Derek Bok. Higher Education in America. Princeton University Press, 2013.
In his introduction to this comprehensive analysis of higher education, former Harvard President Derek Bok quotes the National Governors Association: “The driving force behind the 21st century economy is knowledge, and developing human capital is the best way to ensure prosperity.”
Although some rapidly growing forms of work, such as food service, do not require much education, the good jobs increasingly do. The earnings gap between more and less educated workers has been widening. “By 2010, the median annual income for adults holding college degrees reached $54,000 compared with $32,600 for those with only a high school diploma.” Countries and regions with more educated workforces will be attracting more of the good jobs and generating more wealth. Beyond the occupational and economic rewards, college education is associated with many other benefits, such as healthier lifestyles, civic engagement, lower crime rates and greater racial tolerance.
How has the United States been doing in providing higher education to its citizens? Bok describes a transition from elite to mass higher education. The percentage of high school graduates entering some type of college has risen dramatically, “from 17 percent in 1950 to 39 percent in 1980, 55 percent in 2000, and 68 percent in 2011.” However, progress in graduation rates has been much slower and more uneven, and the proportion of adults holding at least a bachelor’s degree has been increasing more slowly in the United States than in many other countries. According to the Century Foundation, it’s now about one-third for Americans 25 to 29. The United States ranks ninth among nations in the proportion of young adults enrolled in college, but only sixteenth in degree attainment. This is disappointing, since for much of the twentieth century, this country was the undisputed world leader in college completion.
Just yesterday, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its international Survey of Adult Skills, which compared adults 16 to 65 in nineteen countries on literacy and numeracy. Adults in sixteen of the countries were also tested on “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” using digital devices to locate and use information. Adults in the United States ranked near the middle in literacy and near the bottom in numeracy and technical problem-solving. The countries with the highest scores were Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. Particularly disturbing was the evidence of generational decline. Americans 55-65 scored above the international average; those 45-54 were about average, but those 16-45 were below average. Much of the decline may be due to the failures of elementary and secondary education; Americans without college educations compared even less favorably to their international peers than more educated Americans compared to theirs. Nevertheless, the overall results are pretty mediocre for a country that sends so many of its citizens to college.
Bok discusses a wide range of issues in higher education, including graduate and professional education as well as undergraduate. In the end, he concludes that two problems are the most urgent: raising the percentage of young people who complete college degrees, and improving the quality of education they receive. What will be hard is doing both at once. To some extent, improving quality means raising standards, but that could mean making it harder for some students to complete their course of study. Or looking at it the other way, raising graduation rates could mean admitting more academically marginal students and demanding less of them, thus lowering quality. So Bok is most interested in reforms that have the potential to help achieve either goal without sacrificing the other.