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The end of college.

(This started life as a comment that metastasized.)

Someone on my FB feed shared The Teaching Class, an essay about how U.S. post-secondary education is largely being delivered by poorly compensated part-time laborers, even though the public conception is still of "college professors" as an ivory-tower upper-class elite.

Honestly, I'm OK with dissolving the class boundaries around delivering education, much as the U.S. has spent much of the last century working (with uneven success) on dissolving the class boundaries around receiving it. I think it's the right direction to go in, and in the last 50 years we've created an information infrastructure that makes it possible.

That said, I appreciate that this transition screws over the traditional professorial class in a big way. (Social change always screws someone over. My usual response to this is to endorse net-beneficial social changes and also to endorse taking some fraction of the benefit and earmarking it for cushioning the impact to the folks screwed over. Where that's not practicable, I endorse making the change and accepting that some people are being screwed over who didn't used to be and feeling sad about it, but also feeling happy that some people who used to be screwed over no longer are.)

I also appreciate (as the essay points out) that at the moment we're doing this very incoherently. Basically a lot of schools have turned post-secondary education into a mass-market commodity, with all the implications of that in terms of the working conditions of those who deliver it, while still charging based on the traditional model of university education as a class gating factor (that is, something which keeps the lower classes from being more upwardly mobile than the upper classes are comfortable with).

And they are profiting handsomely from the arbitrage, and doing their best to prevent the free flow of information that will eliminate the opportunity for arbitrage. Which is offensive to many of our sensibilities (including my own) but entirely predictable.

More importantly, it's unsustainable.

My expectations for how it comes to an end:
  • At some point the whole notion of "going to college" will collapse from the inside out. The transition will look a lot like marriage equality did: at some point the conversation about what post-secondary education ought to look like will go mainstream. TIME magazine will have a cover saying "The End of College?" and everyone will have an opinion about it and be arguing about it. And within twenty years of that point the social norm will have changed into something unrecognizable, far far faster than anyone will expect or be prepared to handle, though in retrospect the writing has been on the wall since the late 20th century.

  • After that transition, traditional undergraduate universities will continue to exist in their traditional role as a class gating factor, focusing primarily on liberal arts education for the children of the wealthy. Post-graduate technical institutes (med schools, law schools, STEM schools, etc.) will continue to exist more or less unchanged, and will continue to charge high prices and in some cases offer scholarships to the best and the brightest.

  • After that transition, most intelligent middle-class kids will not go to college and will not really understand why their parents ever did so.

  • Instead they will sign up for an ill-organized patchwork of certification programs and exams for various professions, not unlike (and probably building on) what we're starting to see for adults trying to stay competitive in the workplace, mostly delivered online by contracted training companies and endorsed by employers.

  • The same infrastructure that supports the delivery of that training will also be used for a wide range of elective education, similarly to how Adult Education centers use university campuses today.

  • Other (cough) primarily social functions traditionally served by college campuses will similarly be replaced by (cough) decentralized online services. This part has pretty much already happened.

  • The idea that post-secondary education is reserved for late adolescents will become one of those quirky 20th-century notions that our children and grandchildren raise a bemused eyebrow at and can't understand how that was ever supposed to make any sense at all. Phrases like "continuing education" and "adult education" will make about as much sense as "wireless phone."

In general, I approve of the eventual model I'm expecting; I think it's better than the one we have now. But those twenty years in the middle will SUCK. I will likely be living through it and I expect to suffer for it. The potential here for both deliberate abuse and well-meaning damage, for people to find themselves unemployable and uneducated through no fault of their own, is heartrending and I don't see how we avoid it.

The only thing that keeps me sanguine about the prospect is that this is pretty much already the situation for large chunks of the country and the world, for whom the new model will be an improvement. The only thing I anticipate getting worse is the extent to which it will start to affect people I know personally.

Social transitions always suck for the privileged elite.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 25th, 2014 05:27 pm (UTC)
speaking here for the privileged elite (i trained to be professorial class) -- the thing that sucks isn't the educational aspect alone. it's the fact that my training, which included research as well as teaching, has been wasted (on society; it's still good for me, even economically). we fund war around here these days, but the nih/nimh research and training grants that created me are no more.

this means that my ability to make scientific progress, and that of the students in the lab i do not have, ain't much happening.

and i think that's a greater loss to society than anything else that's changing about the "college" (i really mean "university") experience.

