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Ditching the Ivy League

According to the Wall Street Journal, the rising cost of a college education and the impact of the recession is causing even wealthy, affluent students to consider state and local schools over their more prestigious and expensive competition.

Mr. Schwartz, 18 years old, was accepted at Cornell University but enrolled instead at City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College, which is free.

Mr. Schwartz says his family could have afforded Cornell’s tuition, with help from scholarships and loans. But he wants to be a doctor and thinks medical school, which could easily cost upward of $45,000 a year for a private institution, is a more important investment. It wasn’t “worth it to spend $50,000-plus a year for a bachelor’s degree,” he says.

More students are choosing lower-cost public colleges or commuting to schools from home to save on housing expenses. Twenty-two percent of students from families with annual household incomes above $100,000 attended public, two-year schools in the 2010-2011 academic year, up from 12% the previous year, according to a report from student-loan company Sallie Mae. […]

“I thought that the Ivy League title would really, really boost my chances of getting into a good med school,” Mr. Schwartz says. Now, he is aiming for top grades at Macaulay to remain competitive with Ivy League candidates.

It is good to see people finally coming around to this point — in college, what you study is more important than where you study it. Top-tier schools like Harvard and Yale provide great opportunities, but they can be prohibitively expensive for many families, and there is no guarantee that graduates from a more prestigious school are smarter or more hard-working than those who chose a cheaper alternative.

More work needs to be done to ensure that students from less-known schools are able to compete with their name-school peers. A national baccalaureate test, which would make passage of a standardized test a prerequisite for a college degree, would be a good start, allowing students from lesser-known schools to compete based on mastery of their subject. Knowledge base, experience, and work ethic are the most important lessons of a college education, and these can be acquired anywhere. We should work harder to make sure opportunity is equally available. Kids who can’t afford “name brand” schools should not be penalized in the quest for good jobs.

In fairness to individuals, to promote social mobility, and to make it easier for true talent and accomplishment to be rewarded and put to use, government should be working to undercut the ‘snobbery premium’ for expensive colleges.  Offering good students from less expensive, less well known institutions and opportunity to demonstrate their accomplishments in head to head competition with the Ivies is simple justice and sound national policy.

National baccalaureate exams — comprehensive exams based on different fields of study — would give every student the chance to be evaluated on his or her own merits, not on the reputation of a school.  Establishing such exams and mandating its use by federal agencies would make this a fairer country and prepare the way for the sweeping educational reforms that are still to come.

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  • Richard F. Miller

    A national examination as a condition of sanctioned exit works.

    However, you can expect heavy opposition from none other than the Ivy League itself–such an examination would undermine the economics of “the portal” (or if you prefer another metaphor, the value of the brand name.)

    After all, if the dirty little secret is that intelligence is more widely distributed than testing psychologists let on (or is more difficult to measure than they concede), or, put another way, that inside Harvard Yard grazes a herd on par with many others, it becomes far more difficult to sell the value of accessing top down hierarchies.

    Not a bad thing in a society where some of those top down hierarchies have forfeited the moral authority to lead.

  • Maddog

    I have long thought that a system of education like the Brit system where students are subjected only to three years of study and the University tests while the school teaches is an optimum system. I must recant, I think that a system like the one you describe where a/or the state tests and Universities and Colleges teach may be even better.

    I suspect that the first elite University to open testing to all comers nationwide could create a standard like you describe. It could also win the money race. Such testing would only need be for core courses within each major. There is little need to test on elective courses within most majors, the Universities and Colleges can test and grade these and if necessary provide transcripts.

    Here’s hoping for change!

    Mark Sherman

  • Fred

    Quite. When I was working on my PhD in Literature at Auburn, I gave a paper at a conference at Yale. In all modesty, I felt I knew at least as much as any of the Yale graduate students I met.

  • John Barker

    Comprehensive exams would be beneficial if they were designed to test true domain knowledge: this means the items must be truly representative of the subject. The questions must be evaluative rather than nominal, and changed frequently so that the test cannot be gamed. Possible models are the CPA exam or tests given graduate engineers or physicians.

  • vbounded

    A big reason that elite employers hire from fancy schools is that it is legal for schools to screen using standardized tests like SAT scores, but illegal for many employers to do that. You might need to change the law to effectuate your idea about IB tests.

  • JSM

    Adding yet another exam simply feeds the “credential creep” that infects higher education … and smacks of the Chinese mandarinate exams that stultified innovation for centuries. Abdicating responsibility for judging character and talent (after higher education has had its way on a young person) is simply corporate butt-covering.

    Better to let the market sort out where credentials are warranted, and which modern guilds have had their day and can be decommissioned. “Literate, numerate, and relentless” are the essential qualities that should be assessed.

  • SC Mike

    I suppose that national baccalaureate exams make sense for some degrees, but I’m not sure which ones. Take business administration: companies are looking for candidates in accounting, finance, and whatever else might be considered “administrative,” but will focus on the areas of interest and specialization that candidates have in relation to the organization’s needs at a given point in time.

