America’s higher education system is an example to the world—and that’s not necessarily all to the good. In a lead article as well as a special feature, the Economist argues that America’s higher ed system is increasingly spreading across the globe, with more and more people going to universities that resemble America’s colleges. However, as the Economist notes, America’s education system is good at delivering excellence but become increasingly dysfunctional—and very expensive. One of the main reasons is that some colleges have become credential mills, where earning a degree is more important than learning:
A recent study of recruitment by professional-services firms found that they took graduates from the most prestigious universities not because of what the candidates might have learned but because of those institutions’ tough selection procedures. In short, students could be paying vast sums merely to go through a very elaborate sorting mechanism.
If America’s universities are indeed poor value for money, why might that be? The main reason is that the market for higher education, like that for health care, does not work well. The government rewards universities for research, so that is what professors concentrate on. Students are looking for a degree from an institution that will impress employers; employers are interested primarily in the selectivity of the institution a candidate has attended. Since the value of a degree from a selective institution depends on its scarcity, good universities have little incentive to produce more graduates. And, in the absence of a clear measure of educational output, price becomes a proxy for quality. By charging more, good universities gain both revenue and prestige.
Another reason why higher ed’s bang-to-buck ratio is lower these days, ironically, is that generous federal student loans have helped subsidize an expensive system and even perhaps made it pricier. The Economist’s special report argues that technology, especially MOOCs and online courses, could help in this regard by lowering costs. But many colleges—and college faculty members—resist them because they have a lot invested in the status quo.
In fact, the adoption of MOOCs may be a case in which the U.S. can learn from the rest of the world. Unmentioned by the Economist is that MOOCs (though offered by companies of American origin) are popular in other countries like India and Trinidad and Tobago. The rest of the world might surpass us, in other words, in embracing and legitimizing educational tech—particularly if it permits people who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to a traditional, brick-and-mortar college to start attending classes online. If that’s true, American colleges should start taking a page out of foreign colleges’ playbook. We’d all be the better for it.