Should Colleges be Measured by Their Students’ Upward Mobility?

To the egalitarians who increasingly dominate educational policy in America, a key metric for colleges and universities is how well they promote upward mobility — that is, to what extent do students from relatively poor backgrounds later rise to higher income levels? Schools where relatively few of those students make leaps up the income scale are said to be failing and need to reassess themselves.

A new book by college leaders James Koch and Richard Cebula focuses on that issue, looking particularly at colleges in Virginia. In today’s Martin Center article, Virginia education writer James Bacon assesses their work.

Bacon applauds the authors for their criticism of college administrators and governing boards that have turned a blind eye to the rapidly rising costs they have been imposing on students.

However, he takes issue with their arguments about upward mobility. He writes, “Koch and his colleague are making a huge unstated assumption, which they do not acknowledge in their book. That is: It is the responsibility of individual institutions to become vehicles for economic mobility rather than of state higher-education systems.”

Yes, but I’d go further and argue that it is the responsibility of students themselves to make the most of their education. Just as it isn’t the responsibility of professors to make students learn what they teach, it isn’t the responsibility of colleges to make students upwardly mobile.

And exactly how are colleges supposed to help the poor? The standard answer from educationistas like Koch and Cebula is that the more prestigious schools should try to recruit more students from low-income families. Bacon sees a problem: “It is not their job to create avenues of economic mobility for academically under-qualified individuals who would displace students—as it happens in Virginia, mostly students of Asian origin—who would benefit more from the challenging academic experience.”

In other words, don’t impose harms on some students in a crusade for equality.

He’s right about that.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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