Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why "Should everybody go to college?" is the wrong question

Whether asked directly or implicitly, the question "Should everybody go to college?" plays a big part in current discussions about education in America.  It is lurking behind talk about access to higher education, views about it drive responses to MOOCs, it is implicit in doubts about the value of higher education, it shapes the little indignities of life in high school (as when the already poorly named SEOP--student education opportunity plan--takes on the name CCE--college and career ready--so that legislators and administrators can signal their unwillingness to take a stand on the question.)

That said, "Should everybody go to college?" is the wrong question, both because it doesn't help us think clearly about education and because it pushes to the side exactly the people who are meant to be served by that discussion--parents and students.  Here is why it is a bad question:

  1. Only people on the margins can give a clear answer to it--"yes" or "no".  But even worse, everyone else has to temporize--yes in this instance, but no in that.  Such temporizing immediately turns an important conversation into an argument about definitions and categories.
  2. As soon as it becomes a discussion about categories, it is actual students who disappear.  In their place are groups of students, who should follow one path or another based on the position of the person answering the question.
  3. The question answerers (or at least the main voices in the debate) tend to be people who have administrative or financial, but rarely personal interest in the answer.  That is, they tend to be people with official roles in the education system facing off against people who want to change the educational system.
  4. On the other hand, the question leaves the views and voices of families and students at the margin.  They don't have the financial or organizational presence to weigh in on such a big question.  Instead, they fit into a box--"You took college prep courses and got good grades and can afford college?  Well, then college is for you--move ahead."  Or, put another way, the question turns people who should actively be shaping decisions into acceptors of decisions/categories made in advance for abstract versions of them.
Is there a better question to use in its place?  I prefer, "How important is college?"  Here is why:
  1. It is a question that places students and their families at the center of the discussion, because it can be answered from personal experience and belief in specific ways.
  2. It is a question that is as meaningfully asked of college-goers as of non-college-goers.  After all, lots of  students in college place the importance of college below other things--family, jobs, skiing.  And lots of people who aren't in college place college high in their list of priorities.
  3. It is a question that requires families and students to think about school/work/life balance.  In other words, it places college into the real lives of students rather than making college-going an activity separate from the rest of life. 
  4. It is a question, the answer to which can lead to real action.  Regardless of your view on "should everybody go to college?" almost no one can do anything to move opinion one way or another.  But the question "How important is college?" has immediate and actionable (sorry, I hate that word) consequences.
  5. The question moves power away from central authorities towards the level--personal, family, and community--that is most immediately effected by the decision.
  6. It is a question that places educational policy and innovation--be it MOOCs, or the creation of new institutions, or financial aid, or scholarships, or admission requirements--in the service of actual human beings, instead of the other way around.  If your big thing is MOOCs, then your answer to "Should everybody go to college?" serves MOOCs.  But if your big question is "How important is college?" then you have lots of tools at your disposal to shape the answer to the actual needs and desires of actual people.   MOOCs for some, community college for others, liberal arts colleges for yet others.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Considering Martin Luther King and George Orwell together

It has been 30 years since Ronald Reagan signed the legislation designating today and each third Monday of  January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Today is the anniversary of George Orwell's 1950 death, marked this year by the first-ever George Orwell Day.

Orwell and King are rarely considered together. Their careers as writers and activists barely overlapped; I know of no instance where King referenced Orwell's writing.  Orwell's great concern was totalitarianism, King's was racial discrimination.  Even their commemoration days point in different directions, King's (at the request of his family, friends, and political allies) indicating his birth, Orwell's (at the wishes of his estate and publisher) marking his death.

But in three areas their work overlapped.  First, both Orwell and King identified imperialism as a pursuit that corrupted the globe and the nation.  Orwell's term as an imperial policeman in Burma right out of college made him a representative of the British crown and enforcer of British law on the ground. Those years marked his thinking about law and justice, which might seem good in the abstract or the homeland, but which  came up wanting when applied in strange places and real settings.

 King's attention to imperialism came at the end of his life, not the beginning.  But like Orwell, King's recognition of the gap between the abstract good of domestic law, and the injustice of its application overseas, led him to argue that the injustices of a nation's extra-territorial actions corrupts domestic law as well.

Second, both Orwell and King doubted the ability of the state to police itself.  Orwell's attention focused on the nation-state as the location of injustice.  King's attention focused more intently on state and local government.  But both saw that in the 20th century the state both threatened and protected people.  The challenge was to determine how to limit the threat by expanding the areas in which people could speak and act freely.

Here is the third overlap between Orwell and King.  Though today the guardians of King's memory focus on his leadership of marches and his influence on legislation, and most Americans know Orwell from his fiction, both Orwell and King saw plain non-fiction speech as the indispensable tool of freedom.

