The Arizona Desert Lamp

Cecilia Rouse

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 2 January 2009

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the latest appointee to President-elect Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Cecilia Rouse, is an expert on “the economics of education.” We would be best to avoid the excesses of Obamology, but I hope that this appointment doesn’t mean another joust at “comprehensive” education reform à la No Child Left Behind. (Interesting side note: in 1996, the Republican party platform called for abolishing the federal Department of Education. My, how the times have changed.)

The article lists several of Ms. Rouse’s most (in?)famous papers, and there’s one in particular worth highlighting:

A 1993 paper that found that credits earned at community colleges are worth just as much, in terms of increased future earnings, as credits earned at four-year institutions. The study also found that successfully completing college courses will improve a student’s future income even if the student never finishes a degree. The “sheepskin effect” — the notion that most of the economic rewards of college-going derive from the credentialing effect of holding a diploma — has been exaggerated by many scholars, Ms. Rouse has argued. (See also this 1999 sequel.)

This, I think, is an important point; and in spite of her center-left credentials, it jibes nicely with a list of proposed solutions from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council:

The speakers suggested offering a range of incentives for all students to graduate promptly and for underprepared students to consider starting at a community colleges. Among other things, they proposed:

* Providing merit scholarships based on the completion of high-school college-preparatory courses.

* Offering cash incentives for students who have Advanced Placement or other existing credits.

* Adding a surcharge for students who take more than 140 credit hours.

* Setting minimum academic requirements for entry into four-year colleges.

* Establishing a minimum sophomore retention rate that would require colleges to cut enrollment in subsequent years if they did not meet the standard.

We have to be careful here, though — if the surcharge applies on all earned credit hours, then that actually puts a disincentive on students to take AP courses for credit, as it will ultimately count against them. Making the surcharge apply only to UA credit hours will instead encourage taking courses outside of the UA.

Some might charge that this is just “out-sourcing” of UA responsibilities, a degrading of education. As opposed to what? Already, classes — most especially, intro level courses — are becoming increasingly crowded, impossible to enroll into, and degraded in quality. The UA’s comparative advantage comes in its upper-level courses, where the professors (ideally, but usually) are intimately concerned with the course material, and are often the authors of the ideas being discussed.

This isn’t to say that all underclassmen should earn all of their credits at PCC. But there are certainly some classes where Pima might even offer a superior experience. Rather than making the process difficult, the UA should make transferring credits as easy as possible, to ensure that the classes that are taken at the UA are as high in quality as possible, budget crisis be damned.

Also, the UA would be well-served by establishing a path for “driven” students to graduate in three years. As referenced in an earlier post (which, obnoxiously, I cannot find), there’s no reason for the “four year degree” to be so sacrosanct. The undergraduate years are increasingly another stepping stone for graduate school, and those determined to move on (or who simply want to save on costs) should be encouraged, rather than discouraged.


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