Tuesday, March 22, 2011


A Response to a Reader

What follows is a revised email exchange I had with a frequent commenter. I’m posting it here because I think it speaks to issues of interest beyond the two of us.

[commenter]: It seems to me like you're missing a big opportunity. As you've noted, there are a growing number of voices challenging the conventional wisdom on the value of college. Some of these argue that college doesn't do what it advertises, like _Academically Adrift_,and other studies that show how little students learn. Economists demonstrate that the value of a degree boils down to a credential, not what graduates learn. Others use BLS statistics to show what a large percentage of college graduates go on to get jobs that don't require a college degree. There is a growing chorus that American higher ed depends on unsustainable loans--in many ways it resembles the housing bubble of the late 2000s. There are even philosophical arguments like the one in _Shopcraft as Soulcraft_ about rediscovering the value of working with our hands instead of intellectual jobs. These critiques (as you've noted) come from all across the partisan spectrum, from Krugman on the left to Murray on the right--the idea that "the right hates education and the left loves education" is a shallow fantasy that lazy thinkers use to protect themselves from having to address the critiques.

On the other hand, I have yet to hear any coherent response to these critiques, either from you or on IHE, the Chronicle, or in print. I hear lots of "OMG those Tea Partiers are anti-intellectual idiots"--from you, your commenters, and elsewhere. I hear lots of "OMG, if we don't get more money we'll have to change"--from you, your commenters, and elsewhere. But both of those responses totally miss the point. Even if you believe that Scott Walker and all those Tea Partiers who want to take your money are troglodytes (and your posts certainly create that impression), all the sneering in the world can't refute the host of intellectual critiques listed in the previous paragraph. While critics gain in sophistication, evidence, and scope over time, your responses have become progressively less mature--sometimes stunningly so, like the post in which you predicted that the whole state of Wisconsin will wither away because K-12 teachers can only collectively bargain for salary instead of salary and benefits. Or your post about the coming of "carnivorous" higher ed (try comparing Penn State (4% state funding) and UNC-Chapel Hill (31%) and try to find any meaningful difference in the way they treat tenure or the "student faddishness" of their curriculum--if your post is even remotely close to reality, there should be a huge difference, but I bet you don't find one). I say this as someone who has read your blog daily for years, who has learned a lot from you, and is bewildered by your turn away from reason.

You know a lot about higher ed and are skilled at expressing yourself. Instead of bumper-sticker platitudes and sneering about how people who disagree you are stupid, why don't you become a leader in offering intelligent, evidenced, coherent responses to the critiques? Alternatively, since you also believe that higher ed needs reform why don't you become a leader in saying "yes, those critiques are correct, and X is the kind of reform that will fix it, and our fixed/rejuvenated higher ed will deserve more money?" (Yes, you do that with your anti-"seat time" and anti-tenure writings, but you don't connect those points to meeting the critiques in a coherent way) If people like you--who could offer meaningful responses to the critiques--continue to put their head in the sand and insist that if the right people win elections everything will be good again, you're going to wake up one day and find that the (very real) intellectual strength behind the critiques will have swept the field and you (and me) along with it, no matter who gets elected.

I responded:

Thanks for your note.

Your critique is the exact opposite of what I usually get. I'm usually accused -- also falsely -- of being anti-faculty, of wanting to run the college like a corporation, etc. Here, instead, I'm being accused of being an ideological fellow-traveler with the tenured liberals who usually accuse me of being an ideological fellow-traveler with their enemies.

Perhaps I've been unclear.

I've addressed most of the critiques you've outlined: Crawford's book, Academically Adrift, etc. (I've also addressed Kamenetz' DIY U, which, for all its flaws, at least addresses actual alternatives.) I've conceded the truths I've found, and even amplified a few of them. (My review of Academically Adrift was hardly dismissive!) And as you note, I've repeatedly -- even to the exasperation of my core audience -- outlined the flaws in tenure, the credit hour, and the funding models of public higher ed.

