Monday, May 23, 2011

“Higher Education Sucks, But My College is Great!”

It’s a commonplace that Americans hate Congress, but love their individual Representatives. Some of that has to do with the kind of residential self-selection Bill Bishop wrote about in The Big Sort, and some has to do with patronage/favors, but I suspect much of it is a function of the difference between an abstraction and a person.

The same dynamic holds with something like “government spending.” Americans hate “government spending,” but they also hate specific budget cuts. To the extent that they even acknowledge the gap, they try to explain it with ritualistic invocations of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” as if that amounts to enough to matter; at the end of the day, there’s a general consensus that “something for nothing” represents a good deal. (If you prefer to reverse the politics, something similar holds for the very wealthy. Americans suspect “the rich” of all manner of corruption, even as they fall all over themselves to admire specific billionaires.)

Higher education is starting to fall into the same paradox. There’s an increasingly open skepticism about college as an economic racket, at the exact same time that enrollments are at record highs. The same polls that indicate a simmering resentment of higher education in general show high levels of satisfaction with particular colleges.

The disconnect between ideology and lived experience can lead to terrible policies if taken literally. The challenge facing those of us who care about higher education is to avoid falling into the trap of over-valuing what people say, and under-valuing what people actually do.

My sense, very much like Tim Burke’s, is that a category like “higher education” obscures as much as it clarifies. Harvard, the University of Minnesota, the University of Phoenix, Philadelphia Bible College, and Bronx Community College all fall under the category of “higher education,” as different as they are. Popular discussions of, say, climbing walls as drivers of tuition increases are utterly irrelevant in most of the for-profit and community college worlds. Complaints about state budget cuts have a great deal of validity for state and community colleges, but are largely irrelevant to most of the private colleges. Sports may be a religion at Texas Tech; not so much at Cal Tech. (At Proprietary U, every year represented another undefeated season.) College may be a four-year party at some second-tier residential colleges; it absolutely is not at colleges with large numbers of adult students with jobs and kids. Even complaints about “administrative bloat” seem to have validity in much of the four-year sector, but are mostly misplaced in the community college world.

With that much variety, it’s entirely possible that someone who attends, say, a huge state university with a high-profile sports program chose it for precisely that reason. That person may resent invisible professors -- or may not care -- and not mind at all the four-year party. A working Mom who chooses a community college night program might find the entire discussion of the four-year party utterly alien.

With such disparities hidden under a single category, too literal a reading of poll results could lead to destructive conclusions. Yes, Rich Kid Private College may have a lavish student center; does that mean we should cut funding for community colleges? Yes, some for-profits took advantage of legal loopholes to exploit financial aid; does that mean we should layer new regulations on public colleges?

My sense of it is that the sector that’s in real trouble is the expensive-but-not-selective, “nothing special” private colleges. A pricey, tuition-driven college without distinction or a clear niche represents a weak value proposition in a tough market. That’s true whether the college is for-profit or not. A clear niche could mean exclusivity, or a specific programmatic strength, or a strong religious identity. Being okay at a whole lot of things doesn’t justify thirty thousand a year, especially when public options are available for a fraction of the cost.

Public crankiness manifested in polls is not matching public behavior manifested in enrollments. The former matters, but the latter says quite a bit. Let’s not mistake a response to a sloppy question for a definitive answer.