August 27th, 2012: Niall Ferguson on American Higher Ed.

…As a professor, I can see much that is wrong with our system – but not so much that I would advise a smart 18-year-old to skip college.  The real problem is not that our college system is failing.  The problem is that it is succeeding all to well — at ranking and sorting each cohort of school-leavers by academic performance. 

As Charles Murray has pointed out, our highly competitive admissions system has become a mechanism for selecting a “cognitive elite.” In 1997, just over a hundred elite colleges, which admitted fewer than a fifth of all freshmen, also accounted for three quarters of the ones with SAT or ACT scores in the top 5 percent.

Meritocracy in action? The problem is that this cognitive elite has become self-perpetuating: they marry one another, live in close proximity to one another, and use every means, fair or foul, to ensure that their kids follow in their academic footsteps (even when Junior is innately less smart than Mom and Dad)…

Read it all here – via the Daily Beast

My comments:   Ferguson seems uncharacteristically chary here tackling the problems in America’s higher education system.  He dips his and his readers’ toes into the issues of student loans, rising costs, and discouraging employment statistics for college grads, but doesn’t seem to like how deep the water is.   I have no clue what Ferguson was attempting to say with this article, but he ends with some statement about the ‘cognitive elite’ who are apparently squirreling away much that is good in a meritocratic system (who knew Ferguson could sound like Chris Hayes?)

Generally, I like Ferguson, but I don’t care for dismissing myriad problems in higher ed. only to make some beyond-the-point social commentary or to say that colleges and universities are simply too good at doing what they do.  Gary Becker and Richard Posner did something similar on their blog some months ago here and here, and it was equally disappointing.  At best, this kind of commentary comes off as unproductive or tepid, at worst, irresponsible.

I understand that ‘shortcomings and failures of universities’ may be a hard-to-tackle subject for those in academia, but no serious person really wants to blame faculty for the higher ed bubble or hear weak justifications from professors.  The problems are apparent.  Time and energy now needs to be spent on coming up with innovative ideas and solutions.  Top academics, like Ferguson, Becker, and Posner should be standing at the forefront of fixing ‘all that is far from well in the groves of American academe,’ rather than skirting around the issues or giving them little mind.

Also, in my opinion, a ‘smart 18 year old’ should be encouraged to consider college as an option not advised to think of it as a requisite.

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