(Btw, your point about Chapel Hill and Penn State doesn't persuade me, since both are research universities. Their primary focus is research, and their primary fiscal drivers are research grants and high-profile athletics. They have an entirely different business model than the increasingly tuition-driven cc's I inhabit.)

It should be obvious by now that I'm fumbling towards a more sustainable model. Having worked in both for-profit and public higher ed, I've seen the strengths and flaws of each. I'm trying to figure out a way to take the best of each and construct something that's both durable and worthy of support. And yes, my preference would be to have the existing public institutions remake themselves, rather than having someone else come along from the outside. I remain convinced that, skeptics aside, education adds real value; if I didn’t, I’d go into another line of work. But if it’s going to continue to add value, especially for the folks who don’t start out with a lot of advantages, it’s going to have to change. I'd like the system to bend so it won't have to break.

In that position, I'm vulnerable to the classic critiques of those who try to reform from within. Those who reject the existing structure wonder why I keep trying to save it; those who comfortably inhabit it wonder what I'm always bitching about. Meanwhile, folks with capital and business plans calmly go about establishing successor institutions, quietly but ravenously eating our collective lunch while we argue about intentions and rhetorical tone.

I don't have millions of dollars with which to put out a shingle and start my own alternative. (Any VC's or philanthropies who'd like to take a flyer are invited to contact me directly. I'm not kidding.) And contrary to your characterization, I'm increasingly convinced that even electing the 'right' people won't solve matters, since at their base, the issues are structural. The new crop of Republican governors is clearly making things much worse, but even electing a bunch of thoughtful liberals would only buy time. Eventually, we have to change. My hope is that we can develop worthwhile and sustainable models to change towards, and in the meantime, elect people who will give us the time and resources to do that. It's a narrow strike zone, vulnerable to criticism as idealistic, but as someone who believes in the mission of public higher ed -- even with all the critiques of its structure -- it's where I am.

That's why I'm so impatient with the Tea Party; it seems obvious to me that they simply don't believe in the mission of public higher ed, or public anything else, for that matter. As Grover Norquist memorably put it, they'd like to drown it in the bathtub; that’s exactly what they’re trying to do with NPR. And that's why I sometimes get impatient with folks in public higher ed, who strike me as being in very deep denial. If we're going to survive, we're going to have to admit that the usual playbook -- moral indignation at administrators, mostly -- comes nowhere close to the real issues. If that worked, it would have worked by now. If the Marc Bousquet/Cary Nelson strategy worked, we wouldn't see what we're seeing in Nevada, or Arizona, or California, or New Jersey, or New York, or Texas, or Pennsylvania, or...

My contribution, at this point, is a blog with an audience of smart readers. I use it to crowdsource solutions, at least in concept, to some of these dilemmas. That has obvious limits, and I don't pretend otherwise. There comes a point at which you need to establish some facts on the ground; I hope to get a chance to do that at some point. In the meantime, I hope that my contribution is a space in which smart people of goodwill -- who accept the validity of the premise that an educated citizenry is a public good -- can try to figure out what an ethical, effective, sustainable alternative would look like.

You can call that a flight from reason if you want, or a flight of fancy if you'd rather. I think of it as a gesture of hope.

Wise and worldly readers, I turn to you. Am I on a fool’s errand, or is there hope here?

Have a question? I’m at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Been reading for years and while I do not always agree with DD, I have yet to see a "bumper sticker platitude" or anything resembling sneering or immaturity from him. Makes me wonder if this correspondent and I have been reading the same blog.
DD is terrible at hyperlinking to himself, so I'll do a little bit of it for him.

Thoughts on "Academically Adrift"

Craft and Evidence, his entry on Shop Class As Soulcraft

Thoughts on DIY U

He needs a "best of" link set on the sidebar.
I'm going to grab on to one comment from the OP and expand on it:

Assume that the assertion that the value of college is in the credential and not the education is true.

The cost of a college education can be quantified, and in fact, it's pretty easy. Increased earnings because of that credential can also be measured. Assume both quantities are measured in terms of present value.

