Saturday, August 24, 2013

What's Wrong With College?

Nobody likes President Obama's latest plan for higher education. That's probably a good thing.

Professors don't like it because it disrupts their cozy guild. The president signs off on such (non) revolutionary ideas like MOOCs and competency-based credentials--two things that potentially put faculty out of business. Further, Obama wants to hold them accountable for outcomes, e.g., employment, future salaries, etc. Academics believe that these workaday issues are beneath their dignity.

Republicans (including me) don't like it because we see it as the federal government meddling in things it really knows nothing about. Our view is that the feds should gradually disinvest in higher education, and leave the issue to the states, or better yet, to the marketplace.

So politically the thing is a turkey--it's not going anywhere. Still, the debate is important, and the fact that it now includes the president indicates that issues in higher education are coming to a head. Big changes are afoot, and none too soon.

Succinctly stated, the problem with college is this: Higher education costs too much and delivers too little. President Obama understands the first clause, but misses the second.

Costs too much is apparent from the 4x increase in costs (after inflation) since 1970. Now this can be disputed-- the difference in sticker price vs. what students actually pay may reduce the ratio slightly. On the other hand, including the large tax subsidies would increase the ratio. So take it as approximately true. This rate of increase clearly cannot continue--and isn't continuing. A major price war is breaking out between colleges, and technology is now being used to dramatically cut costs. This is excellent news for students.

Delivers too little is not as obvious. The modern college curriculum evolved after World War II with the GI bill. It enabled the mass education of a much larger fraction of the population. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s it was spectacularly successful--the alumni list from the City College of New York is proof of that. But by the 1980s the bloom was off the rose--the low-hanging fruit had already been picked. And beginning in the 1990s technological changes began to render the college degree less relevant.

Today I think that far from creating value, academia consumes it. It has become anti-productive. Colleges increasingly advertise themselves as a consumer good--promising resort-quality living arrangements, personal fulfillment and an exciting social life. Only as an afterthought do they mention career preparation, and that is delivered via meaningless buzzwords, such as "critical thinking" and "diversity."

My colleagues in our chemistry department are mostly against any kind of specific career training. Instead they favor the liberal arts, or educating the whole person, or encouraging group interactions and deep learning. In their view a well-educated person doesn't actually know how to do anything.

Now I'm not against a liberal arts education. I went through a Great Books program myself and have found it useful. The Grand Synthesis, the Big Idea and the Comprehensive Perspective are all good things to have. Indeed, as I read through my old blog posts, I see that I err toward abstraction. Perhaps I can't blame my professors--Trotskyism inevitably sees deeper meanings and great significance in almost every event. It is human nature to want to tell stories about stuff, and that's what colleges teach you to do.

But this is not the currency for the modern economy. However fulfilling and inspiring a liberal arts education may be, it will not help much in earning a living. Today's economy depends not on grand eternal schemes, but instead on very specific, practical knowledge. A lot of this is tacit knowledge--how to make a good cup of coffee, how to sell as many books as possible to customers, how to maximize production of grape juice at the lowest possible cost without sacrificing quality.

College (or high school) needs to teach basic skills--how to write a good memo; how to do arithmetic in your head, and then how to use a spreadsheet; accounting principles; basic science; how to read for meaning, etc. But beyond that students need to learn skills. A few of those come from a classroom--e.g., engineering education--but most of them come from experience--the school of hard knocks.

So here's my advice to colleges:

  • The curriculum needs to be shorter--two, or at most three years.
  • It needs to move to a hybrid format (partially in a classroom, and partially on-line). There are advantages to both formats and there's no reason to choose one or the other.
  • It needs to disaggregate. Colleges should get out of the housing, food, and athletics businesses. These things are important, but let specialists handle them separate from education.
  • In the spirit of disaggregation, the research enterprise needs to be (mostly) separated from teaching.
  • Colleges need to specialize. My campus, for example, has 40 departments teaching everything from anthropology to zoology. Nobody can do everything well. We need to narrow our focus down to five or ten things, and then be the best in the world at what we do.
  • There is nothing wrong with the liberal arts. But a liberal arts education by itself is not worth very much--students also need to prepare for a career. Indeed, I think the liberal arts will be best served if much of it is moved to continuing education, i.e., offered as a life-long opportunity to people interested in Great Books.
So what do faculty talk about? Very little on my list. Instead they debate whether or not tenure should be retained. This is an easy question to answer. Most colleges that retain tenure will go bankrupt. It's that simple--get over it.

And then you have the people completely disconnected from the real world--I refer of course to the academic feminists. They're really so easy to make fun of that it's not much of a sport, but consider this quote:
Re-reading one of the pieces in collection, “Toward a Woman-Centered University,” [Adrienne] Rich eloquently critiques the “male-created,” “male-dominated” structures of the university, asking whether patriarchal structures are “really capable of serving the humanism and freedom it (the university) professes.” She draws on a long feminist tradition of such critique, dating back to Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, a damning critique of fascism and war, connecting both with the patriarchal exclusion of women from power.
Some authors (such as Dr. Helen) take this kind of gibberish seriously. I don't.

By contrast, consider this young lady (make sure you listen to the audio) who is decidedly not majoring in Whining & Self Pity. She's chosen a very practical subject. And I predict that later in life she will spend many a Vermont winter evening reading and learning about Great Books.

This young woman represents the future of college.

Further Reading:

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