    The administrative field I know most about, contract management, has two main specialties: buyers and sellers, or procurement and contract management, respectively. Each is its own specialty and has certification regimes separate and apart from college requirements, even though many colleges and universities offer coursework tailored to each specialty. (It’s analogous to a graduated CPA.) Employers want and pay for the certifications and experience in the fields and don’t pay much attention to the institution that provided the degree. In fact, among the older folks college degrees in that specialty are not pervasive, and, in any event, are not required for the certifications which are awarded through examinations.

    As to the real need, I work for a ~$4B corporation specializing in systems development that is crying for US-born engineers of any sort, but lusting especially for EE and Computer Science types. We find ways to accommodate H1B-visa folks too (there are security and technology export issues with foreign-born employees), but they are almost as hard to come by thanks to the Congressionally imposed lid.

    So I guess my point is that national baccalaureate exams for Feminist Studies, Black History, Native Alaskan Agricultural Practices, or something else nobody in industry cares about would be a waste of time and resources. The problem is not that lack of an Ivy League degree is keeping college grads out of certain occupations, it’s that college grads are getting degrees that nobody gives a rat’s behind about.

    Taking this point a step further: we need project managers, folks with a PMP certification, so that we can tackle hard jobs within our corporation and for our customers. We don’t mind growing them, but we’ve found that engineers who have a modicum of leadership can succeed as task managers and grow to the point where they can earn the PMP and tackle the larger stuff. We don’t care what school they come from, just that they can continue to learn and learn how to inspire. That’s the ticket.

  • David Billington

    Don’t we already have these tests? The Graduate Record Examinations test upper-level undergraduate knowledge. People who don’t intend to pursue graduate study don’t have to as high scores but I think everyone could take them to measure their major-field knowledge.

  • bobby b

    “A national baccalaureate test, which would make passage of a standardized test a prerequisite for a college degree, would be a good start, allowing students from lesser-known schools to compete based on mastery of their subject.”
    – – –

    The main thesis of No Child Left Behind was that there should be a means of judging the adequacy of the learning that takes place amongst our children – that there were some common apples that could be compared to all of the other common apples – and that the paradigm of the nonmeasurability of the educative process was primarily a method of obfuscation and defense on the part of educators who would understandably rather work in an unjudged, noncritical environment.

    I think your college testing idea is an excellent one, and I think it would last almost as long as NCLB lasted. This is the age of “you have no right to judge me!”

  • lhf

    When I graduated from a small upstate New York college (far from Ivy League) in 1966, comprehensive exams in your major were required. It would be interesting to know whether there was a common core of knowledge in a major field tested across colleges at the time.

    Two years of core curriculum were also required including English composition. A major was selected at the end of sophomore year after general education requirements in standard disciplines were met. I was an English major but probably would not have been if I had not been exposed to great writers and ideas in my first two years. I don’t see how you could impose the system of national testing you are proposing with a complete restructuring of the curriculum.

    17 and 18 year olds entering college have no clue about what they ought to know/be studying and I think it would be useful to return to a system where basic material is selected and required by the faculty.

    My children went to top notch Virginia public universities with great reputations. However, there was no core curriculum although it was claimed. Entering students in the humanities chose from a very broad range of classes and were given almost no advice. They ended up with a smattering of knowledge in alot of unrelated areas with no way to integrate it. No math or history was required and the science classes were marketed as “science for non-science majors.” AP English and decent scores on the SAT writing portion got you out of any English or writing requirements. It’s no wonder foolish kids end up with degrees in puppetry and national tests in puppetry don’t seem to be what you have in mind.

  • bjk

    You guys don’t get it. If there were a national exam, it would have disparate impact, it would immediately be challenged as racist by all of the usual suspects, and then it would be eliminated, for the exact same reasons that employer IQ tests are illegal. It WR Mead believes that this would promote social mobility, he’s right – it would promote the social mobility of whites at the University of Iowa and Asians at UC Santa Barbara at the expense of blacks and Hispanics. He’s nuts if he thinks the elites want that kind of social mobility.

  • Mike Anderson

    You had me until you wrote “…government should be working to undercut the ‘snobbery premium’ for expensive colleges.”

    The government is full of these snobs at the top (e.g. the Supreme Court); anything the Feds do will be–as usual–ineffectual. It’s the NON-Ivies themselves that need to be doing the undercutting, by focusing on existing means of independent certification (e.g. actuarial exams) and demonstrating the quality of their graduates. Power to the Provosts!

  • hrsn

    Bad idea:

    1. “Teach to the test” will simply move upstream in the educational system. Gaming the system will be the primary goal of any savvy university administrator, especially if results affect US News rankings. It will turn tertiary education even more into an extension of high school.

    2. “Top-tier schools like Harvard and Yale provide great opportunities.” That’s one of the reasons why they are so expensive, and students/alumni are generally extremely satisfied with their experiences. Why not devote a blog post to these, WRM? (Item #1: At Yale or Bard–both $$$$–students get the opportunity to take a class from….WRM!) Complaining about the cost of higher education at elite private schools is like complaining about the cost of a Ferrari. (Complaints should rather be directed about the rising cost of public education–the Fords and Chevys–due to declines in state support: The UC, SUNY, and other state systems are in slow-motion collapse.)

