Saturday, January 24, 2009

Education for fun and profit - Part 2

In Part 1 yesterday, I used a Matt Yglesias post to speak to the changes that are coming to the relationship of people to institutions of higher education. I argued that the conversion from a complex relationship to a simpler transaction-based model will have rather big effects. Yglesias stated that for-profit colleges are somehow "obliged" to rip off their students in any way possible, which seems like overstatement, but it is valid, I think, to contend that people are going to look at their education in starkly different ways and have higher expectations of what it will do for their lives.

Yglesias goes on:
[T]he nature of the higher education market is such that there’s no way these for-profits can ever be anything other than low-end options.
He doesn't really back that up at all, except by implying that the managers of for-profit colleges have that incentive to "screw you over." Contrast that with the model we have in our not-for-profit research institutions, where undergraduates pay rather large bucks to be taught by poorly-paid TAs, supporting a large R&D facility that is unlikely to have a great effect on their instruction in Beginning Microeconomics. Good luck, young folks, in even getting to see one of the Nobel laureates who is getting major money and incentives to come write their papers and do their experiments (one of those incentives being the opportunity not to teach an undergraduate course).

Yglesias does seem to get that, though this particular post doesn't explicate that well, as he often talks about his unwillingness to give money to his institution of higher learning, Harvard University, because they already have so much, and any contributions could be applied more usefully elsewhere. [I actually agree with this stand, but there is a slight incongruity in that his Harvard affiliation seems to come up quite frequently, an ongoing benefit for which, I guess, he feels he's already paid - or, perhaps, he may feel his current prestige is a plus for Harvard.]

He also writes:
I think the main lesson here is that traditional universities need to do a better job of getting into the niche that’s currently dominated by these poorly performing for-profits. In part, state governments would do well to shift emphasis away from trying to burnish the sheen on their “flagship” traditional universities and toward doing more in the way of providing community college services for working and non-traditional students.
In other words, state university systems need to get more vocational; they need to look at their competition as being the likes of University of Phoenix and not Harvard. They need to respond to the needs of their consumers, presumably through less research and more teaching, flexible hours, perhaps a bigger on-line presence, and so forth.

I can barely sort out the conundra here. First, don't we like, in general, to leave the consumer-responsive aspects of a business to the market? Aren't the for-profits far better positioned to react to the needs of market demand than a governmental agency? Anyone who has watched the tortured attempts of the University of Illinois to develop an on-line program knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Of course, the risk is that we'll find out just how little the market is for some programs and specialties. When we start seeing the new consumer-responsive state colleges dropping history because there just isn't a market for it, how will that go over?

Second, do we really trust the private college system to be able to do all the things we now want a public system to do? If the state colleges move more toward providing "community college services," then all the people who now need the subsidies currently in the public system will have to go to the private system, and they may well not be able to afford it. One could argue that the private system will adjust to those new realities, but that seems more a hope than a plan.

Finally, we hear so much about training students for the needs of the 21st century workplace. I have sincere doubts that this really constitutes a proper strategy, as I've expressed before, but let's take it at face value and assume that we have a consensus, that we need more computer scientists and engineers and mathematicians and so on.

Where will they come from? Yglesias has the public system "dropping down" to meet immediate market needs for "working and non-traditional students," in effect crowding the space of the for-profit and community colleges. Yet we need the highly-trained, highly-developed graduates of the best programs in order to create Tom Friedman's free electrons and the New Energy economy which will enrich us all.

I know that a coherent world view will always be in conflict with what seems to be relatively easy solutions to problems. But I guess I expect more second- and third-order thinking from some people. My ongoing frustrations with Yglesias (who is, after all, the 16th-most influential liberal in the U.S. media) is that, I believe, he writes so much that he tends to dash off thoughts without developing them. It really shouldn't be all that difficult to work through some of the implications of changing the mission of the public education system, especially when you're using that as a way of getting rid of the for-profit institutions that clearly are filling some kind of niche, no matter how incompetently.

And I respect him enough that I'd like to hear his thoughts on that, see his logic. Instead, I just get a blanket statement that, as written, seems fairly unpersuasive.


Citizen Carrie said...

Lots of food for thought here. I'm kind of partial to City College and State U, and I tend to equate University of Phoenix with the old-fashioned diploma mills. I guess my biggest problem is I don't know any University of Phoenix graduates. I know a lot of people taking classes, but it's too early to judge whether their schooling is doing their careers any good. The few people I (barely) knew who did graduate usually left the companies right away for supposedly greener pastures elsewhere, and then I lost track of them.

I'm actually kind of surprised that the University of Phoenix model appears to be somewhat sucessful because, at least where I live, even the big-name colleges have very good study programs for non-traditional students. I really credit the U of P marketing campaigns for being wildly successful in attracting students. I briefly ran a company's tuition reimbursement program several years ago and, through my unrepresentative random sampling, found that our employees didn't even seem to realize that tuition at University of Phoenix was more expensive then at public universities!

I also think that a lot of the people who defaulted on their U of P loans might also have defaulted no matter where they attended school. Through their marketing campaigns, U of P could be attracting students who might otherwise not consider continuing their education, and they might not be, shall we say, well-suited for these programs.

I haven't personally seen anything to suggest that the University of Phoenix does a poor job of instructing their students, at least in lower level classes. I also don't have a problem with for-profit educational institutions, as long as they can deliver the goods and give people a better shot at landing a better-paying job after graduation. I know of several smaller, less-prestigious schools that, in many instances, better prepare their students for employment than the more prestigious colleges. But a fine education from experienced instructors won't do you any good if employers look at your resume to see what college you attended and start laughing.

Androcass said...

Interesting comments, Carrie, and I appreciate them.

One thought I had: perhaps the massive education budget of some of these for-profit places has as much to do with establishing a reputation among employers as it does in attracting students. After all, if you've just dropped a few hundred bucks attending an NFL game in University of Phoenix Stadium, maybe you won't be as tempted to laugh when you get back to the office on Monday and pick up a resume from a graduate of U of P.

Greg Glockner said...

Wow, where to start.

First, I'm amused whenever I open my email spam folder and see all the ads for "buy a Ph.D.". I always laugh because I've already got one! (No kidding!)

Now, when I was studying to become Piled Higher and Deeper, I was a TA (by my own choice), and it was a painful education - for me! The lessons I learned were that the students - at the #1 ranked program for my branch of engineering - expected good grades, no matter how poor or fraudulent their work. In other words, I had students who had so blatantly cheated on their work - violating the school's honor code - and they still believed they were entitled to a good grade.

I remember a particular high school math teacher who once taught me that you don't deserve "partial credit" for a wrong answer - because wrong answers can cause markets to crash, planes to crash and bridges to fail. The harsh truth is unpopular.

That said, I think part of the problem is the ridiculous expectations for university education in America. A liberal arts education is great for the minority of students who are motivated by a love of knowledge. But why did this become de rigueur for the population at large? And why is there such stigma with a vocational education? I see no shame in a career in sales, healthcare, product repair. Do these careers require familiarity with literature and history? No, their success requires mastery of computers, communications, marketing and other practical skills that are seldom taught in college.

I have nothing wrong with American higher education; I just don't think it's the right path for many people who are guided to follow it.

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