Economic Question: As the cost of college becomes equal to the lifetime increase in earnings, (that is, it becomes a zero-sum game) then what is the point of getting a degree? Now, one also has to consider the opportunity cost of being in college for x number of years as well.
Ah, but Anon 6:12, what you describe is, for the type of institution DD administers at, the type of institution that I teach at, and the vast majority of institutions at which students enroll, somewhat of a red herring, at least for the time being. The cost of 6 years (I'm being generous here) at my regional university (mostly commuter students) is ~9K per year. Thus, a cost for 6 years of 54K. If it is the case that those with college degrees earn, on average, approximately 20K per year more than those with just highs school diplomas (http://money.cnn.com/2006/10/25/pf/college/census_degree/index.htm) or, if it is the case that lifetime earning potential is approximately 1 million more with a college degree than without, then clearly that 54K spent on in-state tuition at one's regional university is money well spent, no?
reassigned time, that 20K figure includes selection effects. People earn more money because the characteristics that make them graduate from college are the characteristics that make them succeed in the workplace (showing up, working hard, smarts, etc.).
Here's Krugman on the education-leads-to-economic-success idea. Sadly, it seems to have become a bit of a canard.

I think DD is on to something here. If academia doesn't want to fold in on itself, it needs to take a long hard look at things. Yes, more funding and financial attention would help, but there's much more than that. The benefit-cost ratio of undergraduate education has been declining (at least in the US), and one group that probably doesn't care as much as people think is employers. They're getting pickier about hiring, and a more general, "well-rounded" BA training just won't make the cut anymore. The idea that going to school and working hard by iteslf in your classes will earn you greater short- and long-term salaries and job opportunities is largely becoming a myth. The real path to success is to see what employers and the job market want and will pay high dollar for and pursue whatever that is. This is a big deal in education, and should have more attention paid to it. Once companies start hiring younger folk without any degrees/diploma/credidentials, higher ed's future will become quite uncertain.

As a case in point both the New York Times and Economist had had recent articles questioning the value of law school in the US and PhD studies in general, respectively. These are mainstream publications, not some obscure journals. If academics want to defend the state of higher ed, they'll have to step up and beyond the usual arguments.
I would take anything NY Times says with a grain of rice..
To riff off yesterday's post, perhaps you wouldn't want to date an economist, let alone marry one, but on occasion you might want to buy one a cup of coffee.

In purely economic terms, inframarginal students will invest in education because the expected benefits exceed the expected cost. The marginal, or equilibrium, student (Anon. at 0612) will be indifferent between enrolling and not enrolling. The policy decision is over what standard (allocative efficiency, universal college, four years of delayed entry to the work force) determines the characteristics of that equilibrium student.

JMG at 0919 suggests that when a college degree becomes a requirement for an entry level job in the service industries (something noted inter alia by Paul Krugman and Richard Vedder) perhaps the equilibrium is inefficient. One policy direction might be to, for lack of a better alternative, require the high schools to do their job more effectively.

Reassigned Time at 0702 notes that a regional comprehensive, even operating on tight rations from the state, is still a good deal. It might be an even better deal if, picking up on Anon at 0759, the regional comprehensives identify populations that can finish the job in four years, rather than six.

The flip side of underwriting the regional comprehensives, however, is that people who enter the workforce after high school or two years at community college or technical school are paying taxes to help their neighbors secure higher incomes over a lifetime.

Not easy to choose between two principles, both of which have good and bad features ...
"Once companies start hiring younger folk without any degrees/diploma/credidentials..." Hello, this is already happening. Who's hiring right now? Check the agriculture industry, the meat-packing industry, the construction industry, the landscaping industry. Those "younger folk" are ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS and they make up a huge part of our economy. They don't complain a whole lot and they don't have unions. The fact that THEY have jobs but OTHERS don't is fomenting a lot of unhappiness right now. I teach at a CC and I value education. But the 21st century economy does not.
Like several other respondents, I must admit that I was a bit shocked by the original interlocutor’s choice of words. I don’t much recognize DD in his/her characterization. Moreover, I don’t recognize the validity of the OP’s assumptions, nor of the “real intellectual strength” of the all the members of the quite disparate group of writers he/she cites. For one thing, I would like to remind everyone that the jury is still out on whether a college degree has suddenly become as useless a credential as some argue. Admittedly, many of our recent graduates are having difficulty finding employment – but it does not follow that means that their degrees have lost significant economic value permanently. Frankly, we won’t be able to know this until 30-40 years down the road, when we will be able to compare their investment and total earnings with the lack of investment and total earnings of their peers who did not attend college. Moreover, I am in contact with a number of individuals who received their degrees in the 1960’s – and though many of them did not immediately gain employment that required a college education, they do see their degrees as having been quite valuable (both economically and personally).

