Tuesday, September 14, 2010

 

When We Say “College,” We Don’t Mean You...

Sigh. The New York Times strikes again. This time it’s with a four-part colloquy of important people discussing “why are colleges so selective?”

How is someone at a community college supposed to read the question “why are colleges so selective?”

a. ironically
b. as a direct slap in the face
c. as yet another indication of just how provincial the New York Times is
d. all of the above

To explain the Times’ thinking, I’ll trot out my old friend, the syllogism. Colleges are selective. Community colleges are not selective. Therefore, community colleges are not colleges.

Grrrr.

Honestly, sometimes reading the Times I channel my inner Lou Ferrigno. “HULK SMASH PUNY RECORDING SECRETARY OF RULING CLASS!” What’s the difference between the New York Times and David Hasselhoff? One is a pathetic joke, and the other is David Hasselhoff. This story is so bad, it almost makes me long for the only-mildly-embarrassing musings of Stanley Fish.

Honestly.

I couldn’t really expect them to acknowledge the existence of community colleges. There are only 1100 or so of them in the U.S., enrolling just under half of the entire undergraduate population of the country. By contrast, there are over seven schools in the Ivy League alone!

Of the four -- count ‘em! -- contributors to the “dialogue,” only one, Jane Wellman, even bothers to note the existence of non-elite colleges. Only one -- Stephen Trachtenberg -- has actually worked in college administration. It goes without saying that none of the four works at a community college.

Lest this be written off as status anxiety, I’ll note that I’m a graduate of one of the colleges the authors actually name. Been there, done that, graduated with honors, thanks. It’s not about sour grapes, and don’t even try to get all ad hominem on me. I got my hand stamped.

It’s about objecting to elite provincialism. Put differently, it’s about acknowledging reality.

From this story, you’d think the greatest challenge facing students today is too much perfectionism. If only! Most of our students require developmental math. Perfectionism is the least of our problems.

Here’s a thought. Instead of wringing our hands over the poor lost souls who miss out on Dartmouth and have to settle for Bucknell -- oh, the humanity! -- let’s send some fraction of that money and time and money and focus and money to the institutions that actually educate most Americans: the non-elite publics. That would mean community colleges, and it would also mean most of the four-year state colleges. You know, the backbone of the middle fucking class. Those schools. The ones that actually compete with the for-profits, and that provide the best hope for most people. The ones that have taken draconian cuts even while their enrollments have risen. Those.

Hell, while we’re at it, let’s make a point of generating enough math teachers so that every state in the country can require four years of math in high school. Get the public K-12 system up to basic competence, and see what happens. Yes, it might lead to even more competition for the elite colleges, as all those talented-but-lower-income kids finally get a chance to shine, but frankly, that’s a problem worth having. And if we can fund public higher ed the way it should be funded, it will provide plenty of capacity for the strong students who didn’t get into Princeton. Speaking for my math department, I’ll attest confidently that we’d be happy -- thrilled! -- to add more sections of differential equations. Bring ‘em on! The English department would be more than happy to run more upper-level literature electives. Admissions would be thrilled to process more AP credits. We can handle this problem.

Elite college angst isn’t a symptom of the human condition. It’s a direct and predictable consequence of class polarization. You know, the kind of class polarization in which it never even occurs to some people that some colleges aren’t selective. Because they don’t mean to include those when they say ‘college.’ The kind in which other classes are so far removed as to become simply invisible. The kind in which you’d convene a group to discuss college admissions without once mentioning open-admissions institutions. That kind.

I’m tired of watching mysteriously-annointed experts solve the wrong problem. Times, if you’re the least bit serious about higher education -- a colossal ‘if,’ I’ll admit -- would it actually, physically kill you to acknowledge the colleges to which most Americans go? And when you do, could it please be in the same section of the paper as the stories about safety schools and selective admissions? The blind, smug elitism is really getting to be a bit much, even for you. Community colleges are news fit to print, too. Honestly.

Comments:
I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the problems with the NYT: "it’s about acknowledging reality."

When your industry is dying and you have no idea how to change the business model, fantasy is all that is left.
 
