Wednesday, May 28, 2014

(De-) Grading College

President Obama has announced a new initiative that will rate colleges. The program which The New York Times calls a "radical new effort," hopes to "hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons." The word business seems operative here since the "college process" has become a hugely expensive enterprise and a hugely profitable one for certain companies (think: test prep, tutors, private counselors, college visits and tours, glossy brochures and videos and other arms of the octopus we might call the Educational-Industrial Complex). But should the federal government really be involved in the business of college?

According to the article, the proposed rating system "would compare schools on factors like how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating." Are these really the best ways to measure education? Is the life of the mind reducible to a cost-benefit analysis? 

This rating system seems to have considerable overlap with our recent discussion of social class and social capital. Who benefits from such a system? Who loses? 

Shockingly, a top Obama official said the rating system would be "like rating a blender," a flawed analogy that might not have been created by someone with a humanities background. In the current education climate, however, the humanities degrees may be devalued more than ever before since they don't promise the highest salaries on the "investment" of education. A recent article decrying the drop in Humanities degrees cites these disturbing trends: "In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics." What accounts for this sudden and drastic shift in choice of majors?

Now you may not be as troubled as I am by the current trend away from the humanities and for the "bang-for-your-buck" mentality that is steering students toward lucrative fields such as business and engineering. But, my fear is that such students are being led unwittingly toward the post-college payoff of big salaries without ever considering the larger purposes of education: ethical and humanistic understanding of ourselves and our world. Remember the W.E.B. DuBois quote? "The purpose of education is not to make men carpenters, but to make carpenters men."