it is useless if they are only gaining the skill and knowledge expected of a 1930’s high school senior.

Of course, the outcomes may not be quite that bad, but increased focus on student retention has definitely led to the dumbing down of course material, grade inflation, and lowered expectations overall. I took a graduate-level course recently and paid $2100 to listen to many weeks worth of poorly prepared student presentations and simplistic lectures on international education. I learned little from the course, aside from what my own personal study and main thesis focused on (which was on a subject not covered by the course). To complete the course I had to write one 7-10 page essay and give one 5-minute presentation. I wrote longer essays and gave longer presentations in high school. In this isolated instance at least, even graduate school was too easy and too expensive.

College should be rigorous and challenging. Students should have serious goals and earnestly seek to attain them.

Degrees being worth(less)

As everyone will tell you, having a Bachelor’s degree used to be the cat’s pajamas. The mere possession of a diploma set you apart from the rest of the population and demanded respect and a good salary. Many first-generation College students are still going into school with the idea that the 4-year experience still contains that intrinsic value. The reality of course is that your degree is only as valuable as the skills you obtain in gaining it. It is increasingly necessary that you have a 4-year degree as a pre-requisite for employment, but the degree is very rarely what will actually earn you a good position.

Unfortunately, by the economics of basic supply and demand, the more generic college graduates that exist, the less demand (and therefore less value) there is for those graduates. To reiterate: a college experience is only valuable (and somewhat immune to this inflation problem) if a student gains obvious skills, creative intellect, and the ability to learn independently. This common-sense truth is increasingly relevant as the degree–as a signifier of superior status–becomes worth less and less.

3. The Devaluing of the Moment

One last less obvious devaluing of the college experience that relates to inflation is the high value of the contemporary. Higher education is not known for its ability to stay on top of the newest trends, technology, and culture of the time. In a society where new technologies, trends, and strategies are being developed rapidly, contemporary skill is the best professional currency. Knowledge of a content area, software program, or best practice is subject to an inflation as it progresses, therefore devaluing what you learned years back. This knowledge inflation occurs most obviously in technology fields, but in others as well.

Colleges, as you may have experienced, often do an abysmal job of teaching students contemporary skills or having them interact with today’s issues. Here’s three of my favorite true real-life examples:

- An accounting information systems class that doesn’t even teach quickbooks or any other current soft ware system.
An entire literature department, over a four-year span, offers zero classes that deal with contemporary literature. As a result, literature students engage with zero books written within the last 15 years upon graduation
A class on the Politics of China that treats 1994 as the present-day because that is the year the Chinese-born professor moved to the United States.

The other, trickier problem of knowledge inflation is that even if you teach students something contemporary. By the time they graduate, their understanding of the subject might be 3-4 years ancient.

College’s must develop students who are able and excited to learn of their own accord.

College’s must let the students tell them what they want to learn, because the student’s interests will almost always be more contemporary.

College’s must be full of teachers who apply their work in a real context. We should be hiring professors, in many cases, who do not have PhDs or even M.A.s, when they have expert and current experience as a credential.

These teachers must require their students to immediately apply their work in a real context. This, of course, goes back to my previous post on Thoreau.