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'DIY U' and the future of public education

By Mike Konczal

Ed from gin and tacos can make it rain, and this caustic review of "DIY U" from a political science professor starts with something that made me laugh:

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?

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He blogs about finance, economics and other topics at Rortybomb and New Deal 2.0, and you can follow him on Twitter.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 28, 2010; 12:47 PM ET
 
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Comments

"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."


Do you know Mike that I could remove DIY and insert "climate change legislation" and end up in exactly the same place. The problem is, you'd have to be right in both places and can't select which one works with your argument and which doesn't.


Just yesterday it was argued by a sit-in for Ezra that "innovation" is a good thing and that no one uses typewriters anymore, they use computers. No one uses telegraphs they use cell-phones etc. If someone builds a better mousetrap (and assuming its not a sham) then why shouldn't they benefit from it?

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 28, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Mike, thank you for blogging about something that has been brewing for 20 years or so under the radar of the elites who remain callously unaware of the damage done by the whole student loan racket and sprialing public college tuition fees.

I went to a fabulous land grant unversity (Go Hokies!) in the 1980s when tuition still very modest and graduated without any student loan debt. That's the way it should be!!! Education is manifestly a public good, as such tuition should be low cost to no cost for good worthy student who maintain a minimum grade point average.

We are eating our seed corn by defunding the land grant system and starving community colleges in favor or for-profit Universities that leave students in debt peonage for a lifetime. This is a matter if national security IMO. Folks with no hope for a good life become dangerous, it won't just end with student protests if solutions aren't forthcoming.

Posted by: HokieAnnie | May 28, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

It looks from that chart like the public contribution to collegate education has in fact multiplied substantially, albeit not at the maddening pace of cost increases; I wish it were in inflation-adjusted dollars so a more direct comparison could be made.

Posted by: adamiani | May 28, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

"-- 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."

Worth looking into. Among others, Harvard, Stanford and the London School of Economics offer on-line degrees. I would assume that the physical diploma that is earned mentions that it was done on-line, but you can bet your bottom dollar anyone with one of these degrees would only put 'Harvard', 'Stanford', or 'LSE' on their diploma and no one would be the wiser.

Posted by: chassmith1066 | May 28, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

"[A]nyone with one of these degrees would only put 'Harvard', 'Stanford', or 'LSE' on their diploma and no one would be the wiser."

Make that "on their resume."

Sorry.

Posted by: chassmith1066 | May 28, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

visionbrkr, here's the problem with your analogy (besides the fact that nobody is claiming to "democratize" global warming): many of the people who suffer from global warming will in fact be the poor. The increasing dessertification of parts of the world are not bringing hunger to the Hamptons, for instance, but to places where food production was already marginal. Flooding of low coastal areas are a problem that the rich can move away from. The poor, not so much.

Quickie online universities are to some extent subsidized by the government in student aid to the people attending them. And they do away with some of the amenities, such as libraries, that have to be provided by other institutions, such as the local public libraries of the students. I work in a library that has itself suffered severe budget cuts and is already not able to deal with the increased demands of our patrons. The bottom line test of the goodness of innovation is whether it's better than what it replaced. In this case, I don't think so.

Posted by: ciocia1 | May 28, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Part of Cali's problem is the laughable power that they let unions have. Their costs have skyrocketed and they can no longer afford anything. In the rush to create a liberal educational utopia, they have ruined their institutions.

Posted by: Natstural | May 28, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I'll tell you what is wrong with Cal. I graduated from there in 1965 when it cost me about $100 a semester in fees plus another $200 or so a month for living expenses. Even when I graduated from law school in 1977 I was paying about $350 a semester plus living expenses.

As the school population of California became darker and more foreign, the people of California decided they didn't want to pay to educate "other people's children." The generation that benefitted from that really low cost education turned its back on the younger generation and the older people just got crankier. CA higher ed did not keep pace with population growth, and then they started admitting lots of out-of-state students because they could squeeze more tuition out of them, making fewer spaces for in-state students.

Decades of right-wing ideology has convinced people here that they can get something for themselves for nothing and have no responsibility towards others. It is incredibly shortsighted and completely unrealistic. We are going down the tubes as a result of the failure of those who benefitted from this system in the past to nurture it and pass it on for the future.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 28, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I really do feel sorry for people who don't qualify for full academic scholarships. At my high school -- a public school, no less -- the top 10% received scholarships to Ivy League schools while the second 10% received scholarships to other private schools, with the third 10% receiving scholarships to state-supported schools (Go land-grant Hokies!, Go 'Hoos!).

I'm left to wonder why those who don't receive full scholarships can't take a hint. Is bricklaying such a bad occupation? We need refuse collectors, plumbers, electricians -- if the cost of academy is prohibitive, what makes vocational education less attractive?

Returning to the question posed earlier today, meadow muffins ("Maddow muffins" ?) will always be present in any communal pasture and the scent of such muffins will never change. Who pays? and why?

Posted by: rmgregory | May 28, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

What bothers me about the political science professors review is the self-aggrandizing assumption that the service he provides is worth protecting. He teaches political science, for God's sake.

