What Is The University’s Mission

Timothy Taylor has a couple of interesting charts on international spending for education as a function of GDP. The first shows that per capita GDP to per student spending for primary and secondary education is about what you would expect. The US spends more than other countries but our spending is pretty much within the norm. Things change dramatically for post-secondary education.

Taylor offers this observation:

One can of course make an argument that that the quality of postsecondary education in the United States is very high, which in turn accounts for much of its higher cost. It’s a fair point. But for the U.S., the arithmetic of having per student postsecondary education spending so far above the best-fit line with per capita GDP has two difficult implications. First, given these high costs per student, relative to the income level in the economy, it becomes much harder for the U.S. to finance a substantial expansion in the number of students who receive postsecondary education–unless those additional students receive an experience quite a bit less expensive than the current average. Second, the economic payoff to postsecondary education will be harder to justify in the United States, given that the per student costs are so out of line with per capita GDP.

Kind of looks like that infamous graph of health care spending, doesn’t it. So, is this a concern for those who run our institutions of higher learning? Well, a survey of college presidents by Gallup indicated that most of them do think that cost is an issue, they maintain some strange opinions about the outcomes one would expect from these large expenditures. Walter Russell Mead summed up some of the more troubling findings.

Only eight percent of college presidents “strongly agreed” that the cost of higher education is affordable. And nearly 68 percent think that the biggest barrier for high school students is being academically unprepared for higher education. But only three percent “strongly agree” that MOOCs will improve the learning of all students, and only eight percent “strongly agree” that they will cut what students spend on higher education.

Perhaps this makes sense, given the following stats. Only 65 percent of college presidents think it is “very important” that graduates of their institution get a job; only 58 percent think it is “very important” that students graduate from their institution; and only 39 percent think the price of their institution’s degree is “very important” to the quality of the institution.

As a group I’m relatively certain that college presidents are smart, savvy people, and as such are quite aware of the disruptive nature of the Internet. Human nature being, well … human nature, their antipathy to MOOCs is just rational self-interest. Giving them the benefit of that doubt it remains passingly difficult to understand just what exactly they believe to be their core mission if it’s not preparing their students to succeed. After all, it’s not as if they are starved for resources.

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