Winning the 10K

Rising tuition costs in higher ed are a concern regardless of political affiliation, but some plans floated by Govs. Rick Perry and Rick Scott (of TX and FL, respectively), have a lot of people riled up. Inside Higher Ed reported on the governors’ plans at the end of last November and noted that their plans

have much in common when it comes to their approach to higher education, such as mandating low-cost options like the $10,000 degree; holding down tuition prices, particularly at flagship institutions; tying funding to degree completion, particularly in fields deemed to be in “high demand”; paying faculty on the basis of performance, including how they fare on student evaluations; and likely asking the institutions to do it all with less state money. (You can find the IHE article here)

Much of this accords with planks in the republican platform, but leaving politics aside for a moment, the question on my mind is the rebuttal offered by Tom Auxter, professor of philosophy at the University of Florida and president of the United Faculty of Florida. His response to the  $10k undergraduate degree was: “You’re going to be awarding degrees that are worthless to people. They’ll have bachelor’s degrees, but they won’t know what they’ve missed until three or four years out of school.”

What makes a college degree useful? Is it the paper itself–not just the social validation and inclusion into a club, but also the proof of purchase? Is it a receipt, a transaction that knowledge has been transferred and that this unit has been properly inspected and so forth? Does it represent a particular level of intellectual ability, or, somehow, of curiosity and interest? I’m trying to answer this question to figure out exactly what Prof. Auxter is describing–what kind of degree is “worthless to people?” One that doesn’t prove they learned something/are capable of tasks that college graduates can perform (I’d love to see the Standardized List of College Graduate Abilities)? Is it the ability to feel good about it 3 or 4 years later (because you attribute an economic outcome to it, or because you had a good time in the dorms when you were admitted as a freshman and weren’t a transfer student)? Who are all these people with worthless degrees about whom Prof. Auxter worries?

Well, many of them were people who enrolled at the University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and other online institutions, who were investigated by the GAO and found to be fradulent (or, at least, misleading about their information, debt practices, and so forth). The GAO also went so far as to accuse these institutions of accepting plagiarized and irrelevant work for credit (though sadly, they didn’t follow up on their best quote: “The report seems to undermine the claim by the for-profit higher education sector that private-sector institutions maintain the same academic standards as not-for-profit public and private universities, although presumably the GAO has not conducted a similar sting at Harvard and Yale.” More on that later). This matters because many of the cuts these governors want to make involve moving as many classes as possible online (particularly the ones with heavy overhead and low profitability–check out Gov. Walker’s remarks on why no one in his state should bother being an anthropologist). There’s a conversation to be had about admitting students based on majors and letting the market decide their fate, but that’s for another time.

No, I bring this up because of an op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks that recently appeared in the NYT: My Cheap, Valuable College Degree. Brooks brings up the arguments against the $10k proposal and summarizes them thusly:

Most 10K-B.A. proposals rethink the costliest part of higher education — the traditional classroom teaching. Predictably, this means a reliance on online and distance-learning alternatives. And just as predictably, this has stimulated antibodies to unconventional modes of learning. Some critics see it as an invitation to charlatans and diploma mills. Even supporters often suggest that this is just an idea to give poor people marginally better life opportunities.

As Darryl Tippens, the provost of Pepperdine University, recently put it, “No PowerPoint presentation or elegant online lecture can make up for the surprise, the frisson, the spontaneous give-and-take of a spirited, open-ended dialogue with another person.” And what happens when you excise those frissons? …

I possess a 10K-B.A., which I got way back in 1994. And it was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made.

Mr. Dr. Professor Arthur C. Brooks, formerly of Syracuse University and now President of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that counts Newt Gingrich, Lynne Cheney, and John Bolton as members, is recounting his humble beginnings, living as a broke musician in Spain, and taking correspondance classes in the early 90s. Converting for today’s dollar, and including books, he calculates the cost at $10k for his BA. “I took the same exams (proctored at local libraries and graded by graduate students) as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater,” he writes, noting that even after a 5k MA (also done from distance): “The final tally for a guy in his 30s supporting a family: three degrees, zero debt.” Can’t argue with that.

Obviously, Prof. Brooks makes a great biographical story for the move to non-traditional teaching; the contemporary equivalent, MOOCs (massively open online courses, sort of like MMORPGs for education) has been inspiring, well, strong responses on the CBW and WPA lists. Hell, even Thomas Friedman jumped into the conversation, eliciting a blog response that, while not really well-written, represents a fairly generic cross-section of responses (really, check it out).

Further leaving aside the details Brooks leaves out (it’s nice that he had a gap year in Spain after his first year in college stalled–what about those who have more engaged financial and/or familial social responsibilities? what if students want to major in something that requires interaction, like, say, a scientific field in which experimentation is required? what about practicing all these collaborative and presentation skills that everyone keeps saying are so important in the business world?), his final paragraph is worth quoting to get us to the heart of the matter:

In the end, however, the case for the 10K-B.A. is primarily moral, not financial. The entrepreneurs who see a way for millions to go to college affordably are the ones who understand the American dream. That dream is the opportunity to build a life through earned success. That starts with education.

