First things first: my Robots book was published by MIT Press a couple weeks ago. I worked with a wonderful team there; among other things, the cover art is far better than any other book I’ve done since the millennium. I hope we can team up on another project in the future.
I last wrote about higher education in September 2009, and upon revisiting the piece, it has held up pretty well.
I last wrote about higher education in September 2009, and upon revisiting the piece, it has held up pretty well.
That said, the landscape has shifted dramatically in the intervening years, so in this newsletter I will address the new issues, with some reiteration of past themes. In a nutshell, colleges face a potentially crippling combination of being locked into existing infrastructure-heavy business models in the face of alternative delivery practices, unsustainable cost increases, and extreme mission creep. Trying to be so many things to so many constituencies, using an expensive/inefficient physical plant and headcount under massively bureaucratic management, will fail as online education gets better and better at the same time that student loan debt hits critical mass.
Hypothesis 1: College is unique
College is a unique element of most societies. Using the US model, which is not fully representative but widely emulated, consider:
1) For what other service are there both private and state alternatives from which to choose? Not police forces, drug certification, roads, Cabinet departments, or militaries.
2) In what other transaction does the buyer (and buyer's parents) lay bare their finances before being told how much the service will cost?
3) In what other transaction, especially one costing so much, are yardsticks a) not agreed on and b) difficult to obtain? I know roughly how much my house cost the previous buyer, how its property taxes compare to those of neighboring properties, and even how its electric bill compares to peer properties. Buying a car, I can see some facsimile of dealer invoice price, EPA fuel economy performance, if a used car has been in a collision, and even what parts tend to break at what mileages. Buyers know surprisingly little about such an important investment.
Hypothesis 2: The many missions of a college/university can expand and conflict
College is idiosyncratic in many regards, no more so than in its many and often competing definitions of success. Does a successful college education
- further upward economic mobility?
- teach a graduate a marketable skill for a first job?
- turn a child into an adult?
- prepare a person to ask the enduring questions of the world, its institutions, and oneself?
- teach a graduate how to learn and adapt his/her skills to a changing job market?
- teach a specialized body of knowledge so civil engineers, accountants, and English teachers can join their respective guilds?
- teach general skills that one should possess regardless of occupation, such as financial literacy, critical thinking and writing, and civic/historical awareness?
- endow the graduate with social experiences and friendships that will endure over time?
- teach awareness of and respect for people and traditions different from one's own?
That list, for all its complexity and internal competition, addresses but one university constituency: undergraduate students. There are more players: alumni, corporate research sponsors, state economic development authorities, employees, graduate and professional-school students, farmers and other consumers of agricultural extension expertise, patients at the medical center, fans of the school's football or basketball teams, municipalities paid something similar to property taxes (but not quite), and the makers and buyers of things that universities can help certify, whether meat and dairy products, nurses, or STEM curricula. What is the priority of these many groups? Who sets the pecking order?
Hypothesis 3: Undergraduate education is getting lost in the shuffle
So colleges have seen their scope of activity explode. Rather than try to sort through all the constituencies, let’s return to the erstwhile purpose of college, the undergraduate experience. Richard DeMillo sees higher education from multiple perspectives and currently works at Georgia Tech at a research center for the future of higher education. His recent book, Revolution in Higher Education (MIT Press), is well worth reading. In it, he raises five questions:
1) Does an institution serve the people it is supposed to serve?
2) Are there among a university’s graduates a sufficiently large number of successful and influential alumni to warrant a second look at what is being done to achieve those results?
3) Besides the visible success stories, what happens to most graduates once they get their degrees?
4) What, exactly, do students learn?
5) How important is an institution to the city or region?
Since that last newsletter in 2009, U.S. student loan debt has exploded, in part because of fraudulent or dishonest practices by for-profit colleges that have high rates of loan acceptance, degree non-completion, and loan defaults. Overall, U.S. student loan debt has more than quintupled since 2000: from $250 billion to more than a trillion today. For-profit colleges are heavily over-represented on the list of “leaders” - the University of Phoenix has seen its loans increase 17-fold in that same period.
