'DIY U' and the future of public education
By Mike Konczal
When free market enthusiasts attempt to sell an idea with the promise that it will "democratize" something – bringing broader access to a previously exclusive good, service, or market – two things are about to happen. A small group of people are going to get obscenely wealthy, and they are likely to do so as a direct result of a much larger and less exclusive group of people getting ... screwed. ...[When this happens] I try to figure out who is about to be ground up in the wheels of techno-libertarian "progress." In the case of the shining promise of online (ahem, "non-traditional") classes democratizing higher education, the mill grist happens to be me, people like me, and the students we teach.
"Ground up." During the recent college strikes and protests in California against the 32 percent increase in tuition, I found this image and the following description the most striking:
See a difference? yeah, that’s right, there are ACTUALLY WAY MORE students of color who are being radicalized, standing up, and fighting back. they’re not all caught up in the trappings of white anarcho-punk subculture (look! they wear colors! and no bandanas! and they’re also wearing their college sweatshirts, oh dear god, SCHOOL SPIRIT!) – instead, they’re caught up in the fact that their tuition is going up by 32%, that their classes are regularly cancelled due to lack of funding, that this is the ONLY WAY THEY CAN GO TO SCHOOL and it’s being taken away from them. they aren’t fighting back against bourgeois ennui and problems with authority.
I'm a white male whose ability to go to a really good, competitive college came primarily from the land-grant university system. (Go Illini!) Navigating the college landscape was not particularly easy for me, my family (we were both new to it) or the high school I went to, regardless of how much we all were trying to succeed. And if the price point for public college had been indistinguishable from a private school, it's very likely I would have taken some community college credits and dropped off the educational grid.
So back then it was very easy for me to channel my energy into the enterprises of, as they say, "ennui and problems with authority." Because the ladder was still down at that point a decade ago. And as that ladder is being pulled up, seeing people fighting tooth and nail not because they want to bask in their alienation but because they want to get access to things I took for granted, a good public college that they could afford, makes me feel a bit like a heel.
And they are right to be pissed, because a social contract and a vision of what the state's role is has been switched. As zunguzungu notes, in another critical review of "DIY U":
Yet why is that student fees are rising so fast? This really is the elephant in the room: [Kamenetz’s] entire analysis is premised on the notion that fees are rising because costs are rising, since cutting costs can only stem the bleeding if that’s where the blood is coming from....In other words, the university today pays 60% per student what it paid in 1990. ...
The people who wrote the [1960 California] Master Plan simply took it for granted that educating the state’s citizens was the cost of being a first world nation, and they were willing to pay the cost to do so. They took the long view on their investment in California’s students, a long view that has been pretty well born out: a state filled with well educated workers will benefit at a broad social level as those educated workers go into the economy and create value. That’s not really controversial. ...
Today, on the other hand ... students are expected to make up, out of their own pocket, whatever shortfall there is between the University’s budget and the state’s funding. Instead of an investment in the future, in other words, students have now become the customers. And instead of committing to provide an education to everyone who is academically eligible, “public” universities are becoming public in name only, behaving more and more like publicly subsidized corporations. But this changes the entire fiscal structure -- and decision making logic -- of a university like the UC; instead of educating citizens for the public good, universities make decisions based on where the money is to be found.
And making up this difference they are.
A few things about the book "DIY U," which is worth your time, as is Kamenetz's previous book, "Generation Debt." (I wonder if those who wrote about the "It-Sucks-To-Be-Me" generation realize how wrong they got it when they look at the unemployment statistics among people in their 20s, heavy in debt, during this financial crisis and the jobless recovery coupled with long lasting impact on wages.) This book is coming at the beginning of a longer dialogue about college education and the United States that I'll continue to develop at my blog.
-- There's a tension with what DIY U is supposed to accomplish in the book. In one part it is supposed to revolutionize community colleges as well as create community college-like learning vehicles online. The other is to deflate the prestige of private, non-competitive colleges, in order to encourage kids away from taking on the debt necessary to attend these places as well as finding better uses of how to educate themselves.
-- A lot is predicated on whether or not online classes and collaborative learning can replace a college experience. Or will it turn college into a form of community college? Ed: "Online education or the kind of choose-your-own-adventure college experience described in this book has a place. This role has been filled historically by community colleges, the primary clientele of which has always been adults who need work-related training." I could see a revolution in terms of this, but would it substitute in for the experience of college as we know it?
-- That the DIY U revolution should remove a prestige bubble from private competitive institutions, that the value of a Harvard or a Yale should be reduced if one can attend it virtually online, isn't approached in the book. I find that interesting.
-- The notion of what to do with public colleges is a bit up in the air. Kamenetz quotes Kevin Carey as pointing out that the driver of the increase in college tuition is the increase in public colleges. The book at times seems to call for a return to a Master Plan-style approach, but instead is hoping technology will be able to step into the gap that is pointed out above between state funding and people's tuition.
-- On this, I think there is less conflict than Kamenetz points out. I think you will see state governments embrace online education. But I don't see them passing on any of those savings on to the students, in the same way that the savings on replacing teachers with adjuncts was captured entirely by the university. A university now envisions itself as a profit-maximizing firm instead of a "public option" of college education. And given that education is our society's only chosen form of social mobility, if only middle-class people can afford college, then only middle-class people are eligible for the benefits of the 21st-century economy.
In fact, online education could fit right into the transition to the hybrid university where it's public in name (and subsidies) but private in terms of tuition. This hybrid university paper was written by Mark Yudof before he became president of the University of California, and there's some debate about whether or not this is part of his vision. See zunguzungu for more on Yudof and changing the U-Cal. system.
I think this will likely be the future. But will it be a good one?
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