An Essential Book on Education

Does education matter? That is the title of an absolutely essential book by Professor Alison Wolf.

Yes, of course education matters. The author, who holds the Sir Roy Griffiths professorship of public sector management at King’s College, London, is not questioning whether education is good at all. Rather, she questions whether governmental efforts to expand “access” to higher education and public training programs are justified. The book’s subtitle – myths about education and economic growth – suggests that her answer is in the negative. It certainly is. In my view, Professor Wolf has given us one of the most useful books on education policy in many years because she quietly and carefully demolishes the conventional wisdom that it is imperative for government to “invest” more in higher education. After reading the book, I believe that most people will agree that the best we can do is to provide a solid education in each child’s early years and forget about trying to manage higher education and workforce training.

From the home office in Chapel Hill, the top 15 pork barrel higher education projects

At some point today, legislators will give final approval to the budget compromise that was hatched out before the Fourth of July weekend. It marks the end of the budget process that began in May and extended just days past the start of the 2007 fiscal year.

Like any governmental budget, this one has enough pork to make a pig farmer smile. This year’s higher education budget contains many generous helpings.

In honor of the passage of the state budget, the Pope Center unveils its list of the top 15 pork barrel projects. We determined projects for the list based on two questions. Is the project really needed? Should it be privately funded? While some of the projects in the list seem worthwhile, it would be better if they were funded through voluntary contributions.

So without further adoo and in true David Letterman style, from the home office on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, here is this year’s “Top 15 Higher Education Pork Barrel Projects.”

Does America need a National University?

An idea dating from 1789 has recently been resurrected – the creation of a national university for the United States. George Washington proposed exactly that in his first inaugural address and two young idealists have now set up an organization that will push for the creation of such a university.

Writing in the June 16th Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), Chris Myers Asch, chairman of the Campaign for a U.S. Service Academy argues that the U.S. needs to have a national university “designed to cultivate a steady flow of first-rate young leaders dedicated to civic leadership.” (Another article on the subject is available here.) Asch and Shawn Raymond, both of whom taught in the Teach for America program and subsequently founded a non-profit group to provide after-school tutoring to low-income students, are promoting the establishment of a United States Public Service Academy because they think it’s time to “tap into a renewed sense of patriotism and civic obligation among young people.”

Jim Hunt believes colleges are not measuring up

In a report recently issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt and businessman Thomas Tierney address the question “How does American higher education measure up for the 21st century?” Not very well, they conclude.
I happen to think their conclusion is correct, but not for the reasons they give. The difficulty is that Hunt and Tierney are obsessed with the notion that we have a quantity problem. We don’t. We have a quality problem.
The tone for the report is set by former New Mexico governor Garrey Carruthers in his foreword. He states that, due to the demands of the “knowledge-based global economy,” it is imperative that “more Americans must prepare for, enroll in, and successfully complete degree and certificate programs.” Carruthers provides not the tiniest bit of evidence to support his assertion, but this is only the foreword. He calls for government, schools and colleges, and public leaders to “ratchet up the educational level” of the populace.

Questionable Need for New ECU Dental School

For the past year, leaders at East Carolina University have been promoting the idea that North Carolina needs second dental school, one that would be housed on the school’s campus. They have been able to rally the support of several legislators in the General Assembly, including Senate leader Marc Basnight and embattled Speaker of the House Jim Black. It is anticipated that a proposal for a new dental school will be discussed in the General Assembly’s upcoming short session.

Advocates of the plan say that there is a need for more dentists in certain areas of North Carolina, especially eastern North Carolina, and that a new school would help to alleviate that need.

How Do We Get Students Ready for College?

A lament frequently heard by college professors is that many incoming students are not ready for college-level work. Even though what passes as “college-level work” isn’t what it used to be at many institutions, professors still report that their students struggle with reading, writing, and basic math. (Lest one think that such laments are only heard at unselective, fourth-tier schools, Patrick Allitt’s book I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, which recounts Professor Allitt’s difficulties in teaching American history at Emory University will serve as an antidote.) The question is, what can be done about this problem?

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Charles B. Reed (chancellor of the Cal State system) and Kristin Conklin (a program director at the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices) address that question.

The Coming Revolution in Higher Education

Advancing technology has brought about dramatic change in many industries. The transportation industry today looks nothing like the transportation industry of a century ago. The same is true of medical science, communications, the production of food, and so on. But what about higher education?

For the most part, college teaching today is done in pretty much the same way it was done a century ago. Indeed, it’s done in pretty much the same way as in the day when Socrates taught. Sure, technology has made some inroads at the margins – professors today are apt to use power point presentations rather than blackboards, and if a student loses his syllabus, he can get the information online – but nothing essential has changed.

If Yale computer science professor David Gelernter is correct, however, a technological revolution is just around the corner, a revolution that may bring about a sea change in the way the higher education industry works. Writing in the November 28 issue of Forbes Professor Gelernter entitles his piece “Who Needs a College Campus?” It is a thought-provoking piece that everyone concerned with education should read.

UNC Gets Serious About Grade Inflation…Maybe

In the great majority of courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, the average gradepoint is above 3.0 and in a few, it is 4.0, meaning that every student received an A. The question is whether that is a problem.

Evidently, some people at the university believe that it is a problem because the Educational Policy Committee, a subcommittee of the Faculty Council is going to address the matter of grade inflation. Said Professor Peter Gordon, who chairs the committee, “We have begun to explore techniques that give an alternative to the traditional grade point average.”

The University Needs to Know Its Own Limitations

One of my favorite movie lines occurs when Clint Eastwood (“Dirty Harry” Callahan) says to a criminal he has just subdued, “A man has got to know his own limitations.”

Knowing one’s limitations is a good idea for institutions as well as individuals, but for some years now, it’s been evident that UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser doesn’t recognize any limits on his university. His September 15 “State of the University Address” shows that he believes the university to have a far wider range of capabilities than it actually does.

One example is the Chancellor’s statement that “North Carolina must compete in this global economy, so it is absolutely critical that its flagship university be a player on the world stage.” That’s why UNC is building a new Global Education Center.

A New MBA Program That’s “Outside the Box”

For half a century, Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs have been a growth industry in the U.S. In 1955-56, only 3,200 MBA degrees were awarded. But in the 1960s, the numbers started to climb; in 1998, more than 102,000 MBA degrees were awarded. MBA programs have sprouted up in colleges and universities great and small as administrators sought to cash in on the increasingly prevalent idea that MBA studies were very useful if not essential for success in many business fields.

The trouble is that in trying to cater to a mass market, many programs offer an education that is of little practical value. In a September 2002 article in the Academy of Management Learning & Education, authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Christina Fong observe that “possessing an MBA neither guarantees business success nor prevents business failure” and point out that the nation’s top business consulting firms often hire people who have degrees other than an MBA. They quote a Stanford MBA who regards the curriculum as “irrelevant” and believes that students get “a pedigree rather than learning.”