Friday, August 21, 2015
Credentialism is killing the classroom
“I wish college were like this!” I hear this exclamation over and over at the seminars put on by organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education and the Institute for Humane Studies.
Attendees are blown away by the excellence of the content, the professors’ willingness to engage students even in free time, and the intelligence and interest level of the other participants.
And it’s not just the students who see a difference. Faculty also talk about how these seminars are far better than typical college classes.
What causes this distinction? One obvious explanation is self-selection. Faculty and students who choose to give up a week of their summer to discuss ideas are high caliber and highly engaged.
But college has self-selection, too. Shouldn’t it be full of professors and students who are earnest truth and knowledge seekers of the finest quality?
With the rare exception of one or two classes, college is nothing like this. Why does the self-selection only produce quality learning in these seminars?
It’s because college offers an official credential — a degree. Educational experiences outside of college do not. That’s it. Every other difference is insignificant.
Imagine how different these summer seminars would be if they offered an official, government-approved piece of paper at the end — something without which you couldn’t get past the first screening of job applications. A summer seminar selling a magical ticket to a job that Mom and Dad would feel proud of and that society would respect would be overwhelmed with attendees. And many of them wouldn’t give a hoot about what they had to do to get the paper at the end. Demand for faculty would spike, and many instructors would do whatever it took to get the paycheck and retreat to quiet corridors where they could be with their books and the few colleagues who actually care.
It would become, in a word, college.
The evidence is everywhere that the credential is killing the classroom. I’ve guest taught entry-level college classes before. It’s pretty painful. Most of the students are half asleep, grumpy, forlorn, texting, and generally inattentive.
I like to joke that if aliens from another planet came down and observed a typical class at a typical university and were asked what they had witnessed, they would scan the cinder block and fluorescent room, ponder the pained look on student faces, and conclude it was a penal colony. Imagine their surprise when told these people are not only here of their own free will, but paying tens of thousands of dollars for their suffering.
Not every classroom is that painful, but few inspire the joy of learning. Consider this: when class is cancelled, everyone is happy — students and professors alike. What other good can you think of where you pay in advance and are excited when it’s not delivered?
What other good can you think of where you pay in advance and are excited when it’s not delivered?
But what is the product that colleges are selling? The professors may not always realize it, but it’s not their lectures the students are buying. It’s nice to get a little enjoyment and knowledge out of the deal, but that’s not what tuition pays for. After all, if that’s all that students were seeking, they could simply sit in on classes without registering or paying.
They are there for the credential. The credential is the signal to the working world that they are at least slightly better, on average, than those without it. That’s it.
In some fields the credential is required, and in many others alternative ways to measure competence are illegal, so the signal of a degree retains artificially enhanced value. Even so, that value is fading.
Large institutions form because transaction costs are high, with tons of individuals exchanging goods, services, and information separately. This is why family names mattered so much in times past. Economist Ronald Coase famously explained the existence of firms using this basic logic. It works for universities, too. When it’s hard to prove your worth, you get a trusted institution to vouch for you. It’s a shortcut that reduces risk on the part of those who want to hire you.
But each passing year, the value of this institutional reputation-backer declines compared to the available alternatives. Technology has dramatically reduced information costs, so it is now easier than ever to vouch for yourself — or to get vast networks of clients and customers to vouch for you.
Whose steak is the best? Where once you had to rely on a few food critics or word of mouth among a small set of friends, now Yelp reviews let you consult a vast array of food lovers.
With reputation markets, you can build a better signal than what college is selling.
As long as legal and cultural norms make the degree the primary signal of value in the marketplace, the classroom will continue to decline in quality. When the majority of students are purchasing one good (the credential) but are made to endure another (the classroom), they will continue to see formal education as more of a cost than a benefit — and they will behave accordingly, sliding through to minimize pain and suffering.
The classroom isn’t doing the credential any favors, either. Most employers admit that a degree signals very little these days. Everyone has one. Most universities sell as many as they possibly can. Cases of professors passing bad students and universities passing bad professors are well known, and the institutions’ clout is waning.
Even employers who still require a degree ask for much more on top of it, because sitting through a bunch of classes you didn’t care about and doing the minimum amount of passionless hoop-jumping doesn’t convey much about your energy, eagerness, and ability to create value in a dynamic market.
My professor friends sometimes chastise me for what they think are unfair criticisms of college. What I’m suggesting, however — that the credential should be separated from the classroom — reflects my respect for great professors and the value of their style of education.
Classroom learning at its best — classes like those I’ve experienced in summer seminars — is so powerful and so valuable that I hate to see great education destroyed and diminished by artificial attachment to a supposedly magical credential. The subsidies, loans, restrictions, requirements, and licensure laws, as well as the parental and societal worship of college as the great economic security blanket, have filled the classroom with so much clutter that it’s a rarity for quality interaction to occur.
I’m excited to see the cleavage between the credential and the classroom happening right in front of us. It’s not the proliferation of free online university courses that will fundamentally change the college experience in countries like the United States, where access to information is already rich. The “massively open online course” is just a new delivery system for a current good — and one that most Americans aren’t buying anyway. The real shift is occurring as fewer and fewer employers look to the degree as the dominant signal, and as more and more young people build their own.
When the dust settles, we’ll see great teachers and researchers doing their thing with eager audiences of students who are actually there to purchase that unique product, not just suffering through it on their way to getting something else they really want. The host of mediocre faculty will lose, but the good ones will win big, both in economic opportunity and in quality of the craft. So will the young customers who wish to learn from them.
Another Education Subsidy
If elected president, Hillary Clinton has promised to spend $350 billion to make college “more affordable.” The U.S. already has an $18 trillion debt (and growing by the day), but Clinton wants to add to it. That’s not affordable.
Too many young people are graduating from universities unable to find jobs, or are underemployed. Slate.com references a 2014 study of youth joblessness by the Economic Policy Institute. It found “…roughly 8.5 percent of college graduates between the ages of 21 and 24 were unemployed. That figure is based on a 12-month average between April 2013 and March 2014, so it’s not a perfect snapshot of the here and now.
Still, it tells us that the post-collegiate job market, just like the rest of the labor market, certainly isn’t nearly back to normal. (For comparison, the unemployment rate for all college grads over the age of 25 is 3.3 percent, which is also still higher than normal.) More worrisomely, the EPI finds that a total of 16.8 percent of new grads are ‘underemployed,’ meaning they’re either jobless and hunting for work; working part time because they can’t find a full-time job; or want a job, have looked within the past year, but have now given up on searching.”
The problem isn’t just at the university level; it’s at the jobs level where Obamacare, higher taxes and overregulation have reduced incentives to hire people, or forced many to accept part-time work.
When I entered American University as a freshman in 1960, tuition was $450 a semester. Today you probably can’t get out of the bookstore for that amount. I received no federal subsidies. My father paid for the first year and I paid for the rest by working and getting a small student loan from the bank, which I quickly repaid.
While federal help for education has been around since the mid-19th century, most notably with the GI Bill after World War II, direct grants and other federal help to universities began to increase in the late ‘60s, leading to a rise in the cost of tuition. As University of Colorado law professor Paul F. Campos noted recently in The New York Times, “…over the past 35 years, college tuition at public universities has nearly quadrupled…”
Campos rejects the view promoted by some that federal subsidies are necessary because of cuts at the state level: “…far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.”
U.S. education in the 21st century is based on a 20th-century model. No one ought to be “entitled” to tax money to go to expensive schools like Harvard or Yale, or even public universities. Community colleges and the online universities that offer students flexibility to work and study cost less and provide necessary knowledge, or trade skills for the job market. Athletics and the rest of the university culture may be fine for those who can afford it, but for students and parents who can’t there are many more options than when I attended college.
Hillary Clinton’s proposal is a vote-buying effort that will add one more entitlement to an economy that can’t afford it. Given the sharp decline of the Chinese yuan it looks like China, the main U.S. debt holder, may have reached its lending limit.
If American politicians can’t be an example of what living within one’s means looks like, how can we expect younger people to embrace a Puritan ethic that served us well before envy, greed and entitlement took over?
Turning down Oxbridge was the best decision I ever made
A bit of Northern assertiveness below, I think
By James Kirkup
Before we start, I should make clear that I have nothing against people who went to Oxbridge. They can’t help it, poor things.
Besides, they usually don’t know any better: they spent their formative years sweating to get into the place they were told was the apex of ambition and achievement, then years more locked in a medieval cloister where it was drummed into them that to them and their gilded peers belongs the world and all that’s in it.
And when I say locked in, I mean it. It was a stern porter with a fat bunch of keys who persuaded me to turn down a place at Oxford.
I was staying in a college for entrance interviews, and wanted to go out that evening to meet the other person from my (bog-standard, northern, comprehensive) school in town for the same reason. “Door’s locked at 12,” he told me. What if I want to stay out later than that? (I didn’t, but that’s by the by.) The answer stays with me now, more than 20 years on: “Why would you want to do that? Everyone here is happy to be back by then.”
That was that, really. When, some time later, said college kindly indicated it would open that studded door to me, I politely declined, and went to Edinburgh instead. That remains one of the best decisions I’ve made.
All this is to say I agree with Matthew Taylor. The chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts is now quietly regretting suggesting that kids with good A-levels should “stick two fingers up” to Oxbridge and similar institutions, but he had a point. There really can be more to life after A-levels than a “top” university.
When A-level results arrive today, there will be 18-year-olds whose hearts practically burst with pride: they’ve made it, they’re going to Oxford or Cambridge. They are right to be proud. Their work and talent deserve all the accolades that life will now bestow on them.
But there will also be those of equal talent and industry who don’t make it. What do our rigid ideas of Oxbridge and success mean for them? A university education is supposed to open the mind and expose us to new ideas. But our thinking about choosing a university rests on largely unquestioned consensus: Oxbridge best, Russell Group good, all else second-rate. Like all consensus, it deserves to be challenged.
So too does the idea that everyone should go to university for three years after school. Happily, massive open online courses (or Moocs, as they are known) will change that assumption here as they are already doing elsewhere. Moocs allow anyone with an internet connection to study at any university enlightened enough to put its courses online. Harvard and Stanford lead the way; currently Britain’s “best” haughtily decline even to offer Moocs.
With a similar lack of imagination, some big UK recruiters lazily hire almost exclusively from Oxbridge. Those pretty colleges are actually factories. They used to churn out churchmen, then civil servants. Now it’s fresh meat for the high-pay, long-hours professional services industries: banking, consultancy and law.
That means a “top” university often yields a top salary. Statistics suggest new Oxbridge graduates earn 12 per cent more than contemporaries from other first-rank institutions. No statistics suggest they are 12 per cent more interesting, 12 per cent more creative, 12 per cent happier.
Oxbridge: it’s what everyone wants to do. But who wants to be everyone?
Posted by jonjayray at 12:57 AM