Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Cal: The exclusive university

Part I: Occupy Cal, and the function of the university.

Tuesday's protest at the University of California Berkeley campus included a declaration of an "Open University", which apparently is meant to provide a free education to anyone who wants to participate. This action is clearly motivated by the perception that university is unnecessarily exclusive, and consequently divides our society into "haves" and "have nots".

While economic success is clearly obtainable without a university degree, formal higher education is still widely perceived as the most reliable course to personal prosperity. Such education is intended to provide students with useful (i.e. marketable) skills early in their adult lives, but also enables them to build social relationships that will be advantageous throughout life. While most people recognize the value of these opportunities, it is easy to resent the fact that some people have these opportunities while others are excluded. This resentment is especially pronounced if those opportunities improve a person's ability to compete for economic and social goods without increasing the total amount of such goods in our society. I intend to address the social implications of these opportunities in a future post, but for now I want to focus on a factor of university organization that impacts both of them -- the exclusivity of the university.

Plenty of people are unable to attend the university of their choice (or any university at all) -- either they are explicitly rejected during the application process, or they decide that they do not have the financial resources to pay for tuition while also covering food, shelter, and healthcare for themselves and any dependents. Exclusion for financial reasons seems particularly unfair, since it depends more of the economic success of a student's parents than on their own virtues. Furthermore, to the extent that a university education increases a person's future earnings, economic exclusion from the university contributes to a multi-generational stratification of society based on wealth.

The origin of this economic exclusion is obvious -- the university needs money to operate (e.g. maintain buildings and pay salaries), and it therefore needs some way to motivate people to contribute money. The most straight-forward way to raise revenues is to change fees to the people who benefit most directly from the services provided, and exclude those people if they do not pay. Alternatives exist; for example, money can be raised from philanthropists or can be allocated politically. Our current university system relies on a combination of these revenue sources, with complicated mechanisms designed to maintain both accessibility and adequate instructional resources (e.g. scholarships, loans, subsidies, work-study).

The current debate over the role of the university is driven primarily by concerns over increasing tuition and the consequent student debt. The question is how to reduce the burden on the students themselves? One option is to reduce university expenditures, perhaps by increasing administrative efficiency or reducing salaries of the top administrators. The "Open University" model suggests one path to reducing administrative costs -- abandoning the evaluation and credentialing activities of the university. But more attention is given to the loss of political funding for higher education, and protestors seem most concerned with maintaining the status quo for the California educational system.

The other form of exclusivity is based on academic potential. There are pedagogic reasons for this exclusivity -- uniformity of student capabilities makes it easier to teach students simultaneously, and it increases the chance that students will be able to help each other understand the course material. This is the same reason that many courses have prerequisites. Many educational reformers have tried to integrate classrooms with students of different academic ability, but my understanding is that this normally ends up slowing the progress of the most capable students. While it may sound "elitist" to the students who are excluded, I believe it is totally appropriate to seek the company of people who will advance one's own goals while avoiding those who would inhibit them. If this exclusion is institutionalized at the level of the university, so be it.

California has maintained a three-tier system of public higher education, which traditionally allows for some exclusivity on the basis of academic potential while minimizing exclusion based on economic resources. The UC system has traditionally relied greatly on academic exclusivity, since it only had a limited number of openings for students, but everyone wanted to attend due to the extremely low tuition. This structure is changing as the UC system expands enrollment and raises tuition; UC is perhaps becoming more like other universities around the country.

Overall, I think that academic exclusivity is a good thing (in the absence of a good teaching model where all students benefit from a mixed-ability academic community), and while economic exclusivity is unfortunate, it is pretty much unavoidable at the scale of the general population. Economic exclusivity is pretty much unavoidable for anything that has a cost--as a university education does-- and the failure to pass those costs onto the final consumer results in the squandering of resources (I've seen it first-hand). Even with these costs, access can be provided to the most promising and motivated students by way of scholarships. I'd be hesitant to provide such funding to the mass of young adults who drift towards university education with giving much thought to it. These students often have plenty of time but little money, and have yet to realize the value of their time. By placing a dollar amount on the educational services that they are requesting, we can encourage them to think about what they expect to gain from attending university, and perhaps prevent a few of them from squandering a couple years of their lives engaged in activities that are not appropriate for them.

There is always room for improvement in our institutions, and perhaps we will find ways to deliver higher-educational services with less expense, or in a way that does not segregate students based on academic ability yet still enables the most capable students to excel. Until then, the exclusivity of the university is something that we have to work with, and reflects the simple truth that a university education is not right for everyone.