Right now, we've created a university system that functions like cartels. They offer two things - education and personal growth. The idea of online universities is that you can democratize education by making it widely available in a digital, cheap format.

Most college professors say that online unis offer an inferior education - but that sounds pretty testable to me. And if an online university can be proven to achieve 70, 80, or 90 percent the educational competency of a traditional university at 50 percent of the cost, then it sounds cost-effective to me.

But most defenders of traditional colleges focus on the second part - that college offers avenues of personal growth that are worth the extra money. And if someone rich enough can afford 20k a year for personal growth, than more power to them! They have boarding schools before then, after all. But I think it's a little cheap that the college establishment wants to use their position to monopolize higher education for the lucky few.

Posted by: strawman | May 28, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

An inflation-corrected version of the graph would be illuminating, perhaps even more than the one shown.

If the cost of educating a student in 1967-68 was about $3000, as shown, the inflation-corrected cost in 2009 would be $19064. The actual cost on the chart is only slightly over $20,000. In short, the cost of education has not been rising much at all: it has pretty much stagnated, especially since the economy as a whole has grown tremendously during this period.

In short, not only have we shifted the cost of public higher education to students, but we have also kept that cost low, at a much lower rate of growth than the economy as a whole, meaning that we are devoting an ever-shrinking proportion of public resources to higher education. If you compare this to China, the other Tigers, and most nations in the world, the picture is downright frightening!

Posted by: PQuincy | May 28, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

I'm a (very) recent graduate (with a Master's degree) of the Cal State system (specifically, San Diego State). I make a couple of observations:

1) Total cost of 2 years of graduate education for me was about $8000. That is about half the cost of one year of education at my private undergraduate university 10 years ago. Yes, it's a shame that Cal State and UCal students are paying more, but it's still a relatively cheap education.

2) That said, the real casualties of the budget cuts are the reduced hours, fewer classes, mandatory furlough days, and faculty hiring freezes. That's where the students are getting short-changed, and the attitude that we can fix our budget problems by shortchanging post-secondary education is going to ruin us. Now that we've ruined our primary and secondary public schools, we want to sabotage the last area of education that we still excel at. America is done.

3) My recent degree was in electrical engineering. I would estimate that at least 90% of my graduate engineering student classmates were foreigners, mostly from India and China. And, contrary to previous years, most of them want to go back home after working for a couple years here. If that's not the sound of the doom bell ringing for the long term health of our economy, I don't know what is. We graduated 60,000 electrical engineers last year; China graduated 500,000.

I predict that in 20 years, upper-class American students will be leaving the country to get their college degrees, and many of them will choose to stay there to live. Most American workers will be service workers, and we'll be just beginning the long slow project of rebuilding our national educational, manufacturing, energy, and transportation infrastructure.

Posted by: MatthiasW | May 28, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Oskee Wow Wow!

Posted by: jeffwacker | May 28, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

A lot to say here but little time. Let's get out this:

I've taught many online courses and many in-class courses at the University of Arizona.

I think online can be very good for some things, some times, but ideally most courses should be on campus, in person. Engaging in person is just too important for motivating and for socialization, being around other students, which is just fun, but also important psychologically, and valuable for learning (in appropriate moderation; it's also good to spend some time thinking and concentrating alone). Also, quick Q&A, in person, with a professor who can use his hands, informal language and structure, etc. can be a lot more efficient to teach some things. What's easier to learn a piece of equipment from, reading the manual, or to have someone who knows it explain quickly in person with the piece of equipment.

And, when you do have online, it's important to do it right. That means good materials and proctored exams to preserve the integrity of the grades and motivate students to study. Quality online is more expensive, but like education in general, a very high return social investment of the kind the free market will grossly underprovide due to long established in economics market problems (externalities, asymmetric information, etc., etc.).

That said, many poor countries can't come close to affording quality in-person college for most people (we obviously can if we care more about it than low taxes and bigger mansions for the rich). For them, internet courses are an awesome, revolutionary boon. What's needed is better certification, like with proctoring of exams for online courses from top universities. Then, something amazing will happen, even the poorest kids from some village in India who are smart will be able to earn an Engineering degree from the University of Arizona, or MIT. That will be an awesome boon to the world's poorest, and for the advancement of the global economy and science and medicine.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | May 28, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

The status conferred by universities is from their selectivity. Without that they can't serve their purpose of identifying who is smart and hard working.

Many classes can be delivered without traditional classroom. We need to lower the cost of university education, but preserve it's differentiating function. I certainly enjoy watching a lecture from MIT better than many of the courses I took. If you add a discussion and help section, we can get this country smart.

Instead, despicable people like this Konczal want us to pay more for the status quo. Sounds just like health care. It's funny how these things that are subsidized on the payer side- like health care, higher ed, and housing have completely distorted pricing. It's almost as if prices rise because the government keeps finding new ways to help us pay them.

Konczal- you have to recognize that costs must be cut sometimes. We can't keep overpaying for things forever. People as smart as you that bleat out these lame racist arguments disgust me.

Posted by: staticvars | May 29, 2010 1:21 AM | Report abuse

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