I, like many others, have taken great pleasure and amusement in reading the NYT's cultural coverage over the years. Oh my dear lord.

As one internet wag put it, "New York Times trend pieces are the knock-knock jokes of journalism." ("Three hipsters in Park Slope are wearing tutus in a bar! It must be a trend! Let's write a long article about how it's sweeping the nation!")

Missing the point is what the cultural squad of the NYT does. It's their bag.

I have chosen to find it charming.
 
1. Newspapers exist to make money.
2. Money depends on ad revenue, and ad revenue depends on reader demographics.
3. This whole "college is too selective!" thing actually does seem like a problem to the sort of people who read the NY Times every day. It's what's known as a "trend story" that is intended to speak to the newspaper's primary readership - it is not "news" and the NY Times itself would not call it "news."

Until I went to graduate school, I'd never laid eyes on a New York Times, not that I recall. And let's note that I was editor of my high school newspaper and a journalism major for half of my undergraduate career. Not a single person I knew read it, not a single friend's family and not a single friend of my parents. The NY Times is not talking to people who see community college or a non-flagship state university as the most their children can or should achieve. Really, it's as simple as that.
 
This works really nicely with Historiann's recent post on the NYTimes coverage of the rising cost of college: http://www.historiann.com/2010/09/12/the-net-effect-of-the-high-cost-of-higher-ed-argument/ .

Though she's pointing out that they don't acknowledge the costs of public 4 year institutions. Both her argument and yours are made stronger by including both community colleges and state schools.
 
NYTimes: "Why is the recession not affecting the college market, the way it has the housing market, consumer spending and other economic sectors? "

Me 1: Because it is easier to borrow money to go to college than to do any of those other things.

(Defining "college" to mean "elite private universities", within the scope of this article.)

Me 2: Because the upper 0.1% income group, the ones paying a fortune to spread lies about whose taxes would go up under the Obama tax cut plan, have not been affected at all by the depression we just survived.

Snark Me 3: I LOL'd to see someone from Ohio University in that group.
 
I wonder what a venn diagram of Time's contributors and individuals who went to community college would look like... Ok, I don't wonder. Tiny sliver at best.

In fairness, at least the 'rich poor gap widens' one isn't hopelessly tone deaf. But they are all snippets. College is very hard if you can't read more than a few paragraphs at a time.
 
Thanks for this post. I am a proud graduate of a 4-year state college and a NYT reader. Their utter, willful blindness to the economic and social reality in which most Americans live is astounding.
 
Can I just say that I love reading your blog? You always write about timely, interesting topics and do so in an intelligent, balanced perspective.

Your outrage over this issue, in my opinion, is completely warranted. The community college system is so misunderstood and unappreciated. I am one of the many who grew up thinking that community colleges were for the "less thans" and that they offered very "less than" education. Many years later I found myself employed by one of these very institutions and spent four years learning how very wrong I had been.

I have nothing but respect and appreciation for all that the community colleges do. In my state, there is no way that higher education could survive without them. Even though I now work for a private, not-for-profit university, I still find myself frequently referring students to them when I feel, based on a variety of factors, that they would receive a superior educational experience there.
 
Amen! I went to one of those public 4-year state schools, and not the "premier" campus. I got a better undergrad education in computer science than any of my fellow grad students in a much bigger and better funded program elsewhere, mainly because of the passion and dedication of my undergrad professors.

But without the prestige undergrad degree, I'm not worth the NY Times' notice.

Yeesh.
 
This line says it all about how out of touch the authors are "low and middle income families -- for those making less than $100,000 a year."

Since when has 100K been middle income?
 
I'm supposedly the NYT's prime audience for this article: upper middle class, Ivy undergrad, PhD (though from a state school) and currently employed as a researcher in another Ivy. Yet every time I read one of their social/cultural articles like this, I realize that I'm not. Watch the NYT next week for an article on how locations for debutante balls are selective.
 
Once I realized that the entire purpose of the NYT is to sell ad space in its Fashion section -- seriously, that's what funds the paper -- a lot of things made a lot more sense to me.
 
