Date: Jan 11, 2013 3:33 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, December 17, 2012.
For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?
'Disruptions' have the buzz but may put higher education out of reach
for those students likely to benefit the most
By Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk
Last year, leading lights in for-profit and nonprofit higher
education convened in Washington for a conference on private-sector
innovation in the industry. The national conversation about
dysfunction and disruption in higher education was just heating up,
and panelists from start-ups, banking, government, and education
waxed enthusiastic about the ways that a traditional college
education could be torn down and rebuilt-and about how lots of money
could be made along the way.
During a break, one panelist-a banker who lines up financing for
education companies, and who had talked about meeting consumer
demands in the market-made chitchat. The banker had a daughter who
wanted a master's in education and was deciding between a traditional
college and a start-up that offered a program she would attend mostly
online-exactly the kind of thing everyone at the conference was
For most parents, that choice might raise questions-and the banker
was no exception. Unlike most parents, however, the well-connected
banker could resolve those uncertainties, with a call to the CEO of
the education venture: "Is this thing crap or for real?"
In higher education, that is the question of the moment-and the
answer is not clear, even to those lining up to push for college
reinvention. But the question few people want to grapple with is, For
whom are we reinventing college?
The punditry around reinvention (including some in these pages) has
trumpeted the arrival of MOOC's, badges, "UnCollege," and so on as
the beginning of a historic transformation. "College Is Dead. Long
Live College!," declared a headline in Time's "Reinventing College"
issue, in October, which pondered whether massive open online courses
would "finally pop the tuition bubble." With the advent of MOOC's,
"we're witnessing the end of higher education as we know it,"
pronounced Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, in
The Boston Globe last month.
Read beneath the headlines a bit. The pundits and disrupters, many of
whom enjoyed liberal-arts educations at elite colleges, herald a
revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or
their children, but for others: less-wealthy, less-prepared students
who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college
"Those who can afford a degree from an elite institution are still in
an enviable position," wrote the libertarian blogger Megan McArdle in
a recent Newsweek article, "Is College a Lousy Investment?" For the
rest, she suggested, perhaps apprenticeships and on-the-job training
might be more realistic, more affordable options. Mr. Aoun, in his
Globe essay, admitted that the coming reinvention could promote a
two-tiered system: "one tier consisting of a campus-based education
for those who can afford it, and the other consisting of low- and
no-cost MOOC's." And in an article about MOOC's, Time quotes David
Stavens, a founder of the MOOC provider Udacity, as conceding that
"there's a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you
can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful."
But if you can't, entrepreneurs like him are creating an
industrialized version of higher education that the most fervent
disruptionists predict could replace mid-sized state institutions or
less-selective private colleges. "I think the top 50 schools are
probably safe," Mr. Stavens said.
A 'Mass Psychosis'
Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC's,
badges-certificates of accomplishment-and other innovations have real
potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add
rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education's
real-world applicability, and make learning more efficient-advances
all sorely needed.
But the reinvention conversation has not produced the panacea that
people seem to yearn for. "The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis," a
case of people "just throwing spaghetti against the wall" to see what
sticks, says Peter J. Stokes, executive director for postsecondary
innovation at Northeastern's College of Professional Studies. His job
is to study the effectiveness of ideas that are emerging or already
He believes that many of the new ideas, including MOOC's, could bring
improvements to higher education. But "innovation is not about
gadgets," says Mr. Stokes. "It's not about eureka moments. ... It's
about continuous evaluation."
The furor over the cost and effectiveness of a college education has
roots in deep socioeconomic challenges that won't be solved with an
online app. Over decades, state support per student at public
institutions has dwindled even as enrollments have ballooned, leading
to higher prices for parents and students. State funds per student
dropped by 20 percent from 1987 to 2011, according to an analysis by
the higher-education finance expert Jane Wellman, who directs the
National Association of System Heads. States' rising costs for
Medicaid, which provides health care for the growing ranks of poor
people, are a large part of the reason.
Meanwhile, the gap between the country's rich and poor widened during
the recession, choking off employment opportunities for many recent
graduates. Education leading up to college is a mess: Public
elementary and secondary systems have failed a major segment of
society, and the recent focus on testing has had questionable results.
