Phantom Baccalaureates and the Princeton Review
By Robert Oliphant*
March 29, 2006
The recently released Princeton Review ranking of public and private colleges is simply one more yelp in a barking chorus of hyped up college-admissions hucksters. Anxious parents should therefore take a good look at reputable sources of information like Barron's 1,670-page Profiles of American Colleges for 2005 (26th edition).
Princeton Review, for example, asserts that the best private 4-year college buy for entering freshmen is Brigham Young University in Utah. Via Barron's any parent will discover that BYU enrolls roughly 5,000 freshmen a year (5,331in 2004), only 27% of whom graduate in the customary four years, according to figures compiled by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Logically, then, we should expect BYU to hand out only 1,350 baccalaureates each year as entering students gradually fall by the wayside course-by-course and year-by-year.
Instead, BYU consistently averages a whopping 8,000 baccalaureate degrees awarded each year (7,923 in 2004), as is apparent from previous editions of Barron's. With a logical expectation of only 1,350 BAs per year and an actual productivity of 8,000, BYU appears to be in effect handing out baccalaureate degrees like popcorn to invisible people who smilingly materialize at commencement time.
Where these phantom baccalaureates come from is open to speculation, most of it fruitless in light of the cleverness with which most colleges cover their tracks. North Carolina State, PR's second-ranked public college, simply refuses to make its number of baccalaureate graduates public, as is also the case with the University of California at Santa Barbara, California State University at Dominguez Hills, and many other schools, public and private. In an academic climate like this, less trustfulness and more cynicism are clearly called for, especially on the part of anxious parents.
Getting back to BYU: Barron's lists its full time enrollment as 13,386 men and 13,200 women, with only 1,786 part time men and 1,560 part time women. So there's obviously a lot of people signing up for courses and paying tuition each year, far more than we would expect from such a high-attrition freshman class.
One explanation might be that BYU's large enrollment includes a large number of transfer students from 2-year community colleges, a low-tuition educational route that has been highly praised by both President Bush and Alan Greenspan. But BYU lists only "1217 transfer students enrolled in a recent year" (Barron's, page 1495). So there's little direct evidence to support a "no community college student left behind" hypothesis regarding BYU or other 4-year schools, hundreds of them, who flunk out freshmen and award degrees to strange, mysterious creature on a basis that "does not compute," as the robot in Lost in Space used to put it.
These verifiable factual statements may shock academic purists/ But they certainly represent cheering news for anxious parents, namely, that earning a baccalaureate is far more important and practical than getting into a so-called prestige school as a high-risk potential drop out in a Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island of liquor, drugs, and casual sex.
Remember, education today is primarily a commodity (credits, grades, degrees, fun, etc.). This means that education, good or bad, is something that's bought, sold, and peddled. Learning, on the other hand, is a physical activity performed by flesh and blood human beings who spend their personal-best time reading books, memorizing vocabulary, learning poems by heart, and studying foreign languages.
There's no reason why students and their parents shouldn't read the Princeton Review. Like many works of fiction (P.G. Wodehouse comes to mind) PR is written in a sprightly manner and filled with interesting characters, enough so that it's far from being a complete waste of time - as long as it's not taken seriously.
* Robert Oliphant’s best-known book is “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (Prentice Hall), which was made into an award-winning EMI film (Monte Carlo, US Directors) starring Bette Davis. His best known work for musical theater (music, lyrics, and libretto) is “Oscar Wilde’s Earnest: A Chamber Opera for Eight Voices and Chorus.” He has a PhD from Stanford, where he studied medieval lexicography under Herbert Dean Meritt, and taught there as a visiting professor of English and Linguistics. He currently serves as executive director of The Alliance for High Speed Recreational Reading, and formerly served as executive director of Californians for Community College Equity. A resident of Thousand Oaks, CA, and an overseas Air Force veteran, he is an emeritus professor of English at Cal State Northridge.