Unfortunately, this 'provincial' problem is throughout the US. In the SF Bay Area the only schools are Cal Berkeley (a state school ironically) and Stanford. You'd have virtually no idea of the other six 4-year public universities or dozens of high-performing community colleges in the region by reading the SF Chronicle or (San Jose) Mercury News.

I think where the NY Times really missed it's mark is the same line for politics, "its the economy stupid!" With 35%+ unemployment for those under 25, which the NYT itself reported, going back to school is a better option than playing X-Box at home. Unfortunately, most of the kids doing so will fund their education through loans.

I appreciate the rant. This is another vital piece of our country that's falling to Reaganomics and 'no new taxes'.
 
It's not just the Times; it's endemic. Look at this recent piece in The Economist (http://www.economist.com/research/articlesBySubject/displaystory.cfm?subjectid=14391731&story_id=16941775), in which college means elite colleges and universities. Or this post (http://organizationsandmarkets.com/2010/09/12/in-defence-of-l%e2%80) in a management blog, which speaks longingly of a world in which universities are "totally dedicated to basic research." And that's just in the past week.

And all of this is nostalgia for a world that never--ever--existed. (Most of the Ivies, in the '20s, '30s. '40s, and even '50s, were places where the undergrads were puching a ticket. not learning anything...expensive and prestigious, yes, but not especially rigorous institutions of higher learning...)
 
Hell, while we’re at it, let’s make a point of generating enough math teachers...

Where is this magical place that can afford to hire more math teachers in this economy? Assuming it's safe to take the bus at night there (note: I have a pretty broad definition of where it's safe to take mass transit, including, say, Oakland) and they pay a living wage, I'd be happy to move! I really don't see this as a "supply" problem, at least not locally and in this economy.
 
I'll just have to pipe up and agree with the commenter who said that stories about community colleges don't attract readers to the NYT.

I cut my teeth at a community college where I dual-enrolled my senior year. They do have a valuable mission, but I will say that anybody who is considering a highly selective college likely isn't considering a CC.

Stories about highly selective colleges sell. It's a simple as that.
 
I hope you'll send them an op-ed piece or at least a letter to the editor.
 
Excellent post, as usual!

Talking about "elite colleges" when most people will never see the inside of one is, itself, a "lifestyles" piece. And, really, that is what the Times is about these days, if it's about anything at all.

No wonder it and most print newspapers are dying.

Anon 3:43: "When your industry is dying and you have no idea how to change the business model, fantasy is all that is left." Well said! And it means that, really, the Times is just a higher-rent version of Faux News: both are in the business of fantasy. The Times clings to a vision of the world in which boys from Skull and Bones rule the world, while Faux News is for white men who want the world to rewind to the 1950's, or their whitewashed memories (or received memories) of it.

It makes me think of the time shortly after 9.11 when I went to a town along the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border for a funeral. It had once been a thriving industrial area, but it had become a warren for men (and, in a few cases, women) who were angry and resentful that they had lost their place in the world.

The stores along the main street were all shuttered, with one exception: one that sold sports memorabilia. Its patrons were all clinging to the past glories of their teams, which, like them and their town, were in decline.
 
FFS. You want to send your kids to more selective schools and then you get mad that they are selective? You want schools that are high-prestige and then get mad when they do things to raise their level of prestige? You want schools with fancy amenities and then get mad when they charge for them? I wish all the people who say what they want is to send their kids to a place like community college (not selective, affordable, teachers who spend all their time teaching) would actually send their kids to community college. Then the community college system (since it would have more rich people in it) might get some of the funding it deserves. But no, they have to send their kids to prestigious, selective schools and then complain that they are not community colleges. Headdesk.
 
Thanks for the post!
 
Excellent post Dean. I too am employed at a community college and every day I come across very talented students that are both well off and not so well off. We have "elites" too. But not according to elitists. Only those that go to a handful of schools ever get the attention. I'll have to bookmark this site.
 
Great post! I briefly taught at a CC and would love to do so again. I prefer that student population to the "selective" schools in my area.
 
