INSIDE HIGHER ED: Public Matters: A Response to Kevin Carey

Career College Central Summary:

  • “We are headed for a time of brutal unmasking” – The End of College, p. 249
  • Back in the 90’s, there was a brief flurry of interest around the demise of the “public intellectual,” who was informally understood to be the sort of person who wrote about Big Ideas in accessible language for general readers. Public intellectuals bestrode the planet for decades, the story went, before being sucked into the careerist and jargon-ridden quicksand of academe. While many of the Big Ideas championed by public intellectuals were badly flawed, if not loopy, their disappearance didn’t bring about a new age of enlightened discourse.
  • Kevin Carey’s new book, The End of College, has some of the trappings of the old public intellectual model, except that it puts academe at the “before” part of the story, rather than the “after.”  It’s a sprawling book with a loose narrative and a broad topic, clearly intended more to start debates than to settle them. It has the appeal and the flaws of the form.  
  • Its argument runs something like this:
  • 1. Higher education serves multiple purposes, each of which conflicts with the others. The big three are job training, scholarly research, and liberal arts education.
  • 2. Historically, the emergence of the research university that also teaches undergraduates was a contingent, but relatively successful, way to paper over the conflicts among the goals.
  • 3. The vast postwar expansion of public higher education was a largely unthought-through case of “institutional isomorphism,” in which new and lower-tier entrants aped the structures of elites, whether they made sense or not. The awkwardness of fit didn’t matter when demographic tailwinds were strong, but they’re apparent now.
  • 4. Teaching gets short shrift in what Carey calls the “hybrid university” model. Professors are not hired or evaluated for teaching ability, and idiosyncratic grading and the elective system have defeated attempts at curricular coherence or assessment.
  • 5. Most undergraduates don’t actually learn very much, and the incumbent providers would rather not focus on that, for obvious reasons.
  • 6. Colleges systematically ignore the findings of psychology and cognitive science on how people learn. Academic freedom and the elective system benefit incumbents, and they will use both to defeat serious efforts to change how teaching is done. The existing mode of educational production is artisinal, and artisans will fight to protect their autonomy, even at the expense of productivity.
  • 7. Until recently, there were no practical alternatives to traditional higher education. But the internet has changed that.
  • 8. A bevy of internet startups are using the insights of cognitive science to teach more effectively at scale, and at much lower cost.
  • 9. As those internet startups mature, they will develop a more robust system of recognizing student achievement — “badges” or whatever else — which will quickly gain traction.
  • 10. As higher education loses its monopoly on certification, most non-elite institutions will die. That will be unfortunate for the people who work there, but a net gain for society as a whole.
  • Along the way, Carey notes in passing that the most rapidly developing countries with the largest ascending middle classes aren’t replicating the American system. It’s too clunky, expensive, and inefficient. We shouldn’t assume that institutions born in another time are automatically relevant to this one. As it happened, Sweet Briar College announced its closing on the day that Carey’s book was released, as if to illustrate his point.
  • The “hybrid university” model is Carey’s focus; the book spends comparatively little time on community colleges, liberal arts colleges, or small private niche institutions like Sweet Briar.  The larger political economy goes almost entirely unmentioned in the book, except to the extent that Carey notes the rapid rise of tuition since the 1980’s.  
  • Much of what Carey covers is hard to dismiss. He notes the bait-and-switch by which bright undergraduates are lured to research institutions with the implied promise of rubbing elbows with great scholars, only to find themselves taught instead by barely-prepared graduate students, overstretched adjuncts, or professors who minimize time on teaching in order to focus on the research that actually matters for their careers. The observation may not be original, but it’s largely true.  Carey’s contribution is to note that with the new emergence of actual alternatives that draw upon the science of learning, the bait-and-switch will become harder to sustain. No one institution will be able to pretend to be all things to all people anymore; the path to survival will instead come from focusing on what it can do better than anyplace else. The “brutal unmasking” of the next few years will make the grand bargain of the hybrid university model unsustainable. When the bundle is unbundled, cross-subsidies will become impossible.
  • At the same time, though, Carey’s treatment elides the larger political economy in which these changes may be happening. The massive buildup of state college and community college systems within about a twenty-year window in the mid-twentieth century was a response to a political and economic imperative to open up pathways to the new middle class. They were public responses to a public need. That’s not true of most of the new forms emerging now. Some are for-profit, albeit of a different stripe than Phoenix or DeVry. Others are foundation-driven, or offshoots of existing elites.  

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