Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Organic, Free-Range College

A comment by Dictyranger last week, combined with a few articles dealing with very different experiences of college by economic class, got me thinking.

In addressing the trend towards adjunctification, Dicty suggested that colleges that shun the trend could some up with some sort of Good Housekeeping Seal to use as a marketing tool. If Iskabibble State somehow kept its f-t faculty ratio above, say, 90%, then it could market itself as Organic Free-Range Certified, or whatever they'd call it. Whether enough parents and students would care enough to pay the economic premium to cover the costs would be sorted out in the marketplace. Colleges that don't want to take that gamble could continue on down the path of cost-cutting.

The New York Times had a piece on “willowy” “amazing girls” who strive to be “effortlessly hot,” who take six or seven AP classes and star in school plays and angst over whether they get into Bowdoin. Their dilemma is in balancing the teenage quest for identity ('keeping it real') and the quest for the perfect college application. Their public high school – in Newton, Mass – teaches Kierkegaard and Aeschylus and calculus and Latin. Their parents urge both relaxation and perfect grades, and just shrug off the contradiction.

The Albuquerque Tribune had a piece about an initiative in New Mexico, supported by the governor, to increase high school graduation rates by infusing community college classes into the high school graduation requirements. The thinking, as near as I can tell, is that raising the academic bar in high school will prevent boredom, which, I guess, they assume drives dropouts. I'll admit, the connection between 'problem' and 'solution' is a bit obscure to me, but Gov. Richardson seems to think it'll work.

Finally, the Chronicle has a piece by Ronald Ehrenberg in which he can't quite decide whether pricy colleges are worth it, on a cost-benefit basis. He notes an aggregate correlation between educational spending and student achievement (and starting salaries upon graduation), but notes also in passing that the correlation largely breaks down on the micro level. So rich kids tend to cluster in rich schools, leading to better outcomes for grads of rich schools, regardless of what the rich schools actually do or don't do. Meanwhile, cc's get tarred with the brush of being 13th grade, which is pretty much becoming mandatory in New Mexico.

Golly. Seems like a lot of class-sorting going on.

I saw a talk a few years ago in which the speaker mentioned the fate of ocean liners in the age of air travel. Prior to commercial air travel, boats were pretty much the only way to get from Europe to the U.S. Gradually, air travel supplanted water travel as the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to get from point A to point B, but ocean liners didn't die. Instead, they reinvented themselves as luxury goods. Now people fly to port cities to take circular cruises on ocean liners. By moving to a narrow and relatively upscale niche, ocean liners were able to survive the clear pragmatic superiority of flight.

The relevance for higher ed, I think, is that we'll see the elite institutions become progressively more so, marketing themselves more as boutique goods – the ocean liners of higher education. (Check out the student housing at Founders College! Yowza!) The non-elites will gradually descend into commodity hell, much like flying in coach; price and (surface) convenience will trump all other considerations. The elites will reject the adjunct trend, simply because they wouldn't want to dilute the brand. The rest will continue to embrace it, to balance the books.

What drops out is the vast middle. The flagships can probably sustain themselves with research money, high-profile sports, and double-digit tuition increases. Community colleges can sustain ourselves on occupational relevance, geographic propinquity, and low cost. But the regional public campuses and third-tier private colleges – the former teachers' colleges turned state universities that top out at master's degrees – have to make a choice. Move up, move down, or move on.

(The retail analogy: there's room for Tiffany's and room for Wal-Mart, but there may or may not be room for Sears.)

If you're one of those folks, like myself, who believes that 'wealth' is an analytically distinct category from 'merit,' or 'talent,' or 'intellect,' then this is vaguely distressing. It suggests that some of the class-maintenance anxiety of the Amazing Girls in Newton is actually based on a fairly accurate reading of the situation. If the midtier schools lose their viability, then the macro-micro disjuncture that Ehrenberg acknowledges but doesn't explore could easily dissipate. It may well be that the relative unimportance of attending a high-tuition college has been based on the better-than-you'd-expect quality of the middle tier. If that middle tier hollows out, then the relative bargain evaporates, and the up-until-recently-exaggerated fears of the Amazing Girls – that failure to get into a Name College will result in middling economic prospects -- will actually become true.

The New Mexico initiative bothers me more than it probably should. At one level, of course, I'm happy to see cc's acknowledged as valuable educational resources for a state to include in an overall economic development plan. And I'm always happy to see healthy enrollments. But it bothers me to see cc's reduced to 13th grade, especially when instead of offering Aeschylus and calculus, they're called on to offer culinary arts and interior design. There's no shame in either, of course, but it's hard not to notice the different careers (and salary levels) for which students in different districts are being prepared.

Happily, the New Mexico proposal contains a contradiction that the governor apparently hasn't figured out yet. (This is just between us, dear readers. If I wanted this to go public, I'd post it on the internet. Oh, wait...) One of the proposed HS graduation requirements is an online course. (The article doesn't explain what kind or level of course.) That's fine, as far as it goes, but the distinctive feature of online education is that it isn't place-bound. In most of the U.S., the public K-12 system is place bound. It's defined by geographically-bounded districts, and funded largely by local taxes. The dirty little secret, of course, is that different districts have different levels of tax base and different demographics. Using my crystal ball, I predict that some enterprising-but-not-wealthy parent will try to enroll her kid (who attends Working Class HS) in an online course offered through Snooty HS. All hell will break loose. Once the connection to 'place' is severed, I think it would be awfully tough to justify the levels of inequality that are actually out there. The political battles will get very ugly, very quickly. If someone who didn't pay the cost of admission (that is, buy a $750,000+ house) is allowed to crash the party, I'd expect the hosts to be less than gracious. Call me cynical.

All this is by way of saying that freeway flyers are also canaries in the coal mine. The opportunities that don't exist for them are also opportunities that don't (or won't) exist for students. The economic end-run of attending a good-but-cheap college and using that as a stepping stone is getting blocked. This is no one person's fault, and no college individually should be blamed for doing what it has to do to survive. But I don't like where it's going.