And wasn't there a news report today that most companies hire from the large state universities and not the Ivies. . . . because students are better prepared. And don't many state university students start their careers at community colleges?
 
Since when has 100K been middle income? For the last 10 years, in places where the median price of a home is in the 600-700k range (think coastal).
 
Kelly, the link to the Wall Street Journal report is at Tax Prof. Six of the top 20 are Big Ten universities and the majority of the top 25 are state flagship campuses. The article strongly suggests that large corporations are interested in fit as well as in preparation. I attempt to square the corporate preferences with Dean Dad's beef. To some extent, the corporations are not interested in academic preparation per se, but their interest in properly socialized middle managers might not be to the benefit of people from less well-to-do backgrounds.
 
Median household income nationally is about $50,000 so any view that $100,000 is "middle" reflects a very provincial view of reality (and perhaps the tax code). The states with the highest median income are Maryland and New Jersey at about $70,000, followed by Connecticut.

However, this detailed wiki map shows the only places that approach a "middle" income of $100,000 are individual counties in -- drum roll please -- the belt between NYC and WashDC served by the NY Times!
 
This stuff has to get out there. Cutting education after the disastrous 1970s for the Plutocrats was absolutely imperative. GI Bill and two generations of educated middle-class Americans took so much power away from the Top 1%. Jim Crow got shut down. How divide and rule?
Vietnam got shut down. Clean Air and Clean Water got passed. You've got to know the name Lewis Powell and you've got to tell all the educators. This is no joke starving educators of money by the very people who control most of the money!

http://www.truth-out.org/100109A#1

http://reclaimdemocracy.org/corporate_accountability/powell_memo_lewis.html
 
I don`t go to college, so I can`t say anything about it.

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The blogger's rant seems entirely aimed at the headline. It doesn't seem to bear any relation to the actual NY Times piece.

Of the four contributors, one (Wellman) writes entirely about the need for public investment in education outside the elite private institutions (which seems to be the blogger's gripe).

Two (Trachtenberg and Vedder) address the reasons for the "trickle-down" effect that has resulted from previously "accessible" universities now being able to be more "selective", and address why this is a problem for the middle classes (because a "prestigious" college education is, rightly or wrongly, essential for decent employment).

Only one contributor (Taylor) writes about what could be described as "Elite college angst".

The blogger feels insulted that the Times uses the term "college" but doesn't include non-selective community colleges within this term. Perhaps the Times should have phrased it as "Why is it so hard to get into a college that is funded sufficiently to produce excellent educational outcomes?" But that's a bit too long for a pithy headline or lede.

This guy just seems to have a chip on his shoulder that community colleges don't get treated equally by the Times. If this blog reflects the level of scholarship that one can expect from the dean of a community college, then they don't deserve to.
 
I am more in Ian's camp, so far, than all the other comments and the original post.

First, look at the stats of today's entering freshman class at the top 50 schools or so. In terms of GPA and scores (and NGOs they've founded), they've never been so credentialed. (The US university with the most apps, UCLA, has an entering class with an average GPA of 4.3 or so, on a 4 point scale.) I understood that to be the issue under debate. I kind of think the answers are not so complicated, which is why a couple of debaters say basically the same thing, but where this gives Dean Dad grounds to say the NYTimes is clueless is unclear. No one is disputing, explicitly or otherwise, whatever positive roles the CCs and non-elite schools play; the 300 words or so each author gets for their last word don't give much room to be comprehensive.

Second, should CC's be part of any full discussion of higher ed supply and demand? Should secondary ed be better and smarter funded? Are taxpayers and state legislators dropping the ball more or less all around? Of course. No one of the NYTimes correspondents is saying otherwise. Why not pick a fight with those who are?

p.s. I think the reference to "middle class" was misunderstood. The point was that the elite schools with so-called need blind admissions are now much more affordable to even upper middle class families than in past years. Of course some schools are starting to back off in some respects in response to the hit their endowments took a year back, such as Reed and Williams (for international students). Some state schools are also doing commendable jobs extending access: I believe kids from households earning less than about $60k won't have any college expenses if admitted to the University of California.

