The latest test for college students: Are you employable?

What is needed is not more outsider tests but more classroom tests and higher academic quality.

The most frequently heard question in college classrooms doesn’t spring from politics, stress, emotional fatigue, loneliness or any of the other force fields that inhabit higher education these days. It is the scholars’ eternal quest for knowledge: “Is this going to be on the test?”

What was, and wasn’t, going to be on the test, and, in fact, all aspects of student testing used to be the responsibility of the professor teaching the course.

Now, though, things have changed on campus. It seems that everybody is interested in testing. It’s no wonder that classrooms are crowded now that they have to make room for federal and state governments, college presidents, deans and assorted college administrators, and an assortment of testing experts that either have or want contractual agreements to provide services.

What caused the change? The identity crisis afflicting higher education.

Within living memory, the colleges and universities that make up our higher education system embodied the now-dated model of the military’s training school instructor: “You’re here to learn and I’m here to teach. Pay attention, do your work, and we’ll get along just fine.”

That attitude was clearly too authoritative to survive in today’s America, but it was not an inaccurate reflection of reality in higher education for many years. Colleges and universities had knowledge and paths to wisdom available … but offered them on their terms. There were equal quantities of arrogance and public service in the attitude — both reflecting a doubt-free sense of identity and purpose.

That attitude produced imperfect results, of course. There were many injustices inflected on individuals and groups.

In the major expansion that began in the post-WWII years and continued for over a half-century, colleges and universities found themselves in ever-stiffening competition … and strapped for cash. They began to “test the market” for higher and higher tuition and fees. Because of the increasing demands on near-frozen middle-class incomes — to fund government, especially — higher education institutions found themselves facing household budget-line resistance. The effective demand curve began to plateau.

Looking for other sources of cash, colleges and university found two: their own alumni and the federal government. The graduates of the elite schools, and some others, were very generous and besides providing funds for new football stadiums and other campus building projects, they underwrote the costs of offering scholarships to students who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend. At the same time, though, the competition for statistically defined diversity was expanding the curriculum to include an eyebrow-raising level of remedial education.

While extensive, these scholarships were not adequate to keep colleges and schools competitive, so they turned to the federal government, which responded with the student loan program.

It was an easy move for the feds, who had been underwriting college programs, especially in agriculture, science, and engineering, for decades. There were two significant differences in the student loan program, though, that ricocheted through higher education, our economy and our society.

The first difference was its raw size, which was big enough to attract the attention of politicians who began to see its potential to transform our economic system in a dramatic way. They began to talk in terms of a baccalaureate degree as being an inalienable right. Fueling the program’s growth were the continued acceleration of tuition and fees, and the absence of any real limits on majors or other coursework selected by students. The second, closely related to the first, is that there weren’t enough jobs that paid enough to absorb the accumulated loan costs for many students. This, in turn, turned colleges and universities into participants in a “third-party indentured servitude” system.

Higher education now had to contend with not just the structural problem of student loans but the employers who were increasingly unhappy with graduates who were unprepared for the workplace. A generation ago colleges and universities had decided to follow the private sector model of being customer-driven and began to sacrifice some control to the ideal of customer satisfaction. It does not seem to have had a positive effect on academic standards or, for that matter, workplace preparedness.

Now, colleges and universities are looking to employers for guidance on curriculum and performance standards — and are about to make the same mistake they had made with the customer satisfaction idea. One likely result will be a “employability test” dreamed up either by the government, employers, or both.

That test can join the rest of the apparently endless tests that are given to students at colleges and universities today. Everybody with a financial interest in higher education feels it is necessary to have test results to prove they are needed. What is needed is not more outsider-designed tests but more classroom tests and higher academic quality. That will really transform the economy.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant.

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