Higher Ed Armageddon?

BY ZACH WAHLS | JANUARY 26, 2011 7:10 AM

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The bad news: According to a new study, 36 percent of us are going to graduate from the University of Iowa having made zero academic progress over the last four years. The good news: Said study has a number of flaws, and even though Chicken Little might be running through the halls of academia screaming bloody murder, everything is going to be just fine.

That statistic is one of many seemingly alarming facts provided in a Chronicle of Higher Education report, just as newly elected GOP state legislators across the country were getting down to work slashing state budgets.

Here in Iowa, Republicans are looking to cut state funding for our three public universities, even though state appropriations only made up 38 percent of the University of Iowa’s fiscal 2011 revenues. By contrast, state appropriations compose some 48 percent of Ohio State’s revenues.

So, taking the results of this study combined with a re-empowered GOP eager to cut public-education budgets and the ongoing rise of India and China, American education has to be on the verge of tapping out, right?

Well, I don’t think it’s quite so cut-and-dried.

Despite incessant warnings that America now scores worse than Latvia on international math-proficiency exams, according to those same rankings, we graduate more “highest-proficiency” students in science and reading than any other country on Earth. Furthermore, only Japan graduates more “highest-proficiency” math students. Besides, as University of California-Berkeley Professor Vivek Wadhwa points out, “Do high [Programme for International Student Assessment] rankings make students more likely to invent the next iPad? Google? I don’t think so.”

Likewise, not showing improvement on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the exam upon which the aforementioned study was based, is hardly synonymous with “didn’t learn anything.” Proving my point, the researchers found “significant differences by field of study,” with students in the hard and social sciences, humanities and math outperforming their peers studying business, education, and social work. Let’s break that down.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the assessment focuses primarily on reasoning and writing skills. It makes sense that liberal-arts students improved in these areas and scored significantly higher than their non-liberal arts peers. After all, as any professional educator will tell you, “reasoning and writing skills” are the foundation of a liberal-arts education.

What about social work? While reasoning is an important part of just about everything, it’s not particularly pertinent to social work specifically — same for writing skills — so it makes sense that it isn’t a huge part of the curriculum.

The same goes for education and business. They’re not as focused on liberal-arts principles because they’re looking for specific skill sets that usually don’t require unusually advanced reasoning or writing skills. It’s a given that students who are admitted to college have at least some proficiency in writing and reasoning. For professions such as social work, business, and education in which “proficient” skills are adequate, no further development is needed, and these students spend their time developing and building separate skill sets altogether.

And when, in “the real world,” people in those professions reach positions where advanced skills are required, they go back to school and get higher degrees.

Finally, there’s the question of cuts in public funding. Iowa Republicans are pushing for cuts of $18 million to the budgets of Iowa’s public universities, a mere 3 percent of UI’s education-related revenue. Sure, I don’t think the cuts are a good idea, but they’re not a crushing blow.

This isn’t to say, however, that everything is in tip-top shape. Last spring, I was shocked when the TA in one of my humanities GEs had to explain to the class what a thesis is and the role it plays in academic writing. But the class learned, and that’s the point. Though American education has shortcomings, and plenty of them, it’s still the best in the world. For now.

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