I went to Clark University, and a couple weeks ago I talked to someone from their “development” department (read: they ask alumni for money) about what I’d been up to, what I thought about Clark, and then, finally, in the “Will-she-sleep-with-me” moment, whether I’d give more than $10 a year. I won’t. Even if I magically made Zuckerbergian billions, I wouldn’t give much more because while Clark is a good school, it isn’t in a position to solve the most pressing problem(s) in higher education: cost and access. Clark can be a wonderful and amazing experience for individual students but it will never be widely accessible due to cost and its model is not replicable for the same reason; the major problems in education are cost and access, which I’ll return to below.
Right now I give a little cash because of bogus rankings like those by U.S. News and World Report; here’s a good piece by Malcolm Gladwell on their bogosity. Nonetheless, despite them being bogus, people love rankings—even very bad rankings. When I was in high school, someone—the villain U.S. News again, maybe—ranked high schools simply by the number of students divided by the number of AP tests (or vice-versa). My high school came out well in that regard and parents and administrators and even the students themselves (to some extent) ran around saying “Oh wow we go to one of the best high schools in America!!” Which was bullshit to anyone who stopped to think for 30 seconds, but the meme propagated anyway and the number of people infected with the counter-meme (“Most school rankings are bullshit”) was and is much smaller than the number with the first meme.*
Maybe nothing short of a cultural change in views on college can alleviate the obsession-with-ranking problem. Some of that cultural change may be in the air: here’s one of the articles about Google’s decreased emphasis on college degrees. Maybe more firms will move in this direction. Certainly I would be more interested in assessing someone’s blog, books, or other material in hiring them than their degree. I’ve met a lot of PhDs who are morons. That is not to deny the value of education—it is easier and more pleasant for most people to learn in the context of someone who can select material, judge material, and accelerate learning. But too few teachers seem able or willing to do that. Alternate signals may emerge.
To look at one alternative to the present education system consider Western Governors University. This is one article on WGU, though there are many others. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the major problems in contemporary higher ed emerge from rising costs, Baumol’s Cost Disease, weird cross subsidies, and related factors. Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation is good on these subjects. I obviously like and generally support Clark but I don’t think the school is the answer to the biggest problems in higher ed today. There may not be one single answer. We may be seeing the researcher-teacher hybrid model splitting back into their constituent pats as well, since, as has long been observed, someone very good at one may not be good at the other.
The “teacher” point is important too, because teaching well is expensive and difficult. It’s not clear to me that the current structure of higher education is sustainable regarding teaching. Here is one well-written and half-right, half-wrong piece about how “Teaching Is Not a Business.” In some sense everything is a business whether we want it to be or not.
Saying that teaching is not a business is another way of saying, “We can pour an infinite amount of money into this endeavor without asking what we’re getting it.” There is a magic to teaching and I’m susceptible to that feeling, but teaching is also a system and set of institutions and many other things as well. Not surprisingly most members of the guild want to retain the mystique and a lot of outsiders appalled at rising costs want to de-mystify and improve. The overall trajectory of the last two or three hundred years makes me think the latter are eventually going to win, even if the definition of winning changes and the win takes decades to play out.
This is getting far afield from the point about donating to Clark, but the biggest issue is that I don’t see how most of the current version of higher ed is rewarding teaching adequately. Some like “The Minerva Project” may be the answer. It and Western Governors University are both very consciously doing a lot of things very differently than the standard college model, which Clark follows in important ways. Clark has a high cost structure and can’t avoid that. As I said above it is a good school. If I had a kid and could afford to send them I would.
But how much does Clark cost?
Somewhere within Clark, someone has the minimum number of dollars per student the school must take in in order to stay afloat. If I had to guess, I’d guess that number is between $25,000 and $30,000, and Clark must hit it whether Joe pays $15,000 and Jane pays $40,000 or vice-versa. Every college has this number somewhere. For a few schools it’s probably zero, counting endowments. Until we get more clarity about that number, however, it’s hard to get a meaningful value for it.
This began life as an e-mail to the Clark development person. Most of the answers she gets are probably more emotional than my somewhat cerebral / systems-based thinking, but part of my dissertation is about academia and I’ve now worked in, around, and for a lot of colleges, as a student, instructor, and consultant. The inside of the sausage factory is not a pretty place and the romantic notions I may have once had regarding the college experience are now dashed. I still retain hope and even optimism—I would be teaching as an adjunct this semester if I didn’t—but the ugly reality is that relatively few existing institutions have the structure or infrastructure, literally or intellectually or politically, necessary to make real changes. Whatever spare cash I might have one day—ha!—is unlikely to go to existing providers. It’ll go to whoever is trying to augment or replace them. Right now I don’t know who that is.
It’s not you, Clark. It’s it.**
* These sorts of idiocies persist. When I was in grad school, some girl in the University of Arizona’s Rhet Comp (or “Rhetoric and Composition”) program claimed that they were “number two in the country.” Being the obnoxious person I am I asked, “As ranked by who?” She didn’t know. “As measured how?” She didn’t know and didn’t like me. To be fair I thought she was dumb and didn’t see her manifesting evidence to the contrary while I was around.
** See also “Ten Ways Colleges Work You Over;” I doubt any individuals at Clark approve of the competitive college race, but they are also relatively powerless to stop it.