Should institutions of higher education seek reform? Of course – always and permanently. It’s what we owe to our students. Does that mean that higher ed is not sustainable? That’s what I don’t see. I don’t think that “higher ed” exists as a totality – that moniker includes too many different types of institutions for the OP’s bromides to be pertinent. Moreover, I’m not too sure right now of the difference between deep structural changes and more immediate political contexts (having to do with who gets elected). Maybe because my state is relatively small, I can point very precisely to the factors that have made budgets so difficult for my institution – and those factors have everything to do with elections and a number of obviously contradictory ballot issues. “Structure” (DD”s word – actually, “structural”) isn’t a given; it’s the result of choices that were made (and that can hopefully be unmade). So I’m still interested in talking about elections!
Like others, I thought some of the characterizations of DD's blog to LOL funny, but that is what makes this place such fun to visit each day.

A few thoughts:

DD, you were a bit too quick to dismiss the lack of difference between a quasi-public (or is it quasi-private) like Penn State and those that get subsidies that can exceed 50% for undergrad programs. Penn State has, to a large extent, almost completed your program with little change, if any, in the things you care about.

The one single institutional change that would improve performance in college classes would be to block all cell signals along with wireless access to Fb and similar sites from laptops within classrooms.

I really wish you would spell out your alternative to the credit hour. How will students transfer, or your institution get accredited, without it?

My business model is to simply give (for a fee) a credential to persons with the characteristics identified by Anon@7:59AM. That is, to a large extent, what high schools are not doing any more. It shouldn't take more than a semester or so to assess those skills, and there is a lot of profit to be made between the costs of one or two semesters and a flat fee that could be set at half of a typical 4-year degree. The only trick is getting it accredited because it, too, would lack traditional one-semester outcomes measures.

My critique is that I think you focus too much on structures and too little on what actually has to change: student attitudes within your college. I've never seen a Dean or President change those, but I have seen them destroyed by 12 years of high school and rebuilt by the faculty who are in the front lines every day. Fight to change your feeder schools and build the morale of your faculty and you might marvel at the results.
FWIW, I'm fairly certain that DD has been thinking about issues from a structural perspective for longer than I've known him. That has been awhile.

Anon @5:21pm has a good point that many structural flaws are in place through choice (perhaps unintentional choices, but still choices). That doesn't make it easier to solve the structural problem, though, or even to agree that there really is a problem. At my res univ I struggle all the time with situations in which we have Person A in place to take care of a situation, rather than processes that can work during "unforeseen" circumstances, such as Person A taking a week of vacation.

My impression is that the original correspondent was looking for more of an organized big picture response to external critics than for specific responses to individual criticisms. While OP may differ politically from DD, they both seem to seek thoughtful solutions that can bring about a sustainable system of higher education. Perhaps one measure of the difficulty is the small number of comments that arise in response to DD's most structural queries? I'd post a link to some, but I'm not as good at the archives as DD's brother.
The unexamined are very much into projection; hence the continual Tea Party complaint that their enemies do not engage with reality, are immature, are disinterested in the good of the country, etc.
@Stephen Karlson, that analysis implies that both risk, imperfect information, and imperfect credit markets do not exist. Risk can kind of be crammed into a marginal analysis framework. Imperfect information and credit are total violations of Marshallian economics, and situations with lots of those (such as the education market) should be considered to be entirely outside that framework.
The commenter you are attempting to respond to is a moronic moron and you will never satisfy him. Just keep on doing what you're doing, which is a fine job, some of the best commentary on the subject around.
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