Saturday, January 11, 2014

Are College Rankings and Accreditations Killing Colleges?

U.S. News and World Report is an Idiotic Magazine.
Why do people trust their college rankings?
And have college rankings killed colleges?

I am at a law conference in Atlanta, and I'll say one thing for being a lawyer - you get to meet a lot of interesting and very smart people.   If there are any "secrets" to how the world works, Lawyers get to know them, not by choice, but by default.   It is very hard, in our line of work, to live in a fantasy world all of the time.

One of the speakers was a law school professor who spoke about how the cost of law school (and college in general) has skyrocketed.   And in his analysis, the culprits were college rankings and college accreditation agencies (for law schools, the ABA).

Why is this?

College rankings, he argues, are based on inputs, not outputs.   Colleges are not ranked based on how many graduates get good jobs, or how successful they become, or whether they become the movers and shakers of the world (i.e., the outputs).   Rather, they are based on SAT scores of incoming freshmen, the grade averages of incoming freshmen, the student/faculty ratios, and how much time the professors spend on publishing academic treatises and the like, as well as the size of facilities and the like.   And all of these input criteria are very expensive to obtain.

For example, if you want to move up the rankings of Stupid News & World Report, you have to increase the GPA of your incoming freshmen, as well as the average SAT (or LSAT) scores.   So you go out and offer scholarships to smart students with good grades and good SAT scores.   This is expensive, as you are now competing, like baseball recruiters, for the top talent.  And price wars erupt, as some schools will offer full scholarships to bright students.

This is wrong, for two reasons.  First, these bright students are more likely to come from wealthier families who can actually afford college.  A young friend of mine, for example, with a 4.0 GPA and top LSAT scores, turned down a full-scholarship offer for law school, to go to Georgetown instead.   Her parents were rich and could afford one of the most expensive law schools in the country.  Law schools chased her with full-boat offers, which she didn't really need!  Sadly, she graduated  during the recession, and there were no lawyer jobs to be found, and she is now a public defender - with a $200,000 law school education.   Lucky for her, her parents have money.

But others are not so lucky, and since academic scholarships are used to attract the best and brightest (just as football scholarships are used to attract the best football players) the number of merit-based scholarships (based on income) are being crowded out.   Some kid from the ghetto, who in years past may have gotten a scholarship to school (despite his only "above average" grades and SAT scores) is now left out.

This also means that in order to pay for all the "free rides" for the scholastic super-achievers, the "standard" tuition for mediocre students (who make up the bulk of the classroom) has to be jacked up - at a rate 2-3 times that of inflation.  Suddenly, a Law School, or even undergraduate education, costs more than a house.

But the schools feel they have no choice.  If they don't play the game, their incoming freshman SAT and grade averages drops, and the almighty school ranking drops, which in turns leads to fewer people applying (in an era where school admissions are dropping) which spells doom for the school. 

Some brave college Deans have suggested eliminating these false discounts (by way of scholastic scholarships) which is a great idea, until you realize that unless the other schools go along with the idea, you are utterly screwed.  It never pays to be the first to try new, radical, ideas.

And these school rankings?  Brought to you by the same conservative know-nothings that brought you "no child left behind"!

I might make an aside here, that I never thought these school rankings were worth a damn.   Stupid News and World Report has consistently posited the obscure Franklin Pierce Law School in New Hampshire as the best school for Patent Law, in the country.   Again, this is an input-based ranking, based on the number of courses the school offered in the field.   But in terms of output, most Patent practitioners went to other schools, and very few in the field who are very successful are Franklin Pierce graduates.   If you want to get into the Patent business, Washington DC is where it is at, not the woods of New Hampshire.

(I get inquiries, regularly, from Franklin Pierce graduates, about how to get a job.   And I tell them that while having a Law and Engineering Degrees are nice, what you need is experience, and you can't get that in school.   A better approach to entering this field is to work at the Patent Office and learn the business, rather than try to learn it from a book.  Many respond that they felt it was "faster" to go to a three-year law school in the woods of New Hampshire than to spend four years working at the USPTO and going to night school.  That may be true, but if you are unemployed once you graduate, what's the point?)

The professor giving the lecture also brought this up - the idea that a school can teach a specialty in a field simply by deciding to do so.  And many law schools are doing this - declaring themselves to be "expert" in dubious fields like "International Law."   Academics cannot teach how to become a lawyer.  As explained to me in Law School, they can only teach you how to think like a lawyer - the day-to-day practice has to be learned on the job.  Experience is not taught in college.

