Thursday, June 04, 2009

Teaching and Sorting

Via Cold Spring Shops, I ran across this quote from conservative commentator David Frum:

Why are the wages of the college-educated declining? A big part of the answer is that the pool of college graduates is rapidly expanding. It’s not surprising that as college becomes more universal, the return on a college education falls.
As the number of job applicants with degrees rises, employers become more sophisticated in assessing the value of any particular degree. The degree itself matters less than the institution that granted it, the subject areas of concentration, and the grade point average earned. A 4.0 math degree from Cal Tech is a very different thing from a 2.8 communications degree from San Francisco State University.

In a way, it encapsulates a basic philosophical quandary for higher ed. Should our focus be on sorting the strong from the weak, or on making everybody strong?

Frum implies, correctly, that at least some of the wage premium attaching to college degrees comes from their relative scarcity. To the extent that seeing a degree program through to completion bespeaks, say, above-average tenacity and/or intelligence, it serves as a signal to prospective employers.

From that perspective, improving pass rates in developmental classes is actually counterproductive. Frum's position assumes that scarcity is the primary market value of a degree, so it follows logically that making degrees more common makes them less valuable. Anybody who pays attention to the rise of the professional adjunct has to concede that there's at least some truth to this.

From an educator's perspective, though, I'm struck that if Frum is right, then the actual content of what we teach doesn't matter much. (He appends the standard harumphing about The Classics, but it's really ancillary to his argument.) The real work of higher ed happens at the Admissions office. By that standard, community colleges aren't higher ed at all, since we don't exclude. Exclusion, rather than education, is the point. We could make students run through rows of tires on the ground if we wanted to; as long as fewer finish than start, we've done our job. As Thorstein Veblen noted a century ago, the 'signalling' achieved by a liberal arts education is that you're elite enough that you don't actually have to learn anything useful. Any schmuck can make a living with a skill; only the elite can afford to major in philosophy. Get in, get through, and get yours; the actual content of what you study is quite beside the point.

In the cc world, by contrast, the animating assumption is that the content of what we teach is both good in itself and likely to lead to economic growth. Even if degrees lose a certain exclusivity, the social and economic benefits of a more educated citizenry and workforce are likely to outweigh any losses from relative ubiquity. In other words, more educated workers are more productive workers over time. If the first two years of college become more common, this position implies, then we should expect to see more economic growth over time, since people will be more capable of doing more productive things. Content matters. Education, rather than exclusion, is the point. There may be some dislocations on the micro level -- what conservatives in other contexts like to call 'creative destruction' -- but there will be prosperity on the macro level. Put enough skilled and educated people together long enough, and sooner or later, you'll get sparks.

And of course, there are enough triumphs of underdogs to keep us going. Just because your parents aren't loaded doesn't mean you're stupid or without potential. Community colleges are the only realistic starting point for many people, some of whom parlay their hard work here into impressive careers. I'm at a loss to explain why that's a bad thing.

Much follows from which side you're on. If you believe that exclusivity is the point, then colleges built on second chances are debasing the currency. They're cheating. If you believe that education is the point, then giving people second (and third...) chances to bring up their games is an obvious public good, worthy of substantial public support.

From the perspective of exclusivity, something like 'outcomes assessment' just looks like misplaced priorities; it takes content entirely too seriously. From the perspective of education, it's absurd that we haven't been doing a better job of it as a matter of course. If teaching is our core function, why the hell wouldn't we try to improve how we do it? The indifference to the content of education, I think, is behind both the research university model and tenure. Both of those are built on an implied hostility to actual teaching, which makes sense if you assume that actual teaching is beside the point. Teach well or badly, whatever -- the kids will sort themselves out, and the cream will rise to the top. Meanwhile, there's prestige/fame/grant money to chase! Teaching is for adjuncts. We speak of research 'opportunities,' but of teaching 'loads' -- the language tells you what you need to know.

I can't deny that the 'exclusivity' perspective has a long history, a certain internal coherence, and a kind of intuitive appeal for those of us who navigated the system well. It explains market saturation in certain fields, and gives a handy excuse for cutting taxes on the wealthy. But it's wrong, and it's wrong all the way down. At a really fundamental level, either you believe that content matters, or you don't. Either you believe that everybody deserves a real shot, or you don't. Either you believe that education is a common good, or you believe that it's a private good. The rest follows.