    3. Liberal-arts degrees, of which there may be too many, are (or should be!) designed to instill a lifelong love of knowledge–the fruits of this kind of education may take years or even decades to ripen. Testing for tree when all you have is an acorn is wrongheaded–or, wrt #1 above, dishonest.

  • WigWag

    The “blue state model” is dying; it’s a dismal failure. That’s Professor Mead’s credo, except when it’s not.

    Professor Mead’s post highlighting the decision made by young Mr. Schwartz is interesting, but considered in the context of Mead’s body of work on his blog, his post is virtually incoherent. Mead points out “that City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College…is free.” It may be free to Mr. Schwartz, but has it occurred to the Professor that the only reason Mr. Schwartz gets a free higher education is because New York taxpayers are picking up his tuition?

    Surely Professor Mead knows that the City University of New York represents the “blue state model” on steroids.

    Several of the CUNY colleges were founded during the period of the New Deal with the specific mission of providing higher education to thousands of students who could not afford to attend private colleges and universities in part because of the Great Depression.

    For a good part of its history, the City University of New York was tuition free although most of its branches have charged a small tuition fee for the past couple of decades. Most of the funding for CUNY comes from both the City and State of New York which means that the institution is primarily supported with tax dollars. Only a tiny proportion of taxpayers have children who actually attend CUNY. Poor people with children who never go to college have a portion of the taxes they pay go to support the City University of New York and the same is true of wealthy taxpayers whose children go to Ivy League colleges. CUNY can fairly be characterized as a vast scheme to redistribute wealth from the millions of families with children who don’t attend CUNY to the thousands of families with children who do. As I said, it’s the “blue state model” on steroids. That’s fine with me; but Mead does nothing but criticize the “blue state model.” That is, until he can try to fool his readers into believing that a prominent “blue state” institition is a great innovation that has nothing to do with the “blue state model” at all.

    But there’s more; the CUNY faculty is unionized and it practices a form of “Open Enrollment.” For a time, any student who graduated from a New York City High School was guaranteed admission into one of the four year CUNY colleges; if remedial education was needed (as it often was), it was given. While the “Open Enrollment” program has been modified somewhat, it is still true that any high school graduate who wants to get in, can get in.

    And speaking of the “blue state model” CUNY epitomizes that model by going to great lengths to reach out to minority students. During the Post World War II years, CUNY became the institution of choice for Jewish students who were excluded because of their ethnicity from universities like Colombia and Yale. Examples of Jewish students who couldn’t afford an Ivy League education and who probably would have been excluded by the quota system then in operation include: Abe Foxman, Jonah Salk, Ralph Lauren and many others.

    In the current era CUNY sees its mission as reaching out to Black and Hispanic students in the same way that it reached out to Jewish students decades in the past. 65 percent of the student body is made up of minority students and 60 percent of the students are women. CUNY has a higher proportion of minority students enrolled than any college or university in the country outside of the historically black colleges. Colin Powell has written movingly about the wonderful opportunity provided to him and other black students by the City University of New York.

    It’s great that Professor Mead thinks that institutions like the City University of New York represent a fine alternative to the Ivy League schools, but unless he can explain why he finds public higher education so laudable, his critique of the “blue state model” falls apart.

    You can’t get any “bluer” than CUNY, Professor Mead.

  • Wally

    Total cost per year at Bard: $57,000

  • dearieme

    In my youth, about 5% of the British population got a university education. I dare say the figure is lower now, though about 40% go to university.

  • RonF

    Part of the problem is that most liberal arts programs permit their graduates to avoid some of the liberal arts. Note that mathematics, chemistry and biology are liberal arts. A solid basic grounding in all of these – at least 2 semesters of work in each – ought to be required of all “liberal arts” majors, so they understand how the world works.

  • a nissen

    @ WigWag: “The “blue state model” is dying; it’s a dismal failure. That’s Professor Mead’s credo, except when it’s not.”

    I wouldn’t know about Professor Mead’s credo, in that I don’t follow that close (yet), but most would be foolhardy to argue that the blue state model of education is NOT dying. What I seek are more particulars on why this is happening regardless of “all that is done.”

    Robert Shiller has a real housing price index that shows real housing prices stable for 100 years until very recently when the index doubled in a skyrocket rise (rentals, excluded). I think the same approach is now needed to index the real cost of public education (the blue state model) and after that a search conducted like that of John Talbot in “Sell Now!” for the killer of this particular Cock Robin and after than explorations of how to get back on course.

    Otherwise, and more often than not, the solution is the problem!

  • A

    You really think ANOTHER standardized test is the answer?

  • Mike Saleh

    What is Mead’s problem if a Black or a Hispanic can get a degree at his/her own terms from the CUNY system? There is a strong need for Dominican, Black etc., lawyers, teachers, writers, just like there was and is for Jewish counterparts in the hey days of Conservative hegemony. This is racially neutral statement…So, what’s new?

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