On another cost point emphasized by some commentors, higher ed costs are up partly because higher ed, or almost any ed, is labor intensive. (Surely Dean Dad has pointed this out somewhere.) Labor costs go up faster than other costs. And faculty in some fields have more options than in past generations, as work has become more white collar. (This is the same explanation for why government costs rise faster than inflation.) Historiann makes the same point differently.
 
I am more in Ian's camp.

First, look at the stats of today's entering freshman class at the top 50 schools or so. In terms of GPA and scores (and NGOs they've founded), they've never been so credentialed. (UCLA's entering class has an average GPA of 4.3 or so, on a 4 point scale.) I understood that to be the issue under debate. I kind of think the answers are not so complicated, which is why a couple of debaters say basically the same thing, but where this gives Dean Dad grounds to say the NYTimes is clueless is unclear. No one is disputing, explicitly or otherwise, whatever positive roles the CCs and non-elite schools play; the 300 words or so each author gets for their last word don't give much room to be comprehensive.

Second, should CC's be part of any full discussion of higher ed supply and demand? Should secondary ed be better and smarter funded? Are taxpayers and state legislators dropping the ball more or less all around? Of course. No one of the NYTimes correspondents is saying otherwise. Why not pick a fight with those who are?

p.s. I think the reference to "middle class" was misunderstood. The point was that the elite schools with so-called need blind admissions are now much more affordable to even upper middle class families than in past years. Of course some schools are starting to back off in some respects in response to the hit their endowments took a year back, such as Reed and Williams (for international students). Some state schools are also doing commendable jobs extending access: I believe kids from households earning less than about $60k won't have any college expenses if admitted to the University of California.

On another cost point emphasized by some commentors, higher ed costs are up partly because higher ed, or almost any ed, is labor intensive. (Surely Dean Dad has pointed this out somewhere.) Labor costs go up faster than other costs. And faculty in some fields have more options than in past generations, as work has become more white collar. (This is the same explanation for why government costs rise faster than inflation.) Historiann makes the same point differently.
 
I am more in Ian's camp.

First, look at the stats of today's entering freshman class at the top 50 schools or so. In terms of GPA and scores (and NGOs they've founded), they've never been so credentialed. (UCLA's entering class has an average GPA of 4.3 or so, on a 4 point scale.) I understood that to be the issue under debate. I kind of think the answers are not so complicated, which is why a couple of debaters say basically the same thing, but where this gives Dean Dad grounds to say the NYTimes is clueless is unclear. No one is disputing, explicitly or otherwise, whatever positive roles the CCs and non-elite schools play; the 300 words or so each author gets for their last word don't give much room to be comprehensive.

Second, should CC's be part of any full discussion of higher ed supply and demand? Should secondary ed be better and smarter funded? Are taxpayers and state legislators dropping the ball more or less all around? Of course. No one of the NYTimes correspondents is saying otherwise. Why not pick a fight with those who are?

p.s. I think the reference to "middle class" was misunderstood. The point was that the elite schools with so-called need blind admissions are now much more affordable to even upper middle class families than in past years. Of course some schools are starting to back off in some respects in response to the hit their endowments took a year back, such as Reed and Williams (for international students). Some state schools are also doing commendable jobs extending access: I believe kids from households earning less than about $60k won't have any college expenses if admitted to the University of California.

On another cost point emphasized by some commentors, higher ed costs are up partly because higher ed, or almost any ed, is labor intensive. (Surely Dean Dad has pointed this out somewhere.) Labor costs go up faster than other costs. And faculty in some fields have more options than in past generations, as work has become more white collar. (This is the same explanation for why government costs rise faster than inflation.) Historiann makes the same point differently.
 
whoops. kept getting an error message that the URI was too large, so I edited down. But they all posted. Perhaps the blog owner can delete this note and the extras.
 
“They should learn that there is no provincialism so blatant as that of the metropolitan who lacks urbanity.” - Time magazine contra Harold Ross, 1925.
 
As I've said elsewhere the NYT treats the lives of the upper-middle-class target demographic as sociology, and the lives of those worse off as anthropology.
 
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