NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 6, 2006

Why do Americans do so badly on international educational comparisons and yet support an advanced economy, asks columnist Robert J. Samuelson?

In trying to explain the answer to this riddle, one must first distinguish between the U.S. school system and the American learning system.

The school system is what most people think of as "education," says Samuelson:

  • It consists of 125,000 elementary and high schools and 2,500 four-year colleges and universities; it has strengths (major research universities) and weaknesses -- notably, lax standards.
  • One reason that U.S. students rank low globally is that many don't work hard; in 2002, 56 percent of high school sophomores did less than an hour of homework a night.

The American learning system is more complex, he says:

  • It's mostly post-high school and, aside from traditional colleges and universities, includes community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; and self-help books.
  • To take a well-known example, the for-profit University of Phoenix started in 1976 to offer workers a chance to finish their college degrees; now it has about 300,000 students (half taking online courses and half attending classes in 163 U.S. locations) with an average starting age of 34.

The American learning system has two big virtues, says Samuelson:

It tries to teach people when they're motivated to learn -- which isn't always when they're in high school or starting college.  People become motivated later for many reasons, including maturity, marriage, mortgages and crummy jobs.

Community colleges provide training for local firms and offer courses to satisfy market needs.  There's been an explosion in master's degrees -- most of them work-oriented. From 1971 to 2004, MBAs up 426 percent, public administration degrees, 262 percent, and health degrees, 743 percent.

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, "How We Dummies Succeed," Washington Post, September 6, 2006.

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