Today I re-read Orwell's greatest essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1946) followed by King's greatest essay, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). Read one after the other these works make a pair, "Letter" a real-world application of "Politics."  In "Politics", for example, Orwell argues that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity."  King opens his letter with an attack on the insincerity of clergymen who called the protests in Birmingham "unwise and untimely"  thus blaming protesters for the unjust application of the law in Birmingham. Orwell calls for clear, direct, brief, unflowered language. King obliges: "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." Or, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Or this: "Anyone who lives inside the United States cannot be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

 Orwell concludes his essay by arguing that "Political language...is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."  King, after a tightly reasoned opening, lets loose with example after example of how the political use of one word, "wait", covers up generations of murder and lies:

" But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

American political rhetoric, the inaugural address notwithstanding, needs to heed Orwell's advice and King's examples.  Today's rhetoric, like that in 1946 and 1963 is detached from reality, so general as to be incomprehensible, so rigid as to be totalitarian.  Orwell and King knew that such rhetoric was evidence of a debased society.  But they also demonstrated that intent efforts to speak truth, describe reality, and be humble before the challenge of communicating were essential if humans were to live good lives.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Thinking about academic innovation in a context of declining demand for education

Over the past decade, colleges and universities have become adept at offering new or revised academic programs to respond to changes in the marketplace for students.  So, if the number of transfer students in your area is in decline, seek more freshmen.  If your MBA program is dropping off, then add a program in health sciences.  If demand for traditional undergraduate programs slackens, then add new pricing schemes or new modes of delivery.

This remains a smart approach to adjusting to the sort we have had over the last decade where demand for education continued to increase but was distributed differently than in the past.

Three recent studies suggest, though, that overall demand for higher education has flattened or is in decline. The Council of Graduate Schools reports that overall enrollment in graduate programs fell in 2011 for the second consecutive year.  NAICU, passing along federal data, notes that overall enrollment in undergraduate programs declined last year.  And WICHE's new study of high school graduation suggests that the number of students graduating high school will decline for the next couple of years before flattening out.

This is not to say that there will be no mid-level changes in demand.  To the contrary, WICHE is clear on changes in the ethnicity of new college-goers, and it seems likely that more students will continue to be willing to take online courses.  But whereas in the past realignments of student interest took place in a context of overall growth in enrollment, these changes will take place in a period of flat or declining enrollment.

What does this shift mean?  A couple of thoughts:

  • Campuses cannot count on a rising tide of enrollment to protect them from misguided guesses about where new demand would lie, as they could in past years.
  • Because there is not a naturally increasing enrollment, new programs or approaches will need to pay for themselves almost immediately, or be replaced.
  • Without a safety net, campuses (especially small ones) will need to get better at certain types of new programs or enrollment initiatives.  That is, they will need to become specialists in innovation rather than generalists.
  • Schools will need to get better at thinking about geography, academic preparation, and diversity as the  variables in their academic innovations, rather than putting new academic programs at the foreground and worrying about the make-up of the students interested in them later.
  • It will be harder for institutions to start or sustain loss-leader programs, that is, programs that do not bring in revenue but which garner some attention for the institution.  (In this context, one has to wonder how long even large universities will be able to maintain their MOOCs without meaningful enrollment, student success, and revenue associated with them.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The best books I didn't finish in 2012, and what they say about how I ought to live

It has been six weeks since I posted to this blog.  I didn't intend to stop writing; this wasn't some sort of purposeful holiday pause.  I just found myself without anything much to say.

This is a sign in part of my feeling stymied and overwhelmed by work, which is the topic of much of my writing.  Enrollment management is a wonderful but tough business, especially in a time where demographics and economics and culture are all pointing to challenging times for small private institutions of higher education.  I'm confident that I haven't had an interesting thing to say about enrollment management for the past 6 weeks.

I'm wrangling Westminster's strategic planning process as the chair of the strategic planning steering committee.  We are in an early phase--drafting a vision narrative, kicking off a SWOT analysis, seeking feedback.  And because we are in an early phase we are in a time where silence makes more sense than essays do.

So in a holiday season (with lots of flu at our house), rather than write, I've been reading.  There are two types of readers--people who finish books and people who start them.  I start lots of books--many more than I finish.  Here is a list of stuff that I read but didn't finish in 2012; clustered by genre or topic, and then a few self-criticisms in closing.

There are poets whose language is simply put but whose poems give me a feeling of being in the presence of something powerful and unspeakable.  In this, they are something like worship.  This year I've been reading three: Zbigniew Herbert, Mary Oliver, and Kay Ryan.

There is a type of book about religion that is at the confluence of community, ethics, and theology.  Some of the writing that sits in this location is liturgical, some of it is made up of essays, and some is personal narrative with religious overtones.  I'm currently reading these books: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability, Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, Shane Claiborne (and Wilson-Hartgrove), Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Eric Elnes, The Phoenix Affirmations.

Civic Life
I'm working my way through these books about civic life.  (By civic life I mean that these are books about the civitas.  They touch frequently on politics, but it is not politics but the quality of public life in a particular place that is at the heart of their concerns.) Mary Parker Follet, The New State: Group Organization, The Solution of Popular Government, Robert Coles, Lives of Moral Leadership, James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, and Roger Scruton, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.

What does this list mean?  Clearly there are gaps between what is in my head and what is in my life. My intellectual interests are in local, small-scale responses to issues, especially those that draw on and build local associations, be they civic, cultural, or religious.  And just as clearly, if you looked at my life you probably wouldn't notice that fact.  I commute 70 miles round trip each day to work. I feel estranged from my own religious congregation (and perhaps religion) but can't find a new one.  My neighbors and co-workers think I'm on the political left; but if American conservatism had any Burke left in it I would be a conservative, or if there was a green libertarianism, that is where I would be.

What does your list of unfinished books say about you?