A few days ago, I commented on someone’s Facebook post on one of the latest books about education, one that compares and contrasts our system with the some of the world’s more successful. Having not read the book, I can’t say that the other countries aren’t sucked into obsessive measurement of their students, but I know we are. My family’s personal experience hasn’t been too mired in metrics, but I know plenty of parents whose kids are taught to the test. Last year teachers at our local public school district went on strike in part because of measurement. I saw many picketers holding up signs saying something along the lines of, “Do you want your child to learn to think or fill in a bubble?”
Today it’s a recent article from the New York Times on the ranking of colleges and universities by the income of its graduates that has me disturbed. We knew it would come to this, right? I’m a bit surprised it has taken this long, but I suppose accessing and calculating this kind of data is a massive undertaking.
This development bothers me for a couple of reasons. The first is the broader issue of how it seems that nothing can go unmeasured. (Perhaps instead of No Child Left Behind, we should say No Child Left Unmeasured.) Granted, with the price of a college education as high as it is, it’s clear how tempting it is to evaluate a school’s worth based on potential income of its graduates. Yet, it also devalues so many aspects of higher education that can’t be translated into data that is fed into a spreadsheet that gives us objective numbers. I credit my four years in college with expanding my worldview and giving me the confidence to explore. I don’t believe that either of these influenced my salary at any point in my career, though my liberal arts education makes it possible for me to position it that way, if that was in fact, my point. Beyond the paper my degree is printed on (and where that is, I have no idea) and my transcript, most of what I left with is fairly subjective.
That subjective stuff is the best part. People invest in these degrees, most believing that they will carry them throughout the several decades of their adult life. This involves not only job skills (many of which are actually obtained through internships and entry-level work anyway), but also the hallmarks of liberal education, such as communication skills, interpretation, critical thinking and an appreciation of the human experience, among many other things. Will the algorithm to measure this stuff ever exist?
The other troubling point is what is being measured — money. In the case of a college education, this is a chicken-and-egg prospect. College is expensive. Though our modern financial approaches make it within reach of many people, it really shouldn’t be. I’m not a financial expert, but I wonder if a collapse similar to what happened with the housing market is possible with higher education. This is why this kind of measurement is so enticing, I suppose. Why spend six figures if you’re not going to get a sizable return?
This brings us back to the real value of higher education. In the article, one of the experts quoted cautions against higher education becoming more like a “referral or employment agency.” It seems that colleges are being viewed as white collar trade schools. What if your “trade” isn’t high-paying, like teaching or social work? Should you encourage your kid to go to a less expensive school simply because he or she wants to study a subject with limited financial gain?
Will this create a system where the most expensive and most prestigious colleges will primarily educate our engineers, financial tycoons and CEOs, with the less-expensive options focused on the folks who help our children prepare for college or provide many, many people with the skills to function in our society? What about healthcare professionals? With the income potential for jobs like general and family practitioners decreasing in comparison to the cost of medical school, will the people who help us manage our health be encouraged to seek out lower-cost degrees?
And if college education becomes segmented by income potential, will it become a you-get-what-you-pay-for situation?
Worse yet, what if our most ambitious and talented folks choose only degrees that will earn them a certain amount of money? We all know this happens already. By focusing even more attention on this, does it become a mandate for choosing a career? Will it tip the balance for more people between wealth and happiness in what they do for a living?
I’m not an educator, financial guru or mathematician (which is probably quite apparent), but I have a strong sense that we are counting up the leaves and the branches, but missing the beautiful forest. Maybe it’s just that the art of art is lost on us as we try to add it all up and make some kind of sense of the value we provide in our world. My gut tells me that with all this concern of measuring up, we are missing a big piece of the human experience.