such is my vanity :)
Jun. 25th, 2014 05:46 pm (UTC)
(nods) I will certainly agree that the research and development implications are an entirely different issue from the social implications on post-secondary education. Whether it's a greater loss to society or not I really don't know... which is not a polite expression of skepticism, but a genuine expression of uncertainty. They are both huge, and I don't have a reliable sense of scale, though certainly the potential short-term upside of R&D is unbelievably huge. (What's the opposite of "catastrophic"?)
Jun. 25th, 2014 06:59 pm (UTC)
"Transformative". Or at least that's the word I'm supposed to use in my grants about rhyme detection.
Jun. 25th, 2014 07:07 pm (UTC)
i'd like to respond to this, but i'm not sure i follow you about the "potential short-term upside of r&d" -- can you clarify please?
Jun. 25th, 2014 08:19 pm (UTC)
Nothing startling: basic research can get us a lot of unexpected concrete upside really quickly, in a way that social mechanisms probably won't. (Basic research can also get us long-term upside, but so do social mechanisms.)
Jun. 25th, 2014 08:33 pm (UTC)
ok, well, then i am totally failing to follow you :) i think there is a loss of r&d, and a further loss of people trained to do r&d, in the current decline of academia. so i am not seeing any upside.
Jun. 25th, 2014 06:58 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of this critique is very important. It's entirely possible that another consequence of the Death of College will be that the fraction of science that is done by curiosity-based researchers will drop tremendously. This seems problematic, as does the rise of "science" being done by corporations that don't seem to really care about science.

But I think it's entirely possible that "college" down the road will be that thing that upper-class students, and the intellectual elite, continue to do.
Jun. 25th, 2014 07:12 pm (UTC)
could be. but speaking as the intellectual elite, there's no money for it in academia these days.

(i'm a neuroscientist, i do brain and language, also psychoactives. my job titles are "instructor" at $RIDICULOUSLY_PRESTIGIOUS_UNIVERSITY and "research associate" at $RIDICULOUSLY_PRESTIGIOUS_HOSPITAL. but 90% of my teaching income is actually from adult education and/or teaching horseback riding, and 90% of my brain-related income these days comes from expert witnessing. my current article-in-press was unfunded.)
Jun. 25th, 2014 07:59 pm (UTC)
I guess the issue that you are raising is that due to the way universities and research processes have evolved, a lot of basic research is currently performed by professors or other associates of universities. (And, depends to some extent, on grad students being relatively cheap and undergraduate research subjects being relatively available.) Research is currently a function of universities, in addition to the educational and credentialing of students, and it is not clear how the research function will be impacted by changes in the way education and credentialing happen.
Jun. 25th, 2014 08:35 pm (UTC)

it applies to hospital research as well, though at that point it's medical students and teaching hospitals, and the md process (which is one step over from academia per se).

(n.b. i am a hospital affiliate, but a phd)
Jun. 25th, 2014 07:58 pm (UTC)
I am reminded of Robert Pirsig's "The Church of Reason" speech in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Which I haven't read in...decades? That can't be right...

I expect to have my job indefinitely, as I essentially do damage control regardless of the system inflicting it in use. That said, I am spending a fraction of my time attempting to reinvent myself in various ways. I suspect the intersection of "make large profits" and "genuinely help people and make the world a better place via education" is not a null set. But there are a lot of people looking for that intersection.
Jun. 26th, 2014 11:56 am (UTC)
I am amused - danieldwilliam had your post and mine next to each other in his feed, both talking about different predictions of change for the next 20 years :->
Jun. 26th, 2014 01:59 pm (UTC)
(nods) It's a fun hobby.

My initial reading of this comment framed "different predictions" as competing predictions, which I thought was both a remarkable coincidence and potentially fascinating, so I excitedly went to read it... scratched my head... re-read it trying to figure out what you thought we were disagreeing about... I mean, yes, we were both talking about cultural changes and the mechanisms that underlie how rapidly they go from invisible to pervasive, and we're talking about different mechanisms, but it's not like we're claiming ours is the only mechanism... read it a third time just to be sure... composed a comment to that effect...

...then dawn broke over Marblehead and I rethought that framing and deleted the comment.

Jun. 26th, 2014 03:39 pm (UTC)
I am more or less in agreement. I spent my early career in academia (8 years of grad school followed by 4 years attempting to scale the tenure track) and saw this coming a while ago, though of course back when I was in grad school, no one could have predicted the effects of online courses, because they didn't yet exist.

Decoupling research and teaching, at least at the undergrad level, could have helped. Undergrads deserve excellent teachers, and there are very few people who can devote equal resources to both, or in fact be good at both. At the same time, exposure to research is what gets the undergrads to head for a PhD, so...

I'd also throw in student loans as an issue. The amount of loan money available has expanded enormously, and as that has happened, the "college experience" as sort of a ClubMed one does before facing the "real world" has become ascendant in the private college world. So student loan money gets poured into facilities and pretty things, with relatively little going for actual teaching. The education part doesn't really matter much, at most colleges.
Jun. 26th, 2014 05:41 pm (UTC)
I once read an article - probably in the 90s or so, possibly written as long ago as the 60s - arguing that the trend toward universal higher education (and the associated devaluing of high school diplomas) was damaging. That "back in his day," as it were, college was something you did if you were an intellectual type who had the brains to benefit from a college education, and were confident enough in this to gamble the cost of that education on it. Most people, he argued, weren't that sort of person and shouldn't be wasting four years of their lives on a college education that wasn't going to do them much good anyway. A high school education - or at least, a high school education like the one he'd gotten back in the day - was all most people needed.

