Did We Succeed Or Fail?

Many college and university graduates who now occupy policy-making positions advocate for judging the success of higher education by how graduates perform in the labor market – employment and earnings (the latter of which fails to account other important and valuable benefits offered by employers or sought by employees) – and tying the availability of public funds to employment and salary metrics. The high cost of tuition has generated this new basis of evaluation, the reduction of higher education to a return on investment calculation, and diverts people from the real issue: bad administrative and academic processes = high costs.

Colleges and universities have no direct role to play in post-graduation employment or remuneration. Hiring graduates and making salary offers is not their decision. The availability of public and private sector jobs and accompanying salaries are determined by leaders of those businesses in relation to productivity, sales, industry benchmarks, changes in technology, sales growth, macroeconomic conditions, and so on. In the future, jobs are likely to be fewer in number and the pay low. And, of course, continuing employment and salary increases are often dependent on individual supervisor-subordinate relationships, which oftentimes are strained, leading the employee to look elsewhere for a job.

Colleges and universities cannot possibly hope to succeed with employment and salary metrics, except perhaps for the top tier (though they too may someday suffer because their graduates cost much more to hire yet are not that much more capable than graduates of public universities). If the success of higher education is to be judged by how graduates perform in the labor market, then higher education administrators and faculty will quickly figure out ways to succeed with this dumb metric:

  • Offer only academic programs where employment is currently high or predicted to be high (the latter surely missing the mark at least 30 percent of the time, resulting in expensive failures that raise costs).
  • Offer financial incentives (bribes/kickbacks?) to employers to hire their graduates, much in the way that food producers offer financial incentives to grocers for prime shelf space.
  • Collude with sympathetic local employers to hire graduates as full-time regular employees during the time in which the metric is recorded, and reduce them to part-time status immediately thereafter.
  • Count promises made by employers to hire graduates as employed graduates (immediately after which employers can rescind the job offer).
  • Colleges and universities hire their own graduates for the minimum time necessary to be counted towards the metric.
  • Count unpaid volunteer work as full-time employment and list remuneration as that which the graduate would have gotten paid for if the work were not done for free.
  • Make the metric look better by adjusting for factors that affect employment such as involuntary layoffs, recession, wage freezes, productivity gains, etc.
  • Include the value of benefits to make the salary number look larger (as many companies do).
  • Use forecasted salary figures based on unrealistic assumptions (just as pension funds do for rates of return)
  • And, if all that is too hard to do, then just fake the numbers.

Judging the success of higher education by how graduates perform in the labor market displays the worst in critical thinking by our former students. It is like judging a chef on how their dinner customers performed on the toilet the following day, based on the ease, volume, characteristics of individual elements, and overall quality of output. That outcome is beyond the chef’s control.

The question is, are our graduates really that stupid? Or, have they shrewdly devised a way to cripple higher education while also benefiting from its demise? Is it a case of thoughtless destruction or a clever way to accelerate creative destruction? Faced with an opportunity, why have our graduates chosen what appears to be harm instead of doing good?

Have we, as teachers, succeeded or failed? It looks to me like we have failed, and, at minimum, need to improve how we educate students in critical thinking. At the same time, we could inform policy makers that Lean management is a better, non-zero-sum approach to improving higher education. Employment and salary metrics won’t do it.

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