What is a “typical” college experience today? A mid-range state university, a Western Michigan or Kansas State? Part-time and/or online, whether Phoenix or Southern New Hampshire? The public research powerhouses — Cal Berkeley, Michigan, Texas, et al — teach a lot of students but a) represent a small percentage of total enrollment and b) have distinctive strengths and weaknesses. One thing is certain: the private liberal arts colleges where many members of the media went to school (a Syracuse, a Williams, or an Ivy let’s say) are neither representative nor “average.” A Five Thirty Eight post — “Shut Up About Harvard” — from March is required reading on this topic: many people, but especially those in the media, focus on elite or very good schools because that’s what they saw. But Harvard’s tiny entering class isn’t representative of the larger experience, with its high 4-year graduation rate, lack of athletic scholarships, lack of loan debt (all aid is grants at several Ivies), no part-time students, small numbers of military veterans, etc. The other big change is the rise of new models for online learning: Udacity, Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy, and others. DeMillo names the perfect storm:
A) More students are starting college than ever before.
B) Fewer students (on a percentage basis) are completing degrees than ever before.
C) College costs are cursed by “Baumol’s disease,” an economic theory positing that many service industries can raise costs without raising productivity. In U.S. universities, labor-related costs (including health care and overall headcount) have risen faster than inflation although most university salaries have not, and a school’s tuition usually reflects this imbalance.
D) Output measures are hard to collect, hard to interpret, and hard for the public to find. Something as simple as “what did a student learn“ is not well understood, especially across heterogeneous populations, and not widely collected. Debt loads, starting salaries, and subsequent education (such as law or business school) are tracked loosely at best, and not at all in many cases, and then not prominently reported to prospective students at many institutions. Do English majors at Florida State do better, employment-wise, than marketing majors at LSU? Few people know, though many have opinions and/or anecdotes.
E) Technological change reshapes entire occupational categories faster than colleges can react. I just saw last week that someone advocated cutting off radiology training in medical schools “because in five years deep learning will have better performance.”
Hypothesis 4: The magnitude and complexity of the challenge dwarfs the caliber of post-graduate leadership and innovation
Thus we have multiple dilemmas facing U.S. universities. Costs keep rising, in part driven by the pursuit of an elusive notion of “prestige,” while tuition increases cannot outrun inflation for very much longer. By taking on so many missions beyond undergraduate education, colleges build bureaucratic fortresses that duplicate effort and impede both efficiency and collaboration. Online learning promises a cure to Baumol’s disease via simultaneous scaling and personalization, but organizational models (including factors such as accreditation) make implementation within traditional brick-and-mortar incentive models problematic. (A case in point: what is an online credit hour if there is no classroom where, in a 3-credit course, people convene TuTh from 9:00-10:30?) University investments in the physical experience double down on dorms, student unions, gyms, and sports programs, ignoring or wishing away the oncoming online locomotive. An emphasis on STEM or even STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) doesn’t prepare students for what startup consultants Burning Glass call hybrid jobs: engineers who need to write proposals, nurses who supervise people, statisticians who need to analyze cultural differences. Political rhetoric notwithstanding, core liberal-arts training does not become irrelevant even as technical and quantitative skills gain in importance.
What’s next? Three questions:
1) Where will university leadership develop the sophistication, foresight, and boldness to reinvent the basic model of research, tenure, teaching, and testing that dates primarily from the 1880s, imported to the U.S. from Germany? 20 years ago, I heard a great parable that makes the point:
Leonardo da Vinci walks into an airplane hangar and sees both a Boeing 747 and an SR-71 Blackbird and cannot believe what happened to his conception of powered flight. Gutenberg sees Adobe Creative Suite, with Photoshop, Illustrator, and the rest of the software, and cannot believe what happened to printing presses. Ben Franklin walks into a modern school building, sees desks in rows, chalk, and blackboards, and says, “hey that’s a classroom.”
Another parable: when asked the purpose of the modern university, University of California president Clark Kerr said "to provide sex for the students, parking for the faculty, and football for the alumni." He said that 50 years ago, and his advice is still pretty widely followed. Who is our generation's Clark Kerr?
2) What alternatives can emerge to the ubiquitous 4-year undergraduate degree, lowering costs, increasing access, and improving performance of the system, including delivering lifelong learning in whatever field a person might work? (Why has 4 years become some sort of magic number, given how little we know of learning mechanisms and outcomes?)
3) Where can we have a serious conversation about the role and purpose of different types of college experience, ranging from education and training (they are two different things) in critical thinking, financial literacy, basic citizenship, Great Western and other cultural traditions, math and science fundamentals, preparation for entrepreneurship, and learning both to think abstractly and solve concrete problems. No education can do all of these well; some should do each of them as a point of distinction, without ignoring all the rest.
For all my passion in this domain, I’m glad I’m not king for a day, charged with slicing the Gordian knot: these are worthy challenges that deserve hard choices, broad participation, and above all, moral courage. Where will we find the people who can lead such a quest?