The Failure of American Higher Education

In the global economy, higher education is an important driver of economic competitiveness. So why can't our colleges turn out graduates who can write basic sentences and do basic math?
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Attend any policy discussion in Washington that deals with education and the standard line you will hear is "the American K-12 system is a failure, but thank God we still have the world's greatest higher ed system." Let me suggest that this is fundamentally wrong. Higher ed is failing almost as much as K-12.

Let me offer two pieces of evidence of this. One is purely personal. As president of a DC-based think tank, I have over the years hired many recent college graduates and interviewed many more. Because the quality of so many of the graduates was so poor, ITIF has taken to giving the small share of the most promising applicants (based on their resumes and cover letters) a short test that we email them to complete at home in one hour. The questions are pretty simple: "Go to this person's bio online and write a three or four -sentence version of their bio for us to include in a conference packet," or, "Enter these eight items in a spreadsheet and tell us the average for the ones that end in an odd number."

What is amazing, at least to me, is how few can do even these very simple tasks adequately. In our current hiring process (for an office manager/research assistant) we have so far given the test to approximately 20 college grads. Only one did well enough to merit an interview. And most of the 19 are not from "second tier" colleges, but rather, from top-ranked institutions. One applicant, a recent Princeton grad, submitted a test that was full of spelling and grammar mistakes. Didn't they teach "spell check" at Princeton? A Boston University grad couldn't accurately complete a simple excel spreadsheet. (By the way, I am not picking on these particular schools but just citing actual examples.)

But it's not just my own experience over the last decade that worries me. It is findings from national tests. Strikingly, among recent graduates of four-year colleges, just 34, 38 and 40 percent were proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy, respectively. Just to be clear, these are among 24 year olds who have graduated from college. The bar, by the way, is not all that high. The questions are actually pretty easy.

As the report from the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, better known as the Spellings Commission, noted several years ago, "There are ... disturbing signs that many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing, and thinking skills we expect of college graduates. Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined."

In our knowledge-driven global economy, high-quality higher education is an important driver of economic competitiveness. We all have a stake in improving higher education. So why can't colleges turn out graduates who can write basic sentences and do basic math? The conventional answers are that colleges need to focus more on teaching, or they need more money, etc. Or that in the Internet age kids don't read or think anymore.

Let me suggest a more fundamental reason. Colleges are focused on teaching kids content, not on teaching them skills, and too many students are focused on passing the multitude of tests in the multitude of classes they take, rather than really learning. One of the best college grads I ever hired (a graduate of Dartmouth) majored in history. In his job at ITIF (a technology policy think tank) he didn't need to know history. What he needed to know was how to think, how to write, how to speak intelligently, how to find information and make sense out of it, how to argue coherently, and how to do basic math. Fortunately, he had acquired these skills. But other graduates of colleges such as Kenyon, Bowdoin, Bates, or the University of Pennsylvania, whom I have hired over the years, clearly had not, or at least not nearly as well.

Most colleges aren't interested in teaching these skills for the simple reason that most faculty aren't interested in teaching these skills. The vast majority of faculty go into academia, not because they like teaching, but because they like their academic subject (Why else would the spend 6 years or longer getting a doctorate in it?). They don't want to teach logic, debate, writing, research, or any of other myriad skills. They want to teach the subject of their passion: European history in the Middle Ages, or English romance novels, etc.

Unfortunately, for most college graduates and for most jobs (one exception being science and engineering jobs), it really doesn't matter if they learn English literature or 20th century comic books. What does matter is if they acquire needed skills. And this kind of 21st century skill acquisition is at best something they pick up by chance in the course of learning about French literature or 20th century American politics. The result is that too many graduates have grown in knowledge on various subjects but not developed practical skills.

So, how do we change this? Here are three ideas. First, we need a national test that all college grads should take to measure skills competency. This wouldn't measure whether you know that Adolph Hitler was Chancellor of Germany or other "facts," but rather skills like logic, reasoning, basic writing and math, etc.

Second, most college students don't even know the types of skills that are valued by the industries they want to work in. For example, do managers in accounting firms prefer young workers who can quickly and accurately proofread a spreadsheet or give a persuasive power point presentation? One reason for this is there is no national employer survey on what are the specific skills employers are looking for in recent graduates. The Department of Education should launch an annual survey of employers that asks such questions and make it available to the public. The survey should also ask employers which U.S. colleges and universities have provided their best employees. Doing so would help parents and prospective college students make decisions on which school is best for them.

Finally, we need radical experimentation in college design. It's time for a foundation or wealthy individual to endow an entirely new college founded on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects. A few years ago, the Olin Foundation endowed a new kind of college (Olin College outside of Boston) to fundamentally change how engineering is taught. And by all accounts it's a great success. Let's create a new college focused on teaching the kinds of skills young grads actually need.

In K-12, we have learned the hard way what happens when we act too slowly to shake up how we teach our kids. Let's act more quickly when it comes to higher education and preserve and strengthen this pillar of our economic strength and source of future prosperity. We owe it to the young people often paying over $50,000 a year and we owe it to ourselves as a nation.

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

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