Coronavirus, Education, Featured Post — May 12, 2020 at 11:54 pm

“The reports of the death of higher education are greatly exaggerated.”

A photograph of the Beaumont Tower located on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing, Michigan.

A recent article in New York Magazine predicting the demise of higher education is causing a great deal of anxiety in the professoriate, and for good reason. The author is making some pretty audacious prognostications, and none of them bode well for our profession…

  • enrollments will crater
  • hundreds of colleges will go out of business
  • only a few “elite cyborg universities” will remain standing
  • most instruction will go online
  • colleges will be forced to partner with big tech corporations to remain viable
  • schools will fire thousands of faculty members in a last ditch effort to cut costs
  • tuition will be reduced for online classes, offering a rare silver lining: a college education will become more affordable for the masses

We’ve been seeing versions of this “doom & gloom” prediction about higher education for years–ever since the birth of the Internet, various sages have been predicting the death of our current system of higher education. And with powerful friends in Washington, like Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, we would be foolish to ignore their ideas.

But this prediction is predicated on a particular and very limited way of thinking about higher education as a business, and the only metric worth considering being money/profit. It’s a way of thinking about education as a commodity, and of students and parents as customers. It’s a belief that the “value”, such as it may be, in education, has to do with information–and it relies on a “banking model” of learning that treats knowledge as bits and bytes of content that can be “deposited” in a student’s “brain account”. A simple transaction between teacher and learner; a transaction that can be accomplished just as easily via Zoom as in an ivy-covered building on a bucolic college campus.

I’m going to suggest that exactly the opposite is going to happen. That at some point–when this virus has been contained, and life has resumed a more normal ebb and flow that doesn’t require masks, and 6 feet of social distancing between persons–parents and their children will recognize, realize, and remember that the real value of an education–be it PK-12 or college–is about more than degrees and diplomas; it’s about developing the relationships that help our children to become more fully human members of society.

Will some colleges shut down? Of course. Truth be told, we probably have more colleges in many states than we really need. And some of those schools won’t be able to survive, mostly due to economies of scale–they just don’t have enough students paying enough tuition to make it work. And most of these schools that won’t make it will, sadly, be small independent and private colleges–exactly the kinds of schools that a lot of young people do best at. And that’s a tragedy.

But here’s the good news–the author of this essay has inadvertently identified a couple of the problems in higher ed that have needed addressing for decades; and this current crisis may provide the motivation to do just that…

1. A college education has become less about the experience and more about the credentialing.

He’s right–and that’s ridiculous. Given that more than a third of Harvard’s incoming class in 2015 were legacies, the myth of these “elite” schools being truly selective has been a sham for a long time. Can a student get an excellent education at Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton? Of course. But that same student can also get a great education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Gateway Community College, or Rutgers University–and a whole host of other colleges, large and small, public or private, research-focused universities or liberal arts colleges.

The business of college and university rankings (I’m looking at you, US News and World Report) has created an ugly and pernicious “cottage industry” of magazine ratings, private admissions counselors, and admissions essay writers and coaches. At its most extreme the issue was exposed by the college admissions scandal last spring, in which wealthy parents were paying excessive amounts of money to falsify their children’s application materials to fraudulently gain admission to elite universities. Not for the quality of education they would receive (some of these students never attended a single class), but for the access and entree to the world of the elites that a degree from one of these elite schools would confer.

The truth is that for the vast majority of students the real value of a college education *is* the experience:

  • It’s learning how to live with a difficult roommate; making friends with people you’d never have met in your hometown; and learning things you never thought you’d want to know about (yes, that sophomore Gothic literature seminar did wind up changing the way you looked at your world, just as your advisor said it would).
  • It’s getting dragged to that play, or poetry reading, or football game, or recital, and discovering that you enjoyed it more than you thought you would.
  • It’s changing your major after taking that special class with a professor who challenged you to “think outside of the box”, and finding a passion you didn’t know existed inside yourself.

The truth is there is no such thing as a “Best College”. There’s only a school that’s the right fit for you as a learner. If the “Best College” you get accepted to doesn’t offer your major, no Top 10 ranking is going to make it the best school for you.

2. “Ultimately, universities are going to partner with companies to help them expand.”

Having taught now for 40 years, I’ve already seen the role of business creep into education in unhealthy ways. Testing companies are using their standardized exams to data mine our children. Tech companies “seed” elementary schools with fancy tablets and neutered laptops to build “brand loyalty” from an early age, and promise “learning management platforms” that make teachers’ jobs a complicated nightmare and expose the inequities in Internet access among our communities.

The truth is that technology has already changed how education works at every level from preschool to graduate school. And many of these advancements have made teaching and learning better. We won’t be squeezing that toothpaste back into the tube any time soon.

But this prediction presumes that schools have something to gain from partnering with companies like Apple or Google–when the truth is that Apple and Google have a lot more to gain from these arrangements than schools do.

What’s the advantage to a middle school partnering with Apple, or an elementary school hooking up with Google? Their products are already available to students and teachers–is an even steeper “education discount” worth pledging “brand loyalty” to a computer company or a data corporation, and limiting the ability of your teachers and students to use multiple platforms and operating systems?

For an object lesson in the dangers of universities partnering with for-profit businesses we need look no further than Indiana, where Purdue University’s President, former governor Mitch Daniels, entered into an arranged marriage with the online behemoth Kaplan University in an attempt to “expand the footprint” of his university. The reviews have been, shall we say, mixed–merging a respected flagship state university with a predatory purveyor of distance and virtual learning that was in danger of collapse.

But it looks like the marriage may not be going well.

Purdue Global is losing money. First reported by College Meltdown blog, Purdue University’s 2018 financial report showed it had a net operating loss of $38.4 million last year.

The news prompted a public back-and-forth in the local news between teachers and the administration. There is some misreading and misleading in both accounts. And Purdue has been very reluctant to discuss the finances, repeatedly declining on-the-record interview requests.

So while the next several months–or longer–may be fraught with frustrations and uncertainties on college campuses across the country; and while our current “emergency teaching and learning” situation may produce some unexpected innovations and positive new practices that will endure after the pandemic is over, I believe that Mr. Galloway’s “Coming Disruption” will prove to be mostly the fevered musings of marketing and branding types who hope to profit from the “churn” inevitably produced by such crises.

Based on the discussions I’ve had with parents of graduating high school seniors, and current college students and faculty, the vast majority of folks are deeply concerned about a future characterized by “asynchronous learning modules,” “online assignments,” and “Zoom lectures.” That’s not what “education” means to most of us, in spite of the predictions of pundits and prognosticators.

Will colleges be functioning differently post-Covid? Perhaps. Hopefully for the better.

But to paraphrase the words of Mark Twain, “The reports of the death of higher education are greatly exaggerated.”