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College: America's Most Overrated Product (abridged)

By Marty Nemko

Colleges hold teenagers hostage. Because young adults need that piece of paper, colleges know students will come to them no matter how slipshod an education they provide. Employers increasingly demand a college diploma for anything above a McJob.

That insatiable demand for their pieces of paper allows colleges to provide a mediocre education without fear of losing students. And most colleges, especially prestigious ones, do provide a mediocre education because they are more interested in conducting research than in teaching undergraduates. So, for example, colleges heavily use the cheapest, least-effective method of instruction: herding hundreds of students into an auditorium to listen to a lecture by a professor whose main interest is an esoteric research area, not the basics that undergraduates need to know. Small classes are taught mainly by graduate students, often teaching for the first time. Residence hall life is rarely the living-learning environment trumpeted in colleges' brochures--get drunk, get laid, go to the ballgame is closer to the truth.

It is ironic that the most prestigious, most expensive colleges are the ones most likely to provide a poor undergraduate education. They can only get away with it because of the institution's designer-label (acquired from its research, not its undergraduate education), and because the students are bright enough to create an interesting experience despite the college's neglect. How obscene to charge $35,000 a year and so shortchange our nation's best and brightest.

A Better Way

Here's my vision for what colleges should do.

Use "starprofs"

Today, in most of the nation's 3,500 colleges, introductory courses, for example, Introduction to Biology, are taught primarily by an instructor, good, bad, or indifferent, lecturing to students umpteen rows away. You can often get a decent grade just by cramming for a midterm and a final, even though you'll have forgotten 3/4 of what you learned within days of semester's end.

Imagine that instead, you logged onto your home computer to find one of the nation's best biology instructors teaching Intro to Biology, using simulation and demonstration equipment far too expensive for most colleges to afford. You could replay any parts of the lecture you wanted, and at any point, you could click on words that would provide a fuller explanation of what the professor was saying. After each 30-minute instructional unit, you would take an interactive quiz. You'd participate in simulations and other experiments online, using equipment for free that you couldn't possibly access in the real world. Even the classic frog dissection could be done online. Think of all the hassle, blood and gore that would be saved--not to mention the millions of frogs lives. Another benefit: the nation wrings its collective hands about the lack of minority instructors. Choose a minority instructor for StarProfs and many thousands of students derive the benefits of having a minority biology instructor. Using interactive starprofs wouldn't completely replace the human instructor. Small classes and office hours would still be provided in person. But the large lecture, that boring vestige of the Middle Ages, so often blown-off by students who download lecture notes, would be replaced by starprofs, an approach that would enable every college student, rich or poor, to receive world-class education at a fraction of the cost.

Develop and hire instructors that specialize in undergraduate education

When live faculty are used, they should be specifically trained as undergraduate instructors. Today, the typical professor is trained and interested in research and arcana, not the education and nurturance of undergraduates. Within each undergraduate major, colleges should offer a specialization in undergraduate pedagogy. Faculty hired to teach undergraduates would be these bachelors-degree holders rather than the research-types currently used.

Create true living-learning environments

Residence hall life must be far more organized. Many, if not most, freshmen are living away from home for the first time. Put all these newly liberated, often scared, kids in one hall with little structure, and you have a prescription for failure. So many freshmen end up living an Animal-House existence or, overwhelmed by it, sit depressed in their dorm rooms. Colleges should provide a rich array of residence hall programs during evenings and weekends, some of which would be required. Some faculty would live among the students. Drugs and underage drinking, a major cause of problems in dorms, currently winked at by many colleges, should be strictly prohibited. If colleges care at all about their students, they cannot brush aside the fact that 42% of all college students binge drink. A once-a-year anti-drinking seminar is not enough. The truly caring college would create a dorm culture satisfying enough that alcohol abuse would become, for most students, superfluous.

Build in One-on-One

We grow greatly from one-on-one relationships. Yet, because of the expense, colleges provide very little one-on-one. Students criticize advising (and lack of parking) more than any other aspect of undergraduate education. At most colleges, professors schedule office hours only 2-3 hours a week! Colleges that care must have well-trained academic, career, and personal advisors, available in person and online. To ensure ample availability without undue cost, peer counselors could be used for routine concerns.

Instill Integrity in Admissions

Today's brochures and Web pages for a college's prospective students are little more than advertising. Colleges, which hold themselves out as icons of integrity, need to start acting that way. Each college brochure and Web site should be required to offer consumer information that would enable prospective students to compare colleges:

* The four-, five- and six-year graduation rate, with separate statistics for students with excellent, good, and fair high school records. (You may be surprised to know that nationwide, only 40% of freshmen at four-year colleges make it to graduation, even when given six years. Few other businesses would survive if 60% of their products fell off the assembly line before reaching the end.)

