cover of book

RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences: Higher Education Effectiveness
edited by Steven G. Brint and Charles T. Clotfelter
Russell Sage Foundation, 2016
Paper: 978-0-87154-992-1

The American system of higher education includes over 5,000 degree granting institutions, ranging from small for-profit technical training schools up to the nation’s elite liberal arts colleges and research universities. Over 20 million students are enrolled, with federal, state, and local governments spending almost 3 percent of GDP on higher education. Yet how can we evaluate the effectiveness of such a large, fragmented system?  Are students being adequately prepared for today’s labor market? Is the system accessible to all? Are new business methods contributing to greater efficiency and better student outcomes?  In Higher Education Effectiveness, editors Steven Brint and Charles Clotfelter and a group of higher education experts address these questions with new evidence and insights regarding the effectiveness of U.S. higher education. 

Beginning with the editors’ authoritative introduction, the contributors assess the effectiveness of U.S. higher education at the national, state, campus, and classroom levels. Several focus on the effects of the steep decline in state funding in recent years, which has contributed to rising tuition at most state universities.  Steven Hemelt and David Marcotte find that the financial burdens of attendance, even at public institutions, is a significant and growing impediment for students from low-income families. John Witte, Barbara Wolfe, and Sara Dahill-Brown analyze 36 years of enrollment trends at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and find increased enrollment of upper-income students, suggesting widening inequality of access.
James Rosenbaum and his coauthors examine the effectiveness of “college for all” policies and find that on a wide range of economic and job satisfaction measures, holders of sub-baccalaureate credentials outperform those who start but do not complete four-year colleges.  Two papers – by Kevin Dougherty and coauthors and Michael Kurlaender and coauthors – find that the use of new regulatory mechanisms such as performance funding and rating systems are plagued by unintended consequences that can provide misleading measures of institutional effectiveness.  Lynn Reimer and co-authors examine the effectiveness of the “promising practices” in STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) promoted by the National Academy of Sciences, and find that they can increase completion rates among low-income, first-generation, and under-represented students.

Expanding college access and effectiveness is a key way to promote economic mobility. The important findings in this issue illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. system of higher education and suggest new avenues for improving student outcomes.

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