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GLOBAL: Praised for access, slammed for lower quality

The demand for seats in colleges and universities continues to grow across the globe. Parents and their offspring see tertiary education as the path to greater economic, personal and social opportunities that follow receipt of a degree. With the exception of institutions topping the league tables, the majority of colleges and universities earnestly struggle to provide seats to meet this increasing demand. More students are served and not incidentally more revenue is earned.

Higher education has a labour intensive production function that does not lend itself to the productivity gains enjoyed in other industries. Their increasing operational cost must be met with sufficient offsetting revenue each year. Enrolling more students is a relatively easy and popular way to balance budgets. In aggregate, the incoming class lacks the quality of earlier intakes.

Yet while politicians and celebrity pundits applaud these same institutions for responding to increased demand they are simultaneously derided.

The majority of higher education institutions across the globe are at the same time encouraged and condemned regarding two inextricably related issues - the relative porousness of their admissions standards and the perceived impact on institutional quality.

Both issues were addressed in the same news item in a recent University World News report. El Salvador's only public and most selective institution admitted 1,000 more students than in the previous year. The government had responded to increasing demand for seats in its high quality, low tuition institution.

It was also noted that there was an accompanying concern that the intake's aggregate test scores did not exhibit the same quality as in previous years. Institutional quality was seen as being in decline. The Salvadorian critics joined the chorus of naysayers in many countries that annually decry the massification and accompanying perceived aggregate quality decline as more seats are added.

There is wide support for greater tertiary-level access. It is in accord with many nations' core social values. Many parents, students and human capital pundits encourage both the majority of public and private institutions to maintain an open door or at least continue to moderate their admission policies.

Institutions appear willing to provide more seats. On the surface, this is a win-win-win for potentially qualified students, the institutions and host economy. Given the opportunity, the individual will surely fulfill her/his aspirations, institutions will accomplish their missions and the economy with flourish.

The concerns expressed should not be summarily written off as academic elitism. Unfortunately, subsequent realities do not support the projected positive outcomes once students are enrolled and begin their studies. The initial scorn that frequently accompanies increased intakes is too often validated by drop-outs, disappointing graduation rates and heavy debt borne.

The critics justifiably ask why do so many admitted students drop out or otherwise fail to graduate in the expected timeframe. Their frequent answer is that the institutions are failing to provide enough support.

I suggest that a complementary answer may be in the distribution of ability, disposition and promise for potential success represented in each annual intake that tertiary institutions compete for their admission's cycle.

The quality of past intakes revealed in transcripts and entrance examination scores serve as convenient benchmarks. Competing institutions presumably have culled from the aggregate college entry population those students meeting or exceeding their existing admission standards. Unless there has subsequently been greater growth in the college entry cohort, the rivalry to fill seats automatically promotes lowering admission standards and the accompanying devaluation in the aggregate perceived quality of each new intake.

This chorus of critics supplies their own simplistic and self-serving answer: once students are admitted, these errant institutions do not do enough to facilitate student persistence and success; otherwise, they would progress through their degree programmes in the expected and timely manner. The question is what constitutes 'enough'.

In their defence, many institutions point to an array of remedial programmes designed to accommodate students who have been shortchanged in their previous educational, economic and social experience.

Institutional expenditures, frequently offset by tuition charges - for developmental education, tutoring, counselling and related support services - document their efforts to provide the 'enough' in order to facilitate student persistence and success. While expenditure cannot perfectly correlate with programme effectiveness or efficiency, the commitment is well documented in many institutional budgets.

I am not an elitist, but question the ideal that a college education should be available to all. Rather, higher education should be available to all who can benefit. The question is determining ability, and I might add the disposition to benefit.

The problem is that our metrics for accurately identifying students with the minimal ability to benefit are grossly inaccurate. In egalitarian societies, open admission institutions have pushed the limits of the left tail of the normal distribution in their pursuit of accessibility while simultaneously balancing their budgets.

The cynic in me suggests a self-serving rationale. The more students enrolled the more revenue earned under the guise of a core national, albeit irrational, value. As increasing numbers of less capable students are enrolled, the more remedial education revenue is earned. On the surface, the institutions do good by doing good.

More does not always produce the desired results. In the drive for greater tertiary attendance the US and other developed countries have netted negative unintended consequences: drop-outs, under-employment and a heavy debt burden for both the individual and taxpayers in general.

Going deeper into the left tail of the college age distribution ultimately ill serves all constituencies. The metrics employed - high school transcript augmented with various standardised, local placement examinations, admission essays and one or more interviews - fall short of assessing the applicant's attitudes and dispositions that also influence persistence.

Until we have more refined proxies for determining a student's potential, those on the sidelines should continue their encouragement and refrain from their criticism. Perhaps we should remember that everyone has the right to succeed or fail.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice-dean of SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.
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