Part of the problem is that the two-tiered system that Mr. Aoun
fretted about is already here-a system based in part on the education
and income of parents, says Robert Archibald, an economics professor
at the College of William and Mary and an author of Why Does College
Cost So Much?
"At most institutions, students are in mostly large classes,
listening to second-rate lecturers, with very little meaningful
faculty student interaction," he says. "Students are getting a fairly
distant education even in a face-to-face setting."
If the future of MOOC's as peddled by some were to take hold, it
would probably exacerbate the distinction between "luxury" and
"economy" college degrees, he says. Graduates leaving high school
well prepared for college would get an even bigger payoff, finding a
place in the top tier.
"The tougher road is going to be for the people who wake up after
high school and say, I should get serious about learning," Mr.
Archibald says. "It's going to be tougher for them to maneuver
through the system, and it is already tough."
That's one reason economists like Robert B. Reich argue for more
investment in apprentice-based educational programs, which would
offer an alternative to the bachelor's degree. "Our entire economy is
organized to lavish very generous rewards on students who go through
that gantlet" for a four-year degree, says the former secretary of
labor, now a professor of public policy at the University of
California at Berkeley. As a country, he says, we need to "expand our
repertoire." But it's important that such a program not be conceived
and offered as a second-class degree, he argues. It should be a
program "that has a lot of prestige associated with it."
With few exceptions, however, the reinvention crowd is interested in
solutions that will require less public and private investment, not
more. Often that means cutting out the campus experience, deemed by
some a "luxury" these days.
Less Help Where It's Needed
Here's the cruel part: The students from the bottom tier are often
the ones who need face-to-face instruction most of all.
"The idea that they can have better education and more access at
lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous," says
Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University.
Seventy percent of her students are eligible for Pell Grants, and 50
percent come from the broken District of Columbia school system. Her
task has been trying to figure out how to serve those students at a
college with the university's meager $11-million endowment.
Getting them to and through college takes advisers, counselors, and
learning-disability experts-a fact Ms. McGuire has tried to convey to
foundations, policy makers, and the public. But the reinvention
conversation has had a "tech guy" fixation on mere content delivery,
she says. "It reveals a lack of understanding of what it takes to
make the student actually learn the content and do something with it."
Amid the talk of disruptive innovation, "the real disruption is the
changing demographics of this country," Trinity's president says.
Waves of minority students, especially Hispanics, are arriving on
campus, many at those lower-tier colleges, having come from schools
that didn't prepare them for college work. "The real problem here is
that higher education has to repeat a whole lot of lower education,"
Ms. McGuire says. "That has been drag on everyone."
Much of the hype around reinvention bypasses her day-to-day
challenges as a president. "All of the talk about how higher
education is broken is a superficial scrim over the question, What
are the problems we are trying to solve?" she says. The reinvention
crowd has motivations aside from solving higher education's problems,
she suspects: "Beware Chicken Little, because Chicken Little has a
vested interest in this. There is an awful lot of hype about
disruption and the need for reinvention that is being fomented by
people who are going to make out like bandits on it."
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the
University of Virginia and a frequent commentator on technology and
education, believes that some of the new tools and innovations could
indeed enhance teaching and learning-but that doing so will take
serious research and money.
In any case, he says, the new kinds of distance learning cannot
replace the vital role that bricks-and-mortar colleges have in many
"To champion something as trivial as MOOC's in place of established
higher education is to ignore the day-care centers, the hospitals,
the public health clinics, the teacher-training institutes, the
athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities
enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten
citizens," he says. "Not only is it not about the classroom, it is
certainly not just about the direct delivery of information into
people's lives. If that's all universities did, then publishing and
libraries would have crushed universities a long time ago."
Unfortunately, Mr. Vaidhyanathan says, the discussion of college
reinvention represents a watering down of higher education's social
contract-a process that has been in the works for decades. "What it
is going to take to reinvigorate higher education in this country,"
he says, "is a strong political movement to champion research, to
champion low tuition costs as a policy goal, to stand up against the
banks that have made so much money lending for student loans, and to
reconnect public institutions to their sense of public mission."
"That is going to be a long process," he says. "It has taken 20 years
to press universities down into this cowering pose, and it is going
to take 20 assertive years to get back to the point where Americans
view American higher education the way the rest of the world does."
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION: David Schwen for The Chronicle
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244