Acreditation agencies are the second half of the equation here.  One would think that having real lawyers and judges come in and teach students would be a great way to actually learn how to practice the law.  But accreditation agencies frown on such "adjunct faculty" and prefer to have academic professors, whose expertise is rated on the number of impenetrable scholarly articles they publish.   So forget real "hands on" experience - college is going to teach you academic theories, not harsh realities.   And colleges that try to do otherwise will be punished severely, by both accreditation agencies and the almighty ranking system (promulgated by one obscure right-wing news magazine!).

Worse yet, by relying on full-time academic professors (who are often forbidden to do outside work in their fields) the cost per credit-hour jumps.   An adjunct professor who actually works in the field he teaches in, can be had for less money than a full-time tenured professor.  And since that full-time professor has to "publish or perish" he may teach as few as five classroom hours a week (!).

Pretty screwed-up system, ain't it?

And this is why you should be skeptical of such rating systems - in general.   We seem to be entering an age of credentialism and expertism.  Blithering idiots spout utter nonsense, but since they are from "a top-ranked school" their opinions not only matter, they are unassailable.   And what is really queer about this trend is that it is being supported by the far right - the first to decry expertism - through rankings like this.  They decry the rise of credentialism, and then at the same time, demand more and more student testing, as an indicia of the value of education.  Of course, this sort of schizophrenia is common among both the left and right.

So what is the solution?   Our brave law school professor had some startling ideas that would work, if anyone could be persuaded to try them.   I doubt anyone will - as the first college to get off the hamster wheel of chasing rankings will go bankrupt.   And watch for it - it will happen in this era of declining enrollments!

His ideas were pretty simple, and yet mirrored my own education experience:

1.  Reduce the number of scholastic scholarships and increase merit scholarships.

2.  Allow for more adjunct professors with real-world experience, to provide real hands-on training and also reduce costs.

3.  Allow students to get credits for internships and other work experiences in their fields - and in fact, require it, in their later years of school.

4.  Re-work ranking systems based on outputs, rather than inputs.  Survey who is most successful in their field, and then figure out which colleges they went to.  Basing school rankings on your high school grade averages (or undergraduate grade averages) makes no sense at all.

5.  Encourage professors to work in their fields, rather than merely publish scholarly articles.

These are pretty radical "reforms" and I doubt they will be implemented anytime soon.

However, as I worked my way through college, I sort of had this kind of educational experience, and I can say, it was very rewarding.   At GMI, we had to work in a GM factory half the year.   And our professors had actual experience in their fields, not just theoretical academic experience.  And at S.U., some of my best professors were engaged in actual research in Electrical Engineering (with outside companies), and they provided the best educational experiences.  Not much ivory tower, here!

At George Washington University Law Center, I took courses from a Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit, as well as from the Assistant Commission for Patents (take that, Franklin Pierce!).   Talk about "hands on" experience from people in the field!   (In Georgia, it is illegal for a sitting Judge to teach in a law school - go figure!).

But mostly, my "hands on" education took place in the factories of General Motors, and in the laboratories of United Technologies Carrier, and at the Patent Office and in a Patent Law Firm - where I did real work, and got paid for it.   Being a Teamster, Pizza Delivery Driver, Tutor and Sex Educator were also useful experiences, if not directly related to my degree (it all fits in, somehow).

As I told the professor, after the lecture I attended here in Atlanta, "College was the best 14 years of my life!"

Sadly, few see it that way - as an experience that is part of an overall life experience.   To many, if not most, college is just another set of tests and tasks to be performed, so that one can check off yet another box on a long list of "credentials."  It is little more than a stack of boring textbooks and boring courses to be plowed through on the way to a "job" on the outside.

And sadly, these same folks, today, wonder why they cannot get a job and why no one wants to hire them.   Without real skills and real life experiences, today's college graduates are pretty worthless, regardless of the ranking of their school or their GPA.  Sure, the top students from the top schools may find jobs.  But the bulk of graduates, who don't have 4.0 GPAs, are going to find it hard to find work.

Our College system is broken, to be sure.   But as my haphazard educational experience illustrates, you can get a good education, not spend a lot of money, and be successful in your field.   It takes looking at things in a different light, however.   Viewing education as an experience, and not merely a credential, is a good start.

And realizing you do have choices is the way to do this.  Because waiting for the educational system to reform itself, is not an answer.  Maybe, perhaps, if more college students made different choices, the colleges would be forced to change how the game is played.