Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Delicate Cutters

Last week, I was in a meeting with several colleagues, two of whom are Boomers, and one of whom is a fellow Gen X’er.  As the meeting wound down, the discussion shifted:

Boomer 1: Remember when all the local banks used to recruit here?  They’d hire all the liberal arts grads?

Boomer 2: Yes!  Or the big retailers like [name of dead chain] and [name of other dead chain].

B1: That’s right.  And then they’d put people in their management training programs.


B1: When I graduated, I had four job offers before I finished.


Me: What color is the sky on your planet?

X’er: (snarf)

B1: Blue.  That’s just the way it was.

Me: On behalf of generations X and Y, [colorful, if affectionate, expression of frustration]

X’er: When I graduated with my Master’s, I got a job at Subway.

I was reminded of that conversation yesterday in reading back-to-back articles in IHE about making aspects of college free.  One addressed the growing use of Open Educational Resources as a substitute for the buy-your-own-textbook model, and the other addressed an argument for making public higher education entirely free.

On the merits, I’m much more sympathetic to the former than to the latter.  Just this week a physics professor on my campus happily reported that he had found an OER substitute for the Intro to Physics text he had previously used; the students stand to save about 200 dollars for that class alone.  He reports that the new text is quite good, and he happily shared the news with colleagues around the college.  I was genuinely happy to hear it; for students who work part time jobs at or near the minimum wage, 200 bucks is real money.  To the extent that moving to OER means that students can afford to have the text on day one, and therefore won’t fall behind while they try to scrape up the money to buy the book, I’m all for it.  Since several OER providers cover their costs through foundation money, I’m not terribly worried about the economic underpinnings.  And to the extent that it starts to move folks away from the “single textbook” model, that’s probably a net gain anyway.  

Free higher education is another matter.  For now, suffice it to say that the operating expenses of running an entire college are far greater, and more complex, than the expenses in writing a book.  

But it’s telling that both ideas are getting traction now.  The latest recession has ground on long enough that it’s starting to feel like a new normal.  I’ve seen conflicting theories on whether this recession is a fundamental reset or just a really painful and extended hangover from a credit crunch, and I don’t pretend to know enough to take sides on that.  But the felt reality on the ground that my Boomer colleagues described hasn’t been true for quite a while.  

I’m fully on board with a host of reforms to make higher education more economically sustainable.  But at the end of the day, there’s just no substitute for a robust job market for new grads.  Take care of that, and we’ll have the breathing room to decide which reforms are actually helpful and which are just disguised suicide.  Fail to take care of that, and no amount of cost cutting will be enough, as sure as the sky is blue.