Wednesday, December 9, 2009


French universities are often compared unfavorably to their American counterparts. No selection at entrance leads to high failure rates. Teaching is underfunded, and professors receive little support. The Université de Picardie is not Harvard. True, but neither is East Podunk Community College, which is probably a better comparison:

Low-income students are increasingly forced to attend inexpensive but under-resourced, non-selective universities and community colleges, where student results are often astoundingly bad. The average graduation rate at four-year colleges in the bottom half of the Barron’s taxonomy of admissions selectivity is only 45 percent. And that’s just the average–at scores of colleges, graduation rates are below 30 percent, and wide disparities persist for students of color. Along with community colleges, where only one in three students earns a degree, these low-performing institutions educate the large majority of Pell Grant recipients. Less than 40 percent of low-income students who start college get a degree of any kind within six years.

Why is the quality question so obscure, when the cost question is so well-known? In part because it has been masked by the American higher education system’s unchallenged reputation as the best in the world. Unfortunately for the average collegian, this notion is entirely driven by the top 10 percent of institutions and the students who attend them–Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and the like. Much of the rest is a sea of mediocrity, or worse.

Since French universities must admit more than 60 percent of each age cohort, their pool includes many students who fit the profile of community college students in the US. Sarkozy and Pécresse should bear this in mind the next time they ogle the Shanghai rankings.


satchmo said...

Arthur, your point that many discussions ignore non-prestige institutions and the overall system of post-secondary ed is a very good one. Couldn't agree more.

The piece to which you've linked, however, the U.S.-focused argument by Kevin Carey, doesn't strike me as very persuasive. Mr. Carey is a Poli-Sci / Public-Admin professional who is arguing here that the "lie" of post-secondary ed is its failure to police itself adequately and perform more efficiently/productively. He argues that insitutions get away with this because they are not sufficiently transparent in terms of "information" (i.e. more stats, metrics, quantified test and survey data)and thus hide their poor performance from public scrutiny and so on. His argument is that if "progressives" demand this information and it is provided, then "the market for higher education will start functioning properly."

No mention of chronic underfunding and creeping corporatization for decades under Reagan-Thatcher-Bush doctrines, etc. No mention that the corporate uni is already obsessed with metrics and every manner of quantitative evaluation, that academics are continually evaluated and scrutinized on "productivity" grounds everywhere. Anyone who's been hounded on "years to graduation" stats for decades is familiar with this dance. The dance has little to do with educating students or providing more or better education, but rather with showing improved numbers in conditions of (always) decreased funding.

I'm really not persuaded by "accountability" arguments that nowhere acknowledge that the current situation of universities is the predictable consequence of decades of willful underfunding. More corporateze, imho.

And why he thinks "progressives" should embrace a corporate language of accountibility rather than a systemic understanding of the political economy of universities is very strange. Perhaps by progressives he means the Obama administration.

Apologies for an excessively long response to this one.

Unknown said...

Yes, absolutely, I agree with you completely. I cited the article only because it appeared this morning and reminded me of the hidden part of the iceberg of US higher ed (to use a perhaps unfortunate metaphor).