I like the idea of education as a moral good (I would call it a civil right, but maybe we’re splitting hairs). The entrepreneurs he describes are, I think, the “people who can least afford to ride the [higher ed] bubble, and who have no choice but to make a cost-effective college investment” from the preceding paragraph. The remainder of the logic ties “earning” the previously-held “moral” right (so that morality is earned by making decisions with a solid RoI), earning it through a certain kind of entrepreneurial spirit towards profit-based decision-making…that starts with education. I don’t feel like deploying the Marxism here, but this does seem like a “pull yourself by your bootstraps” argument combined with “The business of America is business,” which is always a little bit sketchy. Prof. Brooks’s accomplishments are genuine, I’ve no doubt, but if the argument is moral–towards access and free choice, rather than market-determined and driven success–then I’m not sure this is gonna work.

To be sure, university costs are egregious–there’s no R1 university in America that doesn’t have a fundraiser for a president, and the money spent on “the college experience” is, well, a lot. Honestly, I have no idea why the top private schools ins America cost $40-50k a YEAR to attend–have we hit a reverse-tipping point where costs go UP in order to demonstrate exclusivity (like a $4000 purse)? Is Harvard trying to be/already the Dolce & Gabbana of education? Was Kanye West right?). Let’s go back to that quote I brought up from before:

The report seems to undermine the claim by the for-profit higher education sector that private-sector institutions maintain the same academic standards as not-for-profit public and private universities, although presumably the GAO has not conducted a similar sting at Harvard and Yale.

The Washington Post, in a lovely little snarky aside, makes an interesting point–what if someone did a similar kind of assessment at Harvard or Yale? What would they find? I’ve no doubt students and faculty there are doing incredible work, but what makes their degree not worthless? Is it the work they did, or is it, well, anything else? What counts as valuable to a degree? If it’s RoI in terms of income, how does one distinguish the education received at, say, Harvard, from the networking that Harvard allows? If MOOCs become more commonplace, what kind of effect will they have? Will they be like TYCs, chronically underfunded, but providing a means of access to students who are otherwise unable to participate in Brooks’s vision of America?

When we think about MOOCs, or distance-learning, we need to ask ourselves the question that entrenched, brick-and-mortar facilities take for granted–what will make the degree valuable, and how do we make that true for the myriad audiences involved (the student, the instructor, administrators, politicians, future parents, the general public, and accreditors of higher ed). There is a difference between teaching in a chat room, or through snail mail, or even via skype. They are not fatal to education, but they affect standard forms of assessment as much as they question what the fundamental student-teacher relationship is in any given classroom (already an ephemeral definition). Since Basic Writing already (and always) exists in a place where these definitions are not taken for granted, let’s try to ask some productive questions:

  1. Would you have to reconceptualize the goals/outcomes of a BW course if it were a MOOG?
  2. What transformations in the “fundamental/traditional” classroom experience would occur?
  3. How might you use the different environment to motivate your students towards projects less practical in a traditional classroom?
  4. Given time to adjust, would you be more efficient? More effective?
  5. Would traditional assessment strategies/rubrics continue to work?
  6. What new student populations would be introduced via MOOCs?
  7. How would peer-group work occur?
  8. What kinds of new/altered academic discourses would be introduced?
  9. What kind of blending (hybrid in person/online) strategies could be used to good effect?
  10. How might the potential anonymity of a student affect the learning in a virtual classroom?
  11. How do we implement long term tracking of MOOC students for assessment purposes?

I don’t doubt that MOOCs, well-done, could provide unprecedented access and opportunity for students who have the ability and interest, but not the means or know-how. The goal of BW is to support students of just this nature. However, so many of the “wasted dollars” spent on logistics and bureaucracy at universities exist to coordinate learning–not necessarily as gatekeeping (though that happens too–and I wonder if the students with more resources and better SAT scores will still get to the go to the buildings with actual ivy on them in this new, democratic future, but this time without the unwashed masses), but to allow for sheltered bridge courses, or FIGs, or other academic progressions that increase learning, retention rates, and offer students the opportunity to become active participants in their own development and learning. I have no idea if this can be done with MOOCs; I suspect someone smarter than I will organize something incredible with it. But the purpose of a MOOC–its goals and products–have to be those aligned with BW, and not merely argued as cost-cutting measures. You can’t simply cut a program because it’s non-essential anymore than you should go around removing everyone’s spleen. Too much work still needs to be done thinking about how to evolve–and not dismantle–higher ed before we do so.

In the meantime, something tells me that it’s basic courses, often taught by grad students and adjuncts, that’s costing all the money. Maybe someone oughta do THAT research, eh?

Basic Writing: The Textbook

I do like to promote pedagogical materials and texts that are well-designed and applied by students and teachers alike, so I want to let everyone know about a textbook I’m using in my Basic Writing graduate seminar. George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk’s incredibly useful, readable, and balanced textbook on the history of BW from Shaughnessy on is free, downloadable (in entirety or by chapter/section), and is provided by the WAC Clearinghouse, “an open-access, educational Web site supported by Colorado State University.” They have a ton of other useful texts, which you can find here, on about every English/Teaching-related subject you could want.