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America’s Most Overrated Product

May 24, 2008

Marty Nemko has an article at the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree. His piece addresses the plight of the university and, overall, faults the administrations and professors for students not performing well. While I think that the contemporary push for most/all young people to attain a Bachelor’s degree is problematic, I’m not keen on Nemko’s solutions.

Nemko thinks that we should have some sort of national standardization of universities — a packet of information on each institution like the data provided on the side of a tire. Beyond the obvious problem of equating education with a product and implying that a student’s mind is like the rubber that can be molded into whatever shape a university deems appropriate, there’s the issue of specialization.

To take one example from my own career: I think that Brandeis’ Ph.D.’s in Near East and Judaic Studies are top rate, but that doesn’t mean that our Ph.D’s in Neurology are (n.b. I have no idea what the Neuroscience department at Brandeis does, that’s my point). The standard university is more multivalent than any tire store your likely to enter.

Beyond specialization, there’s also the issue of students and faculty being moving targets. By the time any data can be comprised on the performance of students, it’s already out of date. With rapid movement of technology, the changing economic situation, and the seemingly constant reformulation of state primary and secondary educational goals, student data is constantly in flux. The same might be said for most universities as well — though systemic changes tend to move slower through higher ed.

All in all, I think that even providing all the data that Nemko recommends still wouldn’t change a thing. Apples-to-oranges comparisons based on bad data won’t do anything to help potential student make wise choices in higher education.

One Comment
  1. May 24, 2008 1:51 pm

    Nice observations and I agree with you, Jim. Another problem with these types of data is that departments can change a lot in the time that an undergraduate student is at a particular school–faculty can come and go, curriculum can change, leadership changes bring new emphases, etc. So, just because someone begins a degree within a certain department does not mean that they will graduate from the identical situation.

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