* The amount of growth from freshman year to graduation in writing, reading, math, computing, and information literacy. Again, separate statistics should be provided for students with excellent, good, and fair high school records.

* A grid showing the average cash and loan financial aid for students with different family income, assets, and high school record.

*As Lloyd Thatcher, in "College Admission: Profession or Industry," suggests, "No college, student or school is perfect. Let's be open and upfront with weaknesses as well as strengths."

* It is absurd that a student who wants to apply to Columbia, Northwestern, Penn, Georgetown, Stanford, Yale, and Cornell, must complete seven separate, extremely time-consuming applications. Most colleges are looking for the same thing: academic potential, extracurricular depth, and the ability to contribute to the campus and larger community. A student should be able to apply to any seven schools s/he wishes with one essay, listing of extracurriculars, transcript, and set of test scores submitted to the high school counselor's office on a nationally-agreed on date. The packet would then be e-mailed to any seven colleges designated by the student.

What to Do in the Meantime

An expensive college simply isn't worth the money. The definitive review of the literature (Astin, 1997) finds absolutely no relationship between a college's cost and the amount of learning that accrues. And a study in the American Economic Review concluded that even in terms of earnings, "What matters most is not which college you attend, but what you did while you were there. (That means choosing a strong major, choosing professors carefully, getting involved in leadership activities, getting to know professors)...Measured college effects are small, explaining just one to two percent of the variance in earnings." A more recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (Krueger & Dale, 1999) produced similar findings: when controlling for student input variables, an Ivy League education confers no economic advantage on its graduates.

This makes sense. Sure the designer-label on an Ivy diploma opens career doors, but put an Ivy-caliber student at Podunk College, and she can accrue benefits that fully compensate. For example, although my daughter was admitted to prestigious Williams College, she turned it down in favor of an easier-to-get into public institution that cost 70% less. There, the honors program functioned as a patch of Ivy, small classes with Ivy-caliber students taught by top professors. Honors extracurriculars extended the elite experience beyond the classroom. Perhaps more important, as a top student, she was taken under wing by professors, got appointed to university-wide governance committees, and got touted for terrific post-college opportunities--she spent a year in the White House writing Hillary Clinton's daily briefings. If she had attended Williams, she would likely have been lost among its many top students--and we would have been nearly $100,000 poorer.

So, unless your annual income is under $40,000, which would make you likely to get significant cash (not loan) financial aid, or are too wealthy to care, your child should apply to colleges with a low sticker price. He will learn as much, you'll save a fortune, and you will spare your child the inordinate stress and waste of time (studying for the SAT, waking at 3 AM to do crew because it will look good on college applications) of trying to get into designer-label colleges that well may not be worth the money and effort.

The following, in my view, are top-value colleges. In addition to a relatively low sticker price, they score well, on average, on these criteria: student quality, location, a campus culture that welcomes true diversity of ideas (not just politically correct ones), and a name that opens career doors. The larger institutions, which I've starred, do suffer from being research-first/students-second institutions, but their low price and desirability on other factors justifies their inclusion.

Rice: A Big-Oil endowment has created an Ivy-clone college at half the price.

* UCLA: The honors program is a patch of Ivy at a State U price.

Mary Washington College: Like a small private college at a public price--in a Jeffersonian setting an hour from D.C.

* McGill: A great city (Montreal), strong students, and the Canadian 69-cent dollar makes McGill a deal.

* University of Toronto: Easier to get into than McGill.

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. California weather, excellent students in its strong majors (e.g., architecture, engineering), $1,500 annual tuition. Safe, quaint town.

* University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Good students, ideal location, great basketball tradition, bargain price.

* University of Virginia: Top students in a Jeffersonian setting replete with colonnades and rolling lawns.

Santa Monica College: A nearly free two-year college that feeds many students to UCLA and Berkeley. Near the beach and L.A.

You can save the money on undergraduate education without shortchanging the child. That way you'll have money left for graduate school.

How to Speed Up a Glacier

Those suggestions for parents are mere band-aids--they just show how to make the best of a bad set of choices--most brand-name colleges really do treat undergraduates unconscionably.

What could make colleges change? Fear of losing money. Colleges, even private colleges, get a huge chunk of money from the taxpayer. So, when colleges cry for more money, we the taxpayers should be answering, "Not until you provide a quality education, not until you transform dorms from Animal House into living-learning environments, not until you can show that your graduates really do grow enough to justify the enormous cost and time."

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