Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Rating (and Berating) The System

By James W. Guthrie — September 12, 2001 7 min read

America’s colleges and universities are well-regarded, both here and abroad. America’s K-12 schools are, generally, held in low regard. How much of higher education’s favorable reputation is deserved? How much of the criticism directed at lower education is unfounded?

How much of higher education's favorable reputation is deserved? How much of the criticism directed at lower education is unfounded?

The shorthand answer to both questions is, “A great deal.” American postsecondary education is good, but it does not deserve all the kudos that come its way. Precollegiate education in this country is better than generally realized—and not deserving of the unfettered barbs that are directed at it.

America’s higher and lower education systems are markedly different. They have separate histories, institutional cultures, financial bases, and societal roles. Perhaps most important, K-12 schooling is legally compelled. College is voluntary. This means that America’s public schools must somehow serve all, regardless of whether they want to come. Higher education is under no such obligation and has far greater control over the selection of its clientele.

Because of these differences, comparative analyses of the two component parts of our education system must start from differing perspectives.

The quality of America’s higher education system is uneven. U.S. selective-admissions colleges and research-oriented graduate schools (about 10 percent of all American colleges) occupy the high end of the world’s quality spectrum. Their halo imparts a glow to the entire nation’s college and university reputation. It is as if Exeter and Andover academies and the school systems of Palo Alto, Calif., and New Trier, Ill., and Scarsdale, N.Y., were viewed by everyone as typical of American K-12 schools.

America's higher and lower education systems are markedly different. They have separate histories, institutional cultures, financial bases, and societal roles.

However, it is not simply “snooty” colleges that vie for and succeed in attracting applicants. American colleges at virtually every point on the quality continuum are attractive. Even though it takes time and money, and involves risks, America’s young people, and increasingly the remainder of society, are attending college in larger numbers. Presumably they benefit, or they would not attend.

American colleges are attractive overseas also. According to the International Trade Commission, higher education services created a $7.4 billion trade surplus for the United States in 1998, and the growth rate has been increasing every year for a decade. This translated, in 1998, into almost a half-million foreign students studying in U.S. higher education institutions—the largest number of any nation in the world.

This country’s community colleges and state college systems are a safety net for both domestic and overseas applicants. Furthermore, for those from overseas who enroll and graduate from an American college, there is always a prospect of finding employment and staying in the United States. These conditions create a market for overseas students, and American colleges are sensitive to, and successfully appeal to, these potential customers.

What renders U.S. higher education so effective educationally and attractive to customers? Four conditions provide clues:

One explanation is money and lots of government subsidies. The United States invests more than twice as much in each degree recipient ($17,486 according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) as do France and Britain, and almost twice as much as Germany and the Netherlands.

Precollegiate education in this country is better than generally realized—and not deserving of the unfettered barbs that are directed at it.

A second explanation for excellence and attractiveness is that the United States links higher education and research in a unique and creative manner that reciprocally advantages many sectors. Unlike most nations, the United States has chosen to rely heavily upon graduate universities to be the nation’s research engines. The consequence is that universities gain global visibility for the quality of their internationally regarded research faculties, the nation gets important scientific and social science discoveries, and the U.S. economy obtains access to highly trained scientific and technically advanced college graduates in the process.

Third, America’s higher education system also benefits from substantial decentralization of control. The United States has almost no national colleges, only the military academies and Gallaudet University in Washington, founded in 1864 by an act of Congress to serve the needs of deaf and hearing-impaired students. Remaining U.S. institutions of higher education are operated either by local communities, states, religious communities, or private authorities. This crazy-quilt mosaic of governance, of course, permits performance extremes. It does not, however, mire the system in uniform mediocrity.

The combination of a thirst for resources, a sustained quest for new knowledge, and decentralized governance has encouraged competition among America’s colleges and universities. They compete for research funding, faculty talent and institutional regard, and athletes. Rankings, be they those of U.S. News & World Report or the National Research Council, are perceived to mean a lot, and America’s colleges and universities are remarkably motivated in their desire to be ranked higher.

Nevertheless, there is a dirty little higher education secret. At the disappointing end of the spectrum, and less often discussed, are the porous “diploma mills,” where to apply is to get in and to get in is to get a degree. If these were public schools, the critics would be unmerciful. But because they are colleges, and no one has to attend them, they are generally free to operate. The only time they run into trouble is when the federal government cracks down on their eligibility to offer student financial aid.

As with colleges and universities, the quality of lower education is also mixed. At the upper end of the K-12 quality continuum are high-powered elite schools. Some are private institutions. Most are public. Regardless, however, admission necessitates money. Well-to-do families pay directly for private schooling through tuition.

But most American children, some 90 percent, attend public schools. Payment to attend elite public schools is less direct: The more expensive your home, the more you get to deduct. Live in Palo Alto, and the Internal Revenue Service disproportionately subsidizes your child’s excellent schooling.

SAT scores and IQ-test scores (possibly the same thing) keep rising for enrollees of these elite private and public schools. There is no abating of demand to attend them. Thus, we can assume that their clientele is reasonably happy. If not, those clients have the resources to switch.

It is the performance of schools in our great cities and in our poor hinterlands that colors the overall perception of America's K-12 schools.

Most American school districts are neither elite nor unattractive. They, like their state and community college counterparts in higher education, are in the middle of the quality distribution. Despite seemingly endless bombast by critics, there is no evidence that the students enrolled in these institutions are performing more poorly than their peers from the past. Moreover, from opinion polls, the parents who depend upon such schools seem reasonably satisfied.

Indeed, if we judge by attendance rates, Advanced Placement course enrollments, reductions in the taking of soft electives, high school graduation rates, college-going, and the dampening of violence in schools and in society, these mid-range public schools may be performing better now than at any time in American history.

One can argue that student performance in mid-quality schools, even if no worse than before, is still too low. Such is a different point and probably correct. But it is too early to discern the effect of current reforms, such as the recent imposition of state standards, higher-stakes tests, accountability measures, and charter schools. Given time, these system changes may bear the fruit of higher student achievement.

Now the hard part: big cities and sparsely populated rural America. It is the performance of schools in our great cities and in our poor hinterlands that colors the overall perception of America’s K-12 schools. Many schools in these areas constitute the counterpart of higher education’s “dirty little secret,” diploma mills. For America’s low-performing public school tier, however, the situation is not a secret and is even dirtier. Here is where dropout rates are high, expectations are low, and despair is rampant. To be sure, Houston, Seattle, San Diego, and a few other metropolitan areas may constitute big-city exceptions. Regrettably, however, there are too few such exceptions.

So where does our analysis take us? Do higher and lower education have something to learn from one another? Yes. Higher education can benefit from considering the K-12 sector’s responses to demands for greater cost-effectiveness, and the more accurate measurement of its outcomes or “products.’' Lower education, on the other hand, could benefit from adapting more of the customer orientation and competitive nature of America’s colleges and universities.

James W. Guthrie is a professor of public policy and education, the chairman of the department of leadership and organizations, and the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.

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