Monday, May 27, 2013


Thoughts on College (Un)Bound

“These free courses developed by elite institutions that serve tens of thousands of students at a time will likely become the content provider for the core courses that every college offers.  By using online materials to power these face-to-face courses, colleges can accommodate more students with the same number of instructors or spend their limited resources on top professors teaching the courses best presented in a physical classroom.”  -- Jeff Selingo, College (Un)Bound, p. 178

What’s a “top professor”?  And on what basis should we assume that “elite institutions” offer the best instruction, particularly for introductory courses?

Jeff Selingo’s new book skims smoothly over a panoply of current issues in higher ed.  It would make a great introduction for a “current issues” course for folks who haven’t been paying attention. It makes a great summary of the kinds of topics that draw a lot of attention at conferences.  But for those of us in the trenches, it feels oddly removed.

I’ve written before on Selingo’s confusion of a graduation rate with an individual student’s chance of success.  It’s a basic category error, but one that undergirds much of his analysis.  It’s the kind of mistake that flatters the elites, since by dint of an exclusionary admissions process, they’re able to buy high completion rates.  

Much of the book suffers from the same flaw.  It naturalizes the prestige hierarchy of higher ed, and assumes that the changes to come will be on terms favorable to the current elites.  The Harvards and Williamses of the world can keep on doing what they’re doing; disruptive change is for the proles.

The quote above demonstrates the problem.  If we’re looking at “core courses,” on what basis should we assume that an institution that hires faculty on the basis of research, and that treats intro courses as a sort of dues-paying, would do a better job on, say, Intro to Psychology than would an institution that hires faculty based on teaching ability, and that defines teaching as the core of the job?  It’s possible that a research superstar is also a gifted teacher, of course, but it’s far from tautological.  And anybody who has taught in both exclusive and non-exclusive settings can tell you that a style that can work in an exclusive setting can crash and burn in a more inclusive one.

Going to the next step, how, exactly, do you expect the community colleges of the world to react to the prospect of outsourcing their core function to Harvard faculty with webcams?  

I was struck, in Selingo’s book, at the ratio of university presidents quoted to, say, faculty.  It’s a very top-down view, in which solving the problems identified by elites is taken to be an unproblematic good.  

I don’t think any of that is malicious.  It’s a well-meaning attempt to make sense of the world, based on input gathered rom the conference circuit and brief campus visits.  Community college travel budgets being what they are, the conference circuit is dominated by a predictable cast of characters.  It leans in a specific direction, by default.  Those of us embedded on campuses see things that aren’t necessarily visible from the Washington Hilton.

For example, at elite institutions, the lowest-level math class is usually Calculus I.  At community colleges, it’s usually College Algebra, which leads to Pre-Calc, which leads to Calc I for the students who go that far.  Most don’t, and aren’t required to.  Based on that, where are we likeliest to find the best College Algebra instructors?  And -- more basically -- what are the most effective ways of teaching that level of material to college students?  (Hint: they don’t involve watching videos.)

Or, take English.  The majority of community college students place into developmental English.  (The levels and definitions vary -- some separate “reading” and “writing,” for instance, and some don’t.)  Very few Williams students do.  Developmental English is intensely interactive, and it has to be; you don’t learn to write by hearing other people talk about it.  You read, write, get feedback, discuss, and write some more.  

Selingo’s willingness to accept that all things elite are good leads to some weird discontinuities in the book.  For example, he correctly highlights the tuition cost spiral of the last decade as a serious issue.  But he doesn’t differentiate by sector, or distinguish price from cost; as a result, the bloated increases at private research universities are lumped together uncritically with the flatlined budgets of community colleges.  In the “solutions” section, a similar myopia holds.  For example, he highlights study abroad and the Cornell New York CIty graduate campus as positive.  Um, okay, but those are both expensive as hell.  (And since the Cornell NYC campus won’t have any undergraduates, the grad students there will get even less development as instructors than they already do, and that’s saying something.) The one community college highlighted in the “solutions” section is lauded for a career-prep dual enrollment program that, in Selingo’s words, leaves out a lot of “distractions like sports teams and other extracurricular activities.”  The proles have to get right to work.  Meanwhile, the elites will gallivant around the world, becoming the global citizens that their lessers will never be.

The shame of it all is that Selingo has the opportunity to make a real contribution.  He has a platform, he has access to all sorts of people, and he writes well.  With some serious thought to class stratification, this could have been much more useful than it is.

Selingo is probably substantially correct in his assumption that without a conscious effort, the drift of change will be to deepen and ratify existing class stratification.  But for those of us who live in the trenches, that’s an extraordinary missing of the point.  We don’t need to be told that drift will lead to more of Billie Holiday’s warning that “them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose.”  We know that.  The point is to figure out ways to prevent that, to allow more people -- and preferably everyone -- an opportunity to develop potential that may not have been obvious from the outside.  The point is not to leave Harvard alone while gutting Bunker Hill Community College.  That would be defeat.

Yes, cost is a real issue.  The real trick is in figuring out ways to make genuinely effective education economically sustainable on a mass basis.  That’s the important question.  How can new technological options result in better outcomes at community colleges?  How can the open-admissions public sector -- both two-year and four-year -- do a better job fulfilling its mission in the face of political and economic headwinds?  

Selingo and I probably agree on some of the specifics.  Regular readers know that I’m no fan of the credit hour, and that I think Baumol’s cost disease has been badly neglected in most accounts of how we got here and why it’s so hard to change.  I’m right there with Selingo on that.  We agree that the 15 week semester is, at best, an ad hoc construct, rather than a fact of nature.  I see no reason not to experiment with different calendars for different purposes.  And I suspect we’d agree that an educated citizenry is crucial for a functioning democracy.  

I read once that it’s unfair to criticize a book for not being the book you would rather have read.  So okay, this one does a nice job of glossing the worldview of the people who attend lots of national conferences.  We’re still missing the book that takes the paragraph above as a starting point, rather than an afterthought.  This is not that book.

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