A critique of Richard Vedder’s recommendations for Higher Education



Part 1: Three-Year Baccalaureate Degrees

Richard Vedder is distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In an earlier post, I pointed out, as others have, that he is hardly an unbiased or objective commentator on the state of higher education because his connection to the conservative American Enterprise Institute has come with a $150,000 annual stipend.

Nonetheless, as the author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, he was asked by CNN to comment on President Obama’s recent proposals on higher education. Vedder took the opportunity to restate four of his own recommendations for making higher education more affordable. [The article is available at: http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/23/opinion/vedder-college-costs]

His first suggestion is that we adopt the three-year baccalaureate degree that is the standard in much of Europe.

In an earlier post, a review of Saving Higher Edu­cation: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree Pro­gram, I made the following points:

1. The accelerated model may save some students money, but, in compressing four years’ worth of work into three years, it risks very high attrition rates among participating students and it raises issues about the quality and depth of the students’ learning.

2. The prior-learning model, which awards credits for prior experience and training may be very appropriate for some technical degrees, but, in reducing higher education to skill sets, it completely ignores most of the things that give higher education real value—that distinguish it from vocational education. It promotes the competency-based model, most notably illustrated in Western Governors University, over the credit-based model, fundamentally altering the nature of higher education. For in that competency-based model, there are no faculty, only “contracted evaluators” paid by corporations that became “educational providers” by buying up large numbers of textbook publishers, starting in the late 1990s.

3. The integrated model is sort of a synthesis of elements of the other two models. The designers of such programs are expected to cull all seeming redundancy that exists from course to course within a program. The problem with this model is that much of that redundancy—for instance, in writing practice—has very real benefits. For instance, although one can certainly certify that a student’s writing has reached some basic level of competency, that measure does not preclude the student’s continuing to benefit greatly from further writing instruction and practice.

As I have highlighted in another previous point “Another Perspective on the Three-Year Baccalaureate Degree” [http://academeblog.org/2013/06/08/another-perspective-on-the-three-year-baccalaureate-degree/], the irony is that as the U.S. has been seeking ways to reduce the time required to complete a baccalaureate degree, nations in the non-Western world, most notably India, have been moving away from the European model and toward the U.S. model—that is, from three-year to four-year baccalaureate degrees. And they have been doing so despite very vociferous complaints about the effects on access and affordability.

At their root, all of the proposals for three-year baccalaureate degrees are manifestations of the belief that higher education programs are, like university faculties, full of fat that can be cut without any real loss in quality. They are reflections of a disdain for higher education, of a mind set that believes that higher education can be gotten on the cheap.

But, worse than all of that, the proponents of these degrees ignore two indisputable facts:

First, although the per-capita cost of higher education and tuition rates have increased dramatically over the last three to four decades, instructional costs have remained very flat (when both sets of numbers are adjusted for inflation). The per-capita costs have increased because of administrative bloat and spending on extra-instructional facilities, amenities, and initiatives. Tuition costs have increased because state support for public education has dramatically decreased. In fact, there is a very obvious correlation between the decline in state support and the rise in direct student costs, a correlation that does not require an economics degree to recognize and understand.

Second, many of the people who are advocating for three-year baccalaureate degrees have also been among the most vocal critics of higher education’s failure to prepare students for the workplace, echoing corporate complaints that students with baccalaureate degrees seem less and less ready to meet even some basic professional expectations. This sort of basic incongruity in argumentative stances seems to me to be both very prevalent and very seldom commented upon.

In critiquing those who are critiquing us, we need to emphasize that the supposed causes of the problems that we face are often not logically consistent with—and therefore very unlikely to be solved by—the solutions being proposed. Or, perhaps more precisely, because of these basic inconsistencies, the solution to one problem will only exacerbate other problems.
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