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What Is To Be Done About Higher Education?

“The workers were losing their age-long faith in the permanence of the system which oppressed them.”

- Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?”, 1905.

I’ve been a Thomas Frank fan since the olden days of The Baffler. I realize that the guy is sort of a one trick pony with endless variations of the “culture tops class and that’s really horrible” argument, but that certainly is an extremely versatile pony. Therefore, when he brings that argument to the state of modern higher education, you should certainly read the results:*

[T]he big universities expanded in their heyday to keep up with industry demand, not to build the middle class. Instead, what everyone agrees on is this: higher education is the industry that sells tickets to the affluent life. In fact, they are the only ones licensed to do this. Yes, there are many colleges one can choose from—public, private, and for-profit—but collectively they control the one credential that we believe to be of value. Everything about them advertises it. The armorial logos, the Gothic towers, even the names of the great colleges, so redolent of money and privilege and aristocracy: Duke and Princeton and Vanderbilt. If you want to succeed, you must go to them; they are the ones controlling the gate.

What they sell, in other words, is something we believe to be so valuable it is almost impossible to measure. Anyone in her right mind would pay an enormous price for it.

Another fact: This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The whole essay is beautifully written. What I’m most interested in, though, is the conclusion:

What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality. Trustees and presidents will redouble their efforts to achieve some ineffable “excellence” they associate with tech and architecture and corporate sponsorships. There will be more standardized tests, and more desperate test-prep. The curriculum will be brought into a tighter orbit around the needs of business, just like Thomas Friedman wants it to be. Professors will continue to plummet in status and power, replaced by adjuncts in more and more situations. An all-celebrity system, made possible by online courses or some other scheme, will finally bring about a mass faculty extinction—a cataclysm that will miraculously spare university administrations. And a quality education in the humanities will once again become a rich kid’s prerogative.

To stop this from happening, Frank recommends attending German or Argentinian universities, a free speech movement or a nationwide student strike. To put it bluntly: Ain’t. Gonna. Happen. Does that mean that all is lost? Is it already game, set, match and the good guys lost? What is to be done?

I’m actually a tad more optimistic than Frank is. I almost started an argument with my department chair the other day about the future of American universities. She was suggesting in our department meeting that enrollment goes up and enrollment goes down and things may be bad now, but they’ll inevitably get better again at some point. I’m afraid this time is different: student loans are expensive, jobs are scarce and tuition is, as the economists say, sticky. [Seriously, when's the last time you ever heard of a university lowering its tuition?** ] But that doesn’t mean that higher education is going to disappear anytime soon. It simply means that after a huge increase in scope after World War II, it’s inevitable that higher education is going to get smaller in the future, and I think this presents a wonderful opportunity.

I haven’t really touched the Obama Higher Education Plan on this blog yet because…well…I haven’t really thought of anything interesting to say about it. Of course, I’ve been pondering its relation to MOOCs, but the President didn’t actually say all that much about MOOCs in his speeches. In the plan itself they’re more of a component of a laundry list of potential reforms than a centerpiece. It’s like Obama wants to throw every bad higher education idea at the wall and see what sticks. MOOCs won’t stick. Nevertheless, the President would rather burn money on dumb ideas, enriching a few undeserving people and accelerating the coming crack-up either way, than focus on the crucial issue of educational quality or whether enough students can actually get a decent paying job when they graduate.

Perhaps a better higher ed plan would be to do nothing. Sure, some colleges are going to close and that will be a tragedy, but that’s going to happen even if we do everything that Barack Obama wants and more. As Erik Loomis explains in his comments on Frank’s article:

whatever happens, whenever the bubble bursts, whenever students revolt, the inevitable answer will be MORE market, more capitalism, more of the same that puts the tuition dollars in the hands of the administrators and takes it away from teachers or doesn’t take it away from students at all. It’s incredibly depressing.

But maybe the fight will be different when the battlefield is smaller. You can’t have a race to the bottom when the bottom is gone. Maybe, just maybe, with fewer colleges in the mix, schools will start to differentiate themselves on the quality of their instruction rather than simply on the basis of their price (both higher and lower). Maybe we could focus on making the higher education system that survives more sustainable rather than privatizing what we have now so that people can sell a watered-down product to students who’ve already bought a bill of goods that structural changes in the economy will make it difficult for them to afford.

At this stage in the history of higher education, I’m actually glad to be working at a public institution that anchors my community because the State of Colorado and the people in my region have said repeatedly, in so many words, “We want a university in Pueblo.” Where I wouldn’t want to work now is at an expensive private college or university of any kind with little name recognition outside its region. Who’s gonna want to pay a top-dollar sticker price for a spin of a roulette wheel? On the other hand, the same kind of discounting that makes MOOCs appealing could make a quality face-to-face education at a comparatively low price appealing too, assuming the people running institutions like mine do more than just follow passing fads.

No, I don’t have much faith that that’s going to happen, but at least we can still do our best, with carrot and with stick, to steer them in that direction. After all, not all revolutions are violent or necessarily even all that revolutionary.

* And, if you don’t know, he’s got a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Chicago. His dissertation is well worth reading in its published form.

** No Phil Hill, slashing tuition and financial aid in the name of sticker price transparency doesn’t count. I’m talking about cutting the cost for students in real terms.

Read entire article at More Or Less Bunk