Back in late March, The Economist published a special report on universities (a broad theme, we'll all agree). Here are some highlights.
First, excerpts from the Leader article about the report, "The world is going to university". "Just as America's system is spreading, there are growing concerns about whether it is really worth the vast sums spent on it... There are, broadly, two ways of satisfying this huge demand [for a university degree]. One is the continental European approach of state funding and provision, in which most institutions have equal resources and status. The second is the more market-based American model, of mixed private-public funding and provision, with brilliant, well-funded institutions at the top and poorer ones at the bottom. The world is moving in the American direction... If America were getting its money's worth from higher education, that would be fine. On the research side, it probably is... but on the educational side, the picture is less clear."
Later in the Leader, we read: "A recent study of recruitment by professional-services firms found that they took graduates from the most prestigious universities not because of what the candidates might have learned but because of those institutions' tough selection procedures." In other words, professional-services firms farm out their selection process to universities' admission committees and the decisions they made about 17-year-old students because it is easier to pick someone who already has a "stamp of approval" from someone else, no matter how little connection the initial (college) selection has with the ultimate goal (job recruiting).
I would love to see a study where 21-year-old college seniors would be allowed to pretend they are about to graduate from the Ivy League (in the major they really did have) and given fake transcripts and fake references, and would be sent on the job market. (Somehow they'd have to go through campus recruiting, be given email addresses at the Ivy League school they're supposed to be from, etc.) Not only do I think they'd do very well if they're chosen appropriately - personable students with strong grades from a "New Ivy", for instance - but I think they'd do as well in the workforce as real Ivy League grads or perhaps even better (if they're more used to handling setbacks or failures). My opinion is based on well-known psychology experiments where teachers were told their students were highly talented ("academic bloomers") or where they were told their students were behind and challenging. There was actually no basis for those labels, but the teachers didn't know that and began to treat their students differently if they had been told they were highly talented, although they were not. (The story is more complicated than saying every student could be talented, though.) The issue, of course, is that admitting the labels we put on others affects their success for better or worse would bring a lot more candidates in the job selection process, and HR departments are not known to particularly want to take a risk.
Here's another excerpt of the Leader about America's universities. "The government rewards universities for research, so that is what professors concentrate on. Students are looking for a degree from an institution that will impress employers; employers are interested primarily in the selectivity of the institution a candidate has attended." I disagree with that last part. I think that employers want students who come with letter grades stamped on their forehead and assigned by someone else so that they don't have to figure it out themselves. We rank colleges, hospitals, places to live - we rank everything. Of course it is tempting for HR departments to hope applicants would come neatly ranked. Then they could go down the list and evaluate for fit with the actual position. The ranking would be a mix of environment, effort and emotional intelligence (I should call this the Three Es and start going on the talk show circuit... jk): the school, the GPA and the extracurricular activities.
Later, the article also touches upon common tests to make the higher-education market work better. In a way, it would help ensure that the dreamed-of "student's grade" (which would make HR departments' jobs so much easier) really reflects what the student knows and is not distorted by the university's name. But didn't the SAT fill a similar purpose for college admissions? I have yet to find a single person nowadays who thinks highly of the SAT. In fact I'd be highly suspicious of anyone who thinks highly of multiple-answer tests. But they make the job of admission committees easier. In France where there is an exit exam at the end of high school and an entrance exam for engineering and (college-level) business schools, committees of professors must decide on that year's exams, paces to administer the exams in a secure fashion must be found all over France every year in May and a small army of professors and lecturers must grade the exams before the results can be posted. Those would in fact only be the results of the first phase, the admissibility one. If you are admissible, you go and take a series of oral exams. More instructors needed there too. Is the system better or worse than in the U.S.? For STEM disciplines, which is the system I know best, I think the system is better. It also tells you a lot about students' ability to handle pressure and fatigue. (Each series of written exams lasts five days, with one exam in the morning and one exam in the afternoon. The exams are typically three or four hours long. There are four main series of exams, i.e., groups of schools that uses those exams to rank applicants: the Ecole Centrale group, the Mines group, the Ecole Polytechnique group and the ENSII group. You get a rank for each group of exams you take.)
It would be a complicated system to administer in the U.S., especially since the exam setup in France is supported by a structure of preparatory classes students take for two years after high school - they are not expected to graduate from high school and then blissfully sit through the grandes ecoles entrance exams. This setting doesn't exist in the U.S., but could be created. (It'd be better if it didn't give rise to an entire new cottage industry of prep courses and prep books and pseudo-counselors feeding off parents' anxiety). Another challenge in the US is that students may pursue widely different majors once they have entered a given university, and they won't choose until the end of their freshman or sophomore year - in France the grandes ecoles have a much narrower focus. Finally, this narrower focus reflects a difference in mentality. The U.S. emphasizes well-rounded applicants with a jaw-dropping number of extra-curricular or leadership activities. In France, if you ace the exam (and therefore get a good ranking), you enter the best school that still has openings by the time the officials reach your rank number.
Yet, in the same way that it should be possible to design entrance exams for each college or super-domain (engineering, science, business, humanities) and level the playing field, one would imagine that top companies would be able to design exams for their applicants if they wanted. In fact, consulting companies often do, although they call them "case studies". They try to put would-be employees in the position they'd be in if they got the job, and see how they'd react. Granted, the students who go to the "case study" phase of the recruiting process have already gone past the gatekeepers - meaning, they probably have impressed recruiters already with the name of the university they graduated from. Consulting companies do deserve credit, however, for trying to improve their recruiting process by also encouraging consulting clubs at the universities they recruit from, which allows them to interact early with potential recruits by sponsoring case study competitions and other activities. It is obviously not something all companies can spearhead that sort of initiatives, and students should also feel free to be students in college and not future employees constantly judged by perhaps-bosses. But it all goes to show that there are many more potential options than what people imagine to the problems of matching students with universities and graduates with jobs.
Well, this post is getting enormous and I haven't even reached the special report itself yet, so that'll be for some other time!