don’t make college cheaper; make it more valuable

I’ve been really behind the eight-ball past couple weeks and I missed this article by Vance Fried in Inside HigherEd. Essentially he is suggesting an entrepreneurial model for developing high-quality low-cost 4-year degrees for cost-conscious students attending moderately selective institutions. The basics of the model are a compression of the curriculum and major offerings, increasing class size, and not asking faculty to conduct research.

Basically it sounds like high schools with giant lectures. But I’m not going to go through all the negative attributes of this proposal. The bottom line is that if it is cheaper and the credential you get at the end of the day is as valuable in the market as a more expensive credential, then a lot of students and parents will go for it.

I’m looking at this from another angle. But first, think about the students. Insert caveat about generalizations. Of course students want to get good jobs… someday. They want their education to lead to a job but they don’t want an education that prepares them to work by asking them to, well, work. They mostly want to be students and live the student lifestyle. And who could blame them? You’re only young once and all that. Besides we know that even the ones who are dead certain they know what they want to do will probably be doing something different five years after graduation.

For many students I think going to college is analogous to moving to a hip neighborhood in a big city. You move there b/c you want to live there. You get a job, of course, b/c you need one. And maybe you move to the city b/c you like the kind of jobs too but you really are there for the life. Switch courses for job and you can see the role education plays for many, many students… at least until senior year. Now we can deride that if we want, but my point is to understand our "consumers." They say they want certain things and maybe those things play a role in their purchase, but what they really want and how they will really use their educational purpose is another story. And it’s the latter that is of import to faculty, at least from a rhetorical, audience-awareness standpoint.

Now, on to my alternate perspective.

One of the lines in Fried’s article that really caught my eye was when he wrote, "A lecture format class of 25 students is much less effective than a
class of 100 using an active learning format, but costs four times more
per student to deliver." I understand what he’s getting at. But to me this points to underperformance and maybe poor pedagogy in the small class.

As I’ve written here before, I went to Rutgers as an English/History double-major. The lion’s share of my courses were 50+ enrollment lectures with occassional questions asked by faculty and students. I don’t recall ever asking or answering a question in those courses. Of the smaller <30 courses, most were still essentially lecture-driven with discussion sprinkled in. I had a couple creative writing workshops. I remember working in groups on two or three occassions over 4 years. The long and short of it is that probably 80-90% of my courses could have been delivered in a football stadium without losing much in quality. Which is essentially to say they didn’t have much quality to begin with, except for whatever value you might gain from listening to a 50 or 70 minute lecture. I could have made Rutgers a more valuable learning experience for myself. But I was learning a lot from working for a small computer business, playing music, and writing/reading on my own.

The problem with the 4-year degree isn’t that it’s too expensive (though it is). It’s that it isn’t valuable enough. Part of this is a PR/marketing/rhetorical problem: America mistrusts professors and intellectuals in general. They don’t value the work we do. I think we need to make a concerted effort to change the perception both through individual colleges and professional organizations.

But the other part isn’t just perception. Students come for the lifestyle and the certification. But they aren’t paying tuition for the lifestyle; the tuition cost is the certification part. And what is it, exactly, that we are certifying? What are all these credits supposed to add up to?

  • Job skills? Maybe. And maybe come junior or senior year, students start to think about job qualifications. But job skills are really an ongoing professional development thing.  And you’re likely in a different profession in 5 years. So what really is the point of specific job skils?
  • Core professional/disciplinary knowledge: I.e., there are foundations to being an engineer or an accountant or computer science. If you’re going on to graduate school then you need foundational disciplinary knowledge. We’re not talking specific job skills (though that could be a part) but entry into a profession. And this will work for some students, mostly the stronger ones, who will go on to graduate school or a professional degree.

But what about the large majority of students who will never go on after their BA/BS. What are they getting out of the deal? That is, if you graduate with a BA in English or Econ or Psych or Comm, what are we certifying?

  • Literacy/communication skills
  • General education
  • Basic disciplinary knowledge (but not really anything bankable beyond literacy skills)

I don’t think we need to change this list. I don’t know if we can. If students have no real idea what they want to do and no immediate intention of going on to grad school, this is what we can offer. And I don’t criticize students like that. I was like that.

Instead, we need to make this list more valuable. More on this later, I can’t keep writing this post forever!