Measuring Higher Education

When we talk about the efficacy of college the only accreditation worth measuring is getting a job. There needs to be a lot of room in college for self-exploration, but thankfully all that work doesn’t appear on students’ transcripts. An op-ed in yesterday’s NYTimes tears into the declining grading standards across higher education, but mostly picks the wrong target. Kevin Carey writes,

The lack of meaningful academic standards in higher education drags down the entire system. Grade inflation, even (or especially) at the most elite institutions, is rampant.

It’s true: colleges self-rank. But that’s not the real issue. Colleges grading themselves is problematic not because there’s some sort of missing regulator of college grades. Rather, it’s because the grades themselves have become less valuable after college. For employers, far more important than grades is who’s issuing them. College life is filled with partying largely because the biggest achievement of a college student is getting accepted in the first place. For the more adventurous and fast-learning students, this realization helps explain (along with cost) why dropping out is becoming fashionable. The one place where grades are still paramount is students who need them for graduate school admissions. In other words, university grades still matter to universities.

Employers of new grads care about three things: which college you went to (pedigree), how much drive you’ll have on the job (grit), and whether you can perform on day one (training). The economics of a shrunken economy aside, employers hire from the best schools they can find, and that’s not really changing.

For degrees that lead students into employment (of which there should be more), there’s really only one measure of a successful education: getting a job.