MARCUS: Set sights on education, not graduation

Morton Marcus
March 27, 2010
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Morton Marcus

The dimmer wits in the Indiana General Assembly want to compensate colleges and universities according to their graduation rates. This is another example of shallow reasoning by our elected representatives reflecting erroneous thought that has permeated our society.

As recently as March 2, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE) issued a press release in which Commissioner Teresa Lubbers said, “There is nothing more important to Indiana’s higher education agenda than improving college completion rates. While Hoosiers have come to understand the increasing value of going to college, far too many of [sic] college-going students fail to earn a degree.”

Nothing more important than completion rates? What about the substance and significance of what is learned?

In the same news release, Stan Jones, president of Complete College America and Indiana’s former higher education commissioner, said, “Fewer than 40 percent of young adults in Indiana hold an associate’s degree or higher, and the numbers for most states are even worse. For America to be competitive, six of 10 adults between the ages of 25 and 35 will need to hold a postsecondary credential by 2020.”

Complete College America is funded by five prestigious foundations: the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Lumina Foundation for Education.

It is surprising that such prominent organizations would fall for the correlation between long-term economic growth and years of schooling, which is mislabeled by the Census Bureau as educational attainment. The number of years of school and/or degrees earned is not the same as knowledge acquired.

Pieces of paper, bearing attractive seals and inspiring Latin mottos, represent satisfactory completion of a course of study. Satisfactory to whom? Are degrees from accredited institutions like bonds on Wall Street? Who monitors the accrediting agencies? What criteria do they use? Are they like the esteemed rating agencies that helped drive us into financial crisis by giving AAA designation to junk bonds?

It does not take much imagination to realize that, if graduation rates become the measure for state support, colleges and universities will lower standards to increase those rates.

Standards can be lowered in many ways. Programs or majors can become less demanding with fewer prerequisites and insubstantial core courses. Individual courses can be watered-down, requiring less sophisticated readings, less critical thinking, and lower standards for passing grades.

Has this happened at an institution near you? How would you know?

Certainly the Indiana General Assembly does not know. The indicators ICHE publishes on its Web site do not provide any information on the quality or content of higher education in Indiana. Although there are admirable goals of affordability, accessibility and productivity, there is no goal related to learning. State policy makers measure education attainment in years rather than in knowledge.

At the same time, these advanced policy makers would have us believe there is no value to education that does not lead to a degree or certificate. Yet we would gain much if all young Hoosiers learned freshman English well and mastered the fundamental concepts of American history at the college level. Then let them drop out if they wish or must. That would be better than having 100 percent of those accepted to college pass weak programs in all subjects to satisfy some artificial numeric goal.

But what can you expect? Employers want certificates or degrees because they recognize that those pieces of paper signify endurance. They want employees who have proven they can tolerate anything for an appropriate reward. Is that the lesson we want our students to learn?•


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.


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