Anonymous said...

Nothing original here. Basically a re-hash of conservative talking points in defense of educational exclusivity that I've heard many, many times. I'm in favor of universal college education (or more precisely, the intellectual equivalent) mainly because I suspect that educated people are harder to exploit than uneducated ones. I think my quality of life would be much better if all workers, including in the most menial and marginalized roles, had a sophisticated understanding, for example, of their employers' "business models." I'd rather live in a world of mostly "underemployed" people who are very clever (and who are leading the "examined life") than a world of mostly intellectually stunted people in idiotic jobs, as well as a few narrowly-trained specialists who have been the recipients of the kind of education intended to be a means to an end. If nothing else, life in such a world woudn't be as abysmally boring as life in the vast suburban wasteland.

Ricketson said...

I'm sure that all these points have been made before, but the issue of "exclusivity" is rarely addressed in a direct and honest manner, so I felt it was worth doing here.

An important distinction between my own arguments and "conservative talking points" is that I come from a radically different perspective than most conservatives. For instance, while a conservative may object to paying higher taxes to send others to school, I work in academia and would have more money and status if more people attended universities.

If conservatives see academic exclusivity as part of the natural hierarchy of society, then I disagree with them there. Likewise, if conservatives object to what is being taught at university (whether it's philosophy or biology), then I also disagree with them.

You say that you are in favor of "universal college education (or the intellectual equivalent)". I hope that nothing I said implied that I believe that most people should live in ignorance. Part of my point is that the university environment is NOT the proper context for many (most?) people to develop their intellectual abilities. Formal education relies on curricula designed by authority figures, and and emphasis on abstraction. Many people would do better by focusing on problems that arise from their own practical experience, with their studies driven by their own desire to learn rather than a drive to get a good grade. Part of "academic exclusivity" is the recognition that some students are not ready for university at the age of 18, and only develop an appreciation for learning after spending a few years supporting themselves and trying to solve real problems.

I believe that a strong Community College system with an emphasis on life-long learning would be more effective than 4-year universities at promoting widespread intellectual development.

Anonymous said...

My opinion is that education is generally worthless if you are unable to spot the fallacy of exclusionary institutional injustice serving as an argument for greater tax subsidy of said institutions. So the solution is: "Free" to attend, but not too particulary free to "drop out" if you want to retain any degree of economic viability?

Contary to "anagory," it should be obvious how a "well educated" populace can end up socially compliant, particularly if university credentialism serves as a barrier of entry to anything but the most mudane entry-level positions.

To me, it's obvious that you can't have science without social division and specialization of labor. The academic firm, or the university, is implied. However, it is not implied that university credentialing should serve as a barrier of entry to all but entry-level positions at McDonalds.

In terms of the opportunity costs of "university credentialing," I'm reminded of the shit storm Peter Thiel caused fairly recently with his entrepreneurial initiative to bypass the university.

I myself, as a programmer, live in a world where university credentialism doesn't mean that much. But it's not a world devoid of incentives for "cred." Quite the contrary, it is a highly competitive world incentivized by "cred" as a means for quasi rents. "Cred" is largely the reason why you have all this open source software and all these open source platforms.

Ricketson said...

Ah, the Thiel Fellowship. I just looked at their first group...

Of note, one of them already graduated from a college.

I think that the fellowship itself should be rather non-controversial (just enabling young entrepreneurs to pursue their ideas). What was controversial was how he used it to showcase his broader ideas about the over-valuation of a college education... in which he used some absurd and overly alarmist rhetoric such as describing higher education as a "bubble".

Ricketson said...

An interesting comment from an interview with Thiel:

"Two of your fellows, Nick Cammarata and David Merfield are trying to reinvent education. Yet neither has a college degree. Can you reinvent education without a college degree?
If you haven’t been educated you have no credentials, if you have been educated you’re a hypocrite for not encouraging people to do the same thing. It’s a crazy catch 22. What we somehow need to do is move away from this obsession with status, it may not be possible to get rid of status altogether, but I think having more substance would be a very healthy direction to go in. There’s a lot to be said for learning, but credentialing as a status or signaling mechanism is a much more dubious proposition."

I'll keep an eye on those two:

Just to be realistic, the likely outcome of these fellowships is that the startups will fail (most do), and the people will return to a more traditional career track. All of them are clearly smart, and will get into decent schools. Several of them were clearly very privileged in their upbringing. They'll end up going to college, but they'll be a little older and more experienced than they would have been otherwise. They'll probably be better students for it, and contribute more to the university community.

One of the problems with