In the interim, of course, high school diplomas became all but universal (and all but meaningless), and a bachelor's degree became the marker that a high school diploma used to be, the marker that made someone stand out as having the basic necessities for being employed as skilled labor. So it became necessary to compete in the workplace, so lots more people wanted to go and were willing to pay - or at least, to take out highly available loans on highly forgiving terms - to do it, even if they weren't all that smart or all that intellectual. Lots of colleges were happy to take their money and water down classes to what those masses could handle... and then the economy sank, and the value of bachelor's degrees dropped, maybe to the point that they mean now no more than a high school diploma meant decades ago.

Asserting that "some people should get higher education and some shouldn't" may be politically incorrect, but I think it makes some sense. I wouldn't assume that intelligence is the criterion on which to distinguish them, but I feel confident there are lots of people with college degrees doing work that they could do just as well or better had they spent those years working in their field rather than going to college - and who never expected to do anything else. All the college degree did for them was to give them the ability to get hired for the job, not the ability to *do* the job.

In a world where professors train primarily those people who are genuinely interested in learning and are going to make good use of their education by doing things they couldn't do without that education, it is important that those professors be good at what they do. So it makes sense to pay them a lot, to be able to attract the best professors who can give their students the best education so those students can go on and do great things.

In a world where professors train primarily people who are not interested in learning, don't expect to need or remember anything they learn, and aren't going to make much use of the learning anyway, it makes no difference if the professors are good at what they do. So why would you pay them a lot? In that world, professors are little more than attendance monitors, checking off the form that says "yes, this student gets 3 credits." Anybody can do that. In that world, you don't need the best professors because your students aren't interested in getting the best education because they have no intention of going on to do great things with it.

The article noted that at CUNY, an adjunct earns $24,644, while full-time professors make between $56,000 and $102,000 a year. The latter is certainly a comfortable middle-class salary and in line with my expectations of what a professor earns. Is it possible that the underlying assumption that makes this make sense is that the full-time professors are primarily teaching the people who really need the good education and are going to make use of it, while the adjuncts are teaching the masses who are sleeping and partying their way through college so they can put it on their resume? And if that *is* the assumption, how close is it to reality?

I don't know about any of this. I'm just thinking with fingers, trying to make sense of things.
Jun. 26th, 2014 09:07 pm (UTC)
Interesting question. I have heard about the gap between adjuncts and employee professors, but I do not recall seeing information about which types of classes were being taught by each type of instructor. The only time I had adjunct professors, that I know of, was when taking continuing education classes which were not part of a degree program, did not require applying to be a student, and were outside the university's main brand (e.g. Harvard Extension or BU's Metropolitan College).
Jun. 26th, 2014 09:41 pm (UTC)
Roughly 25% of the courses taught in my department are taught by adjuncts, roughly 25% are taught by permanent faculty whose job is primarily teaching, and roughly 50% are taught by permanent faculty whose appointment includes a strong research expectation.

A very large fraction of the teaching done by the first two groups is either first- and second-year teaching, or teaching for service (i.e., non-major) courses. Research faculty do teach courses at all level, but we focus on the upper-year undergraduate major-level courses and graduate teaching.
Jun. 27th, 2014 12:00 am (UTC)
Academia--and educational technology in particular--freaking the fuck out about these very ideas is pretty much the cosmic background radiation of my work life.

Edited at 2014-06-27 12:01 am (UTC)
Jul. 2nd, 2014 03:09 am (UTC)
Just a couple of other thoughts to throw in the pot: 1) Because I am old, it seems to me like the whole "pure research" function got de-funded out of existence 20 years ago already. But it may seem that way to me because I remember when NSF grants actually paid for pure research, rather than research with an acceptable veneer of homeland security. 2) Those technical/trade based schools need a whole shitload of regulation and reform before they're anything close to a viable actual pathway. Right now they have really terrible completion rates, and the students they end up saddling with debt are those least able to pay. So whatever changes happen, they have to include improving that middle path substantially. Right now, people attending community colleges and for-profit tech schools get lost -- turns out poor students with poor support are not so great at self-directed programs -- and I doubt they will succeed in online course programs either. But maybe all those unemployed adjuncts can work as individual tutors for students enrolled in college-by-mail. Lyonesse is right, though -- the research isn't being done, and hasn't for a long while, and we are, in fact, not advancing or inventing enough worthwhile things.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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