Do today’s colleges provide diminishing returns?

March 15, 2014

The other week, I saw a column by The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker titled “The Diminishing Returns of a College Education.” Since I teach in college (and have too kids who might go to college), it got my attention.

Parker cites a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) which takes on the issue of college costs, as well as what students are learning, what administration gets paid, and how much money goes to instruction.

I thought it was interesting that their report knocks schools for not promoting “academic freedom,” and having codes against hate speech, yet criticizes schools for allowing students to take a diverse array of courses, instead of a few that should be required. What gives?

I researched ACTA, and found that it’s more of a politically partisan group. Sure Senator Joe Lieberman has served with ACTA, but most of the others are conservative. Their reports tend to cherry-pick a few examples, find a standardized test or two and post some results, but the agenda of the group is more about academic freedom, in terms pushing more conservative courses.

I don’t mind some conservative courses. In fact, I strongly believe students should be exposed to a balance of them. Today’s college students are smart enough to pick up on bias and whether someone’s being fair in covering a topic.

Have students been brainwashed into voting liberal over the last few decades? The evidence does not support that. College graduates vote consistently more Republican than Democrat in exit polls, so if schools are liberal factories, they’re not getting their message across. Of course, critics could claim that it is because college graduates earn more, but that would undermine the argument that colleges provide diminishing returns, right?

In fact, a study done by Business Week showed that college degree earners make more than those who do not to go to college. And those who do the best are those who graduated from non-profit institutions.

“When the researchers looked at a decade of earnings, students at for-profits made an extra $5,400 after graduating, while students at public colleges got a $12,300 boost,” Karen Weise writes. “Those who studied at nonprofit schools earned $26,700 more. (The results also don’t take into account that for-profits tend to have higher tuition than public colleges and nonprofit schools.) Put another way, public colleges produced at least twice the extra earnings as for-profits, and nonprofits produced a fourfold benefit.”

I think Parker and ACTA are on the right track though in some instances. Some of the 29 most prestigious colleges that they study may be resting on their laurels, and need some reform. Other nonprofit liberal arts colleges are outperforming them, according to conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, who I frequently cite.

The ultimate academic freedom is that you are free to choose your higher education institution. People can read Parker and ACTA, and keep their kids away from college. But I can tell you that I pay more attention to earnings by graduates, and I’m going to encourage my kids to make their decision on college based on economic rationality, and not partisan politics.