Friday, July 17, 2009

The End of Education

This article from today's Inside Higher Education informs us of a new study that measures higher education degree "productivity." But what, a curious reader might inquire, is meant by "productivity"?

Using publicly available data (in hopes of making it easy for policy makers to replicate), the report starts with the total funding for each state's public colleges, combining state and local appropriations and tuition and fee revenues, which account for the vast majority of operating funds for state institutions over all. The analysis then weights the numbers of degrees and certificates that a state's colleges award (by level) by the median earnings associated with them in the state's employment market. Higher degree levels are weighted more heavily, as are credentials and science and technology fields.

According to this study, higher education is to be judged purely and exclusively on the basis of its ability to increase the "median earnings" of its students. Studies such as this are offered as a means for policy makers and university administrators to assess the value of a university degree. As these sorts of "metrics" become ever more widespread - and there is tremendous pressure from every direction that universities provide measurable forms of "assessment" - there will be massive corresponding pressures, incentives and allocation of resources to ensure that students are receiving an education that will directly translate into earning potential. We are in the midst of witnessing a fundamental redefinition of what a university education is. And, lest anyone think that "liberals" are fervent supporters of "liberal education," the article makes quite explicit that "at a time when policy makers, led by those in the Obama administration and in Congress, are focusing intently on higher education's need to significantly increase the number of Americans with a higher education credential of some sort, the focus seems appropriate."

Sadly, the colleges have largely brought this upon themselves. For many years they were content to offer vague suggestions about why a university education was beneficial, with glossy brochures offering bromides about the value of "critical thinking" and "multicultural" experience. Yet, in fact, every major actor in the university game - administrators, parents, students, etc. - knew that what was being sold was a ticket to success. Yet, it wasn't necessary to state this fact quite so baldly, since there was so much excess money in the system, a notional form of wealth that allowed us the self-deception that we were offering something other than what we were really doing. Faculties in the humanities especially - who might have offered a counter-narrative to the universally understood assumption that college was about career advancement - engaged in hostile attacks against traditional norms and structures of power, but offered nothing positive to counter to dominant, if always implicit, assumptions. The humanities itself killed off the ideal of the liberal arts; "political science" ceased to understand itself as fostering the ideal of citizenship (to the point that its leaders now consider eliminating the study of America as a subfield of the discipline); philosophy and theology abandoned their aspirations for knowledge of the true, and instead emphasized (respectively) making arguments and religion as a form of cultural studies. In the wake of the near-universal evacuation of reasons for a college education that went emphasized "the permanent things," all that was left was a saleable commodity that provided a pipeline to Wall Street. And we saw the sort of activities that were the consequence of that sort of "education."

This catastrophe of education as preparation for money-making follows directly upon the evisceration of the liberal arts. As a consequence of these sorts of measurements - to fulfill a hunger by those who write the checks - the faculties and offerings in the humanities will shrink to a near-invisible presence on our campuses. From one perspective, this is not altogether to be lamented, given that the caretakers of the humanities came to despise the thing it was they were supposed to teach. But, from a more important perspective, it is to be lamented, because only the liberal arts helps us to know the appropriate ways to make money, helps us understand what more fundamental ends can be achieved with the fruits of our labor, and finally leads us to see why making money is not in itself the appropriate goal or end for the good life.


Rev. Mike said...

Patrick, certainly I have been guilty at times of commoditizing education in the manner you describe. There's also certainly no question that we are impoverishing our culture with such a mindset.

Nonetheless, I attended a state university--nothing much to write home about, but it's served me well enough since there are just so many bells and whistles one can add to an accredited engineering degree--from 1978 to 1982. My parents and I shared the cost of $250 per quarter for four years, excluding books, and I lived at home. Grand total--$10,000 for a four year degree.

By comparison, from 1987 to 1990, I attended three years of seminary, room and board included, for roughly $21,000. From 2001 to 2008, I completed a doctorate, two weeks a year residency for three years, continuation fees included for roughly $10,000.

Recognizing that all of this fails to consider inflation and constant dollars, something I'm not going to put the effort into just to comment on a blog post, my point is that the total cost of my undergraduate and graduate education probably wouldn't touch the cost of one year of undergraduate education at most universities today. At some point, do we not have to consider the fact that the universities have priced themselves out of most people's reach so that the more mundane, basic Maslow's hierarchy needs like eating three squares and living indoors have to predominate our considerations here?

Patrick Deneen said...

Rev. Mike,
No doubt about it. Part of the rising cost of higher education is bound up with providing a country club environment for the credentialing class. It doesn't cost THAT much to provide a good education - some smart profs., some good teaching space, sparse dormitories. Do we need all the climbing walls and semi-professional sports programs? Or, for that matter, numbers of faculty and growing numbers of administrators (they are like mushrooms after a wet season) that are disproportionate to the number of students?

By the way, I'm the product of public schools myself (Windsor High, Rutgers U. (while I don't think everyone gets as much out of those sorts of institutions, I certainly got a lot out of my education). Regarding specifically public schools, one question we should ask (asked pointedly by Wendell Berry): why should public schools be devoted to promoting private ends (i.e., money-making)? The great land grant universities were instituted with a higher public goal in mind, namely the continuation of the good of the community. What happens to that goal when the sole "metric" we use is to show a correlation between course of study and income?

Robert said...

"Part of the rising cost of higher education is bound up with providing a country club environment for the credentialing class."

But only part and it's somewhat minimal in actual impact. Many of these "enhancements" are funded through advancement campaigns (monies that wouldn't otherwise come in without there being something to put a name on) rather than through general revenue.

A larger factor is the parent and student demand for more "hand holding" and convenience services as well as certain legislative requirements (ADA, for example--accommodating all the various "diagnoses" these wealthy kids have acquired to explain their inability to meet their parents' expectations is ridiculously expensive). Administrators do indeed sprout like mushrooms in response to these ever-increasing demands. You're probably old enough to have experienced a several-hours long line for course registration, for example. That such a thing is unknown to your current students is thanks to several million dollars of software, hardware, and time from highly-skilled admins. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Money needed to satisfy the computer and communications technology students and parents are demanding now, especially given its ever-shorter pre-obsolescent life, grows each year. And the services! Individually tailored tutoring, career advisement, program advisement, study abroad, etc, etc, etc. All have existed for years, of course, but the individual attention, time, and resources demanded are increasing. Education is no longer a partnership. Instead "the customer is always right." It's just a different set of expectations, and an increasingly irrational one. You do correctly identify the class that is driving this demand, though. It ain't the poor or first-generation kids.

But even all of this only has a moderate impact on tuition. Let me let you in on a little secret: much of the "rise" in college tuition is just an accounting trick. There isn't as much of an increase as it appears: it's a smokescreen driven by marketing logic. Much of the "increase" is really just the effect of two marketing tricks:

1. Raise the price, raise perceived quality.

2. Discount most student's tuition to the actual price point and tell them (individually) that it's because they are "special," creating a perception of value.

The average of the actual tuition paid by students is increasing at a far lower rate than are published tuitions. Yes, tuition appears to be increasing quite steeply, but the number of students receiving institutional grants, and the size of those awards, is increasing just as much. It's smoke-and-mirrors. Schools are not liking the bad PR they're getting as a group from the appearance of steeply increasing tuition costs but, individually, they're unable to free themselves of this silly marketing logic that's driving their behavior.

Patrick Deneen said...

this is a great comment, and very true. I think what you describe is in some ways encompassed by the "country club" atmosphere - make it a very pleasant cruise atmosphere, in which the student is the customer (and, little wonder there's an expectation of high grades for monies paid). Boy, do I ever remember standing in some long lines at registration - computer punch card in hand, no less!

And, it's true what you say about most students not paying sticker price, but that still doesn't contravene the fact that most students are coming out of school with some quantity of debt, some of them sizeable amounts. Thus, this increases the pressure on students to major in something "useful" and narrowly perceive their education as an "investment" that, in part, will allow them to pay back the initial investment at some point in the future. I've heard more than a few students say that they'd like to major in something like philosophy or theology, but that their parents would be incensed at such a wasted education. The pressure to make education a means to money-making is pervasive and coming from every direction.

Great comment, many thanks.

Robert said...

Heh. Sorry for the length and the digression, but we admins gotta stick up for ourselves, you know? There's a growing perception out there that higher ed's problems are largely due to its being turned into a racket run by a bunch of bureaucratic leeches. A lot of bureaucratic leeches are certainly taking advantage of the opportunity, but they aren't the driving force (which is, of course, the same upper middle-class yuppies [your credentialing class] who are now crying to their congress members about unreasonable costs). And by the way, more student loan debt is also more complicated than just rising costs.

But anyway, no disagreement with the actual point of your post. I do find it oddly satisfying, though, to see that the same university that has done so much to strip our society of all shared ends save material and utilitarian ones is now falling victim to the application of that ethos. As you say, they brought it on themselves.

Mac from said...

This is a great conversation, and very timely considering the huge emphasis Obama administration is now putting on community college opportunities.

Ultimately, the liberal arts are more than their individual parts. And though the market will have its way, those in higher education administration at top liberal arts colleges will have to take the challenge in stride and solve these issues with the same skills that they espouse to their students: critical thinking, citizenship, leadership - all streaming from the broad and solid educational foundation they received from the liberal arts.

If our individual liberal arts educations are what we say they are, we have in hand the tools we need to overcome these current hurdles.

Unknown said...

Higher education really means a better standards of life with more earning. But sometimes we need more than a higher education. I am a teacher and I passed my CTEL test to be a qualified and honorable in teaching field. Its really sad that our eduction systems diminishing now but one can not say it the end of education. There are universities both government and private which provides quality education to our nationalist and foreign students too.