Friday, September 20, 2013

I Am Applauding the President's Speech on Education Except I'm Doing the Opposite of That

by Finbarr Curtis

Recently, a spate of critiques of the President's speech last month in Buffalo on educational affordability have led off with a diplomatic effort to find common ground over the commitment to lowering college costs.

Like this statement by Rudy Fichtenbaum of the American Association of University Professors:
While we applaud the President for raising concerns over rising tuition and student debt, concerns that we share, we also believe that the President’s proposal will do little to solve the problem and will likely result in a decline in the quality of education offered to working class and middle class students, particularly students of color.
Or this post by Frank Donoghue at the Chronicle of Higher Education:
My reaction to his speech, however, was decidedly mixed. Parts of it resonated emotionally, as it contained, not surprisingly given Obama’s skill as rhetorician, several applause-worthy lines. I couldn’t help come away with the sense though, that the Obama administration doesn’t fully grasp the entire universe of higher education in the U.S., and that his punchiest solutions are ultimately unworkable.
Or another critical response from the Chronicle of Higher Ed from Biddy Martin:
I applaud President Obama for putting the importance of a college education squarely at the center of the national agenda in his speech at the University at Buffalo, and for insisting that students get the education they need regardless of economic circumstances.
I applaud these responses for their rhetorical generosity but I'm going to refrain from applauding the President's support for affordable education because then I would have to applaud for every person in America.  No one likes rising college costs.  Applauding the President's commitment to lowering educational costs is roughly equivalent to saying "I applaud President Reagan's commitment to the broad concept of peace when he named those missiles Peacekeepers."

The reason I am not applauding is that with the exception of the laudable goal of shifting assessments of educational quality away from US News-style ratings, most of the specific proposals are the kinds of things that will either increase college costs or decrease the quality of education.  Not only that, the President's call to put more work into developing measures of educational quality is obviously something that will increase costs because it will require more resources to sustain the administrative oversight that has been one of the larger contributors to rising college costs.

But others have already made this point.  The interesting question to me, then, is not so much why the proposals in the President's speech will not lower college costs but why anyone would believe that they would.  One possible answer to this lies in the President's call to "jumpstart competition between colleges."  This is curious because colleges are already pretty competitive in all sorts of ways.  Indeed, competition among colleges for what are imagined to be the most select pool of undergraduates is one significant source of the explosion of costs.

President Obama clarifies what sorts of competition he has in mind when he describes "innovation" in educational delivery technologies as well as how we reward students who "master" the material.  As he tells us:
Southern New Hampshire University gives course credit based on how well students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom.  So the idea would be if you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less and you save money. 
This is going to bad news for many schools.  At the undergraduate institution that both the President and I attended, for example, I can't say I learned to master the material.  For that matter, in my some two decades in higher education I do not know what it would mean to achieve mastery over the subject matter that makes up religious studies.  If anything, I like to think I've learned to be humble in the face of the complexity of an uncertain world.  It might even take a lot more work to deal with uncertainty than to give oneself the impression that one has a tidy mastery over stuff.

I'm being kind of literalist jerk, of course, because we all know that mastery here doesn't actually mean mastery.  A good way to describe what the speech takes mastery to be would be to think of the opposite of mastery and to think instead of the minimal level of competence that could count for completing a course of study.  In other words, the competition here is not designed to make education better in the "faster, higher, stronger" sense of Olympic competition but to reward the most efficient production of some mass produced product. 

So the call to jumpstart competition is really a call to invent some novel educational product that doesn't presently exist.  It works something like this: If you're going to have a competition, you have to have a market.  If you're going to have a market, you have to have a product that can be bought and sold.  If you are going to have products that are bought and sold, you have to have some way of assigning them quantitative values.  And the reason you have to have markets is that markets make things like education really expensive and so for some reason markets need be brought in to fix the problems that markets created in the first place.

The problem with the perfunctory applause, then, is that it gives the impression that everyone is on the same page about the view that educational costs have been rising because education has become more expensive.  I'm not persuaded, however, that rising educational costs are actually the problem.  What we're seeing, more precisely, are rising costs in the institutional infrastructure that supports education coupled with cuts in public spending.  It doesn't cost more to discuss a text with a group of students than it did a few decades ago.  What costs more are lots of other things, including technology.  Obama would be much more coherent if he was to say, for example, "We need new forms of expensive technology and an expanding administrative structure to oversee educational quality and we need to encourage public support to pay for it."  Instead, what we have is the assertion that things like innovation and technology and competition somehow magically decrease educational costs.  And if all of these things are decreasing costs instead of increasing them, there must be something about the educational product itself that needs to be manufactured more efficiently.

Of course, I'm not saying that there aren't all sorts of ways in which the quality of classroom instruction can be improved.  For that matter, I am not addressing whether new forms of technology or assessment measures are good things.  What I am interested in is the narrow question of why many believe that introducing market logics to higher education is a solution to rising college costs.  It appears that a word like innovation is so appealing because instead of acknowledging that you have a difficult problem that requires a great deal of work, time, and resources, you can just claim that the market will somehow, someway produce innovative solutions that will miraculously cost less.  In other words, innovation is a word you use when you don't have a solution to a problem but have faith in the invisible hand of the market to provide one.

The problem with blind faith in jumpstarting competition is that what will most likely happen is what usually happens in the capitalist marketplace.  That is, the rich will get richer while the poor will lag behind.  Take, for example, the touted benefits of online education.  Online classes taught by poorly paid adjuncts will indeed be attractive ways for cash-strapped public universities to save money.  Elite private liberal arts colleges, however, will be able to advertise to prospective students the virtues of old-fashioned face-to-face education with small class sizes.  Not only that, these colleges will be able to charge more for it.  This will, in turn, raise tuitions as well as widen the resource gap between public and private institutions.  For state schools to "compete" they will have to find new ways of raising revenues and/or cutting resources devoted to classroom instruction.

So I'm going to hold my applause.

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