A new proposal is out from Third Way, authored by Anya Kamenetz. It makes an argument for a radical restructuring of higher education in pursuit of a radically cheaper degree. I plan to write a few blog posts on its proposals. This is the first.
There’s many things to like about the plan.
I like the scope of the plan. It’s an ambitious plan, but it starts from the premise we have a rich public educational infrastructure in the U.S. that needs to be reconfigured, not abandoned, dismantled, privatized, or routed around. For that reason alone I think the proposal is worth serious debate.
I like that it correctly diagnoses much of what ails education: it’s a system where competition has distorted our institution’s priorities, resulting in competition in the wrong areas, and a structure that does not work to accomplish our stated mission.
And Anya’s six “steps” are, I think, roughly correct:
- Reduce and restructure personnel
- End the perk wars
- Focus on college completion
- Scale up blended learning
- Streamline offerings
- Rethink college (system) architecture
So it’s a good pass at the issue. At the same time there are some issues at the detail level that require elaboration. Today I want to talk about three pieces of the plan — the $10K premise, the personnel restructuring, and the perk wars.
The $10,000 Degree
I’m not sure how we got to this $10,000 degree number. I went to college in 1987; at that time my four year tuition was around ten to fifteen thousand dollars. If Wolfram Alpha is right, that would be $20,000-$30,000 in today’s dollars. And that isn’t counting the much more sizable state subsidy that we had at that time.
The $10,000 degree also doesn’t jive with what we know about cost in other sectors. A half decent high school will spend $10,000 per student per year on instruction in a flattened no-frills model that looks much like Anya’s proposal. Even assuming a subsidy could half the student side of that (a big assumption), we’re still left with $20,000 for four years.
As a final check, we can look at cost per graduate numbers as they currently stand, and see that they range from about $28,000 to $500,000. The “disruptive” school that Clayton Christensen wrote an entire book about, BYU Idaho, has gotten cost per completion down to about $30,000 a year. A policy that shoots for a result that is likely a couple standard deviations out from the mean is a policy designed to fail.
I’d argue that if we are going to pick a number, it should be one grounded in data, not rhetoric. If you want to see what overly rhetorical stretch goals do to a social institution, you can look at No Child Left Behind’s targets have done to K-12. A $20,000 or $25,000 degree is not as sexy as its Texas cousin, but represents a difficult target that may be achievable, would largely solve the student debt problem, and would not create the sort of unprofitable schism that talk of $10,000 degrees leads to.
Reduce and Restructure Personnel
Here Anya breaks the traditional roles in a university into three roles: Academic Advisors/Mentors, Instructor/Instructional Technologists, and Professor/Instructional Designers. I applaud the rethinking of roles, and think these role delineations are better than what we have currently, but wonder to what extent they are sustainable. People I know all over the country are trying to hire instructional designers and instructional technologists right now. They are incredibly rare, and much more expensive than your average college professor. They also have profitable options in private industry not always available to the average history professor.
And of course finding people highly qualified in their academic discipline who have instructional design experience as well only gets more difficult (and hence, more expensive).
The problem here is that the narrative that schools are expensive because they are administration/staff heavy is in conflict with the narrative that we need more expertise in delivery. In companies that compete for instructional design bids, positions are far more specialized and role-differentiated than one finds at colleges. This is because expertise is rare and expensive, and must be shared across multiple projects.
Ending the Perk Wars
We should end the perk wars, agreed. Campuses are going to have to increasingly organize around the assumption that their students don’t live on campus, and develop communities that are less focused on “campus life” and more focused on “college life”. The attempts to lure richer students to campus with coutry club features has to stop.
Anya also suggests that extracurriculars should be defunded, however, and that is a social justice issue for me. Just as exiling art classes from grade school has resulted in art classes for rich kids, and nothing for the poor, so exiling extracurriculars from state schools will result in a subpar incomplete education for lower-income students. I learned much from working at the radio station at my college and working on the literary journal — much more than I did in most classes. Many students will tell you the same about the clubs they belonged to, and many faculty will tell you they had more impact as advisers to these clubs than in their classes.
More next week, and a note on bloat
Next week I’ll go through the rest of the plan (or at least the next third of it). Looking at the few points I’ve dealt with today, I think the one theme that strikes me is that bloat doesn’t work the way people think it does. As companies become more efficient, roles differentiate, and there ends up being somewhat less frontline staff.
The tendency is to call all non-frontline staff “bloat”, whether they are lab maintenance specialists, instructional technologists, or student financial aid experts. Programs are similar: extracurricular activities (the Geology club) are “bloat”, whereas Geology 101 is core, regardless of the relative impact of each of these on education.
This doesn’t happen in any other industry I’m aware of. We don’t look at a software company and declare that everyone who is not a programmer is “bloat”. Yet the truth is that many elements of interface design that are dealt with by programmers early on in a company’s history are moved to interface designers and human factors experts. Product features that were once the scope of the senior coder are moved into “management” areas, such as product leads. This is because while there are a select number of people that can be expert in many things in a five-person start up, you cannot build a company on them. To build a company you find experts in specific areas, and build the management structure that allows those experts to work together (we can debate on what that structure should look like, it can certainly be agile in nature, but it must be put in place).
All of this allows companies to deliver a better product at a reduced cost. My guess is that if education is truly going to get cheaper we will need to see more role differentiation not less, and start considering extracurricular activities in light of how they provide sometimes invisible support for the curriculum. Most of all we have to get beyond simplistic definitions of “bloat” and move towards a more nuanced understanding of a decades-long shift of instructional and advising expertise from faculty to staff.
More to come…