Tuesday, October 28, 2014

If Michael Bloomberg is Looking for Ideas…

I’ve written before about my distrust of the “undermatching” thesis.  (Quick review: “undermatching” refers to talented, low-income students choosing colleges that are easier to get into than they could have.)  Defining “undermatching” as a significant problem writes the academic prestige hierarchy into nature, ratifies resource inequality among institutions in the name of “meritocracy,” writes off the institutions that most people attend as irredeemable, and assumes an independent effect of selectivity that empirical social science suggests doesn’t exist.  It assumes that the solution to mass drowning is a few life preservers.

But it holds a strong intuitive appeal in some quarters.  This week, the Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a project -- in collaboration, surprisingly, with the Aspen Institute -- to steer high-achieving, low-income students to what it’s calling “top colleges.”  The Times even quotes Michael Bloomberg buying wholeheartedly into the myth: “If we really believe that America is the world’s greatest meritocracy -- and I do…” said the billionaire.  Well, yes, he probably does.

It’s disappointing, but hardly surprising.  The Calvinist streak runs deep in American culture, even among folks who would never call themselves Calvinists.

At the very same time, though, EDMC -- a struggling for-profit higher ed chain -- announced that it will be “going private” once again.  In other words, management will buy back enough stock to take control of the company, thereby freeing it from having to meet the expectations, and reporting requirements, that come with external shareholders.  

And I thought, hmm.

DeVry was publicly traded when I worked there.  (It still is.)  It had a frustrating habit of making changes so quickly that people on campus were constantly on the far left side of the learning curve.  There wasn’t enough time to get good at one thing before the next one came along.  When I asked why that was, the answer I got was “market responsiveness.”  When you have quarterly estimates to hit, you can’t wait several years for a given experiment to play itself out.  You need to take decisive action again and again, even if the cascade of changes reduces the chances of any particular change succeeding.  At one point, three different versions of College Algebra were running alongside each other, reflecting consecutive curricular changes crashing into the reality of irregular student schedules. It was a nightmare.

At the time, I wondered if what economists called “patient capital” could make the model work.  What if someone with very deep pockets were to invest with a long-term perspective?  What if someone were to try to compete with traditional higher education without falling prey to the tyranny of the quarterly report?  

What if, say, a Michael Bloomberg type were to pour a pile of funding into a for-profit and see if, with enough time and the right internal incentives, it could become a respected and contributing -- if somewhat threatening -- member of the higher education world?  What if it could combine high quality with sufficient scale to exponentially increase the number of life preservers?

Yes, I’d still prefer a more robust funding scheme for public higher education, but this is something one high-minded billionaire could do.  It wouldn’t require swaying entire states.  

The idea has a certain “put up or shut up” appeal.  And it wouldn’t rely on perpetuating destructive messages about the colleges most Americans attend.  Instead, it would offer an alternative.  

The willingness to offer an actual, concrete alternative is why I’m such a fan of SNHU, and why I’m fascinated by Western Governors University.  Whether they wind up getting it right or not, they’re at least trying.  They’re making new visions concrete, and inviting comparisons.  In a way, for a while, that’s what publicly traded for-profits did.  If Bloomberg wants to make a difference for more than just a lucky and talented few, here’s his chance.  Even if it doesn’t work, the failure could be instructive.  

Or we could just keep casting most of public higher education as something that the talented few need to be rescued from.  

I’d rather test an interesting new idea than feed a destructive old one.  Bloomberg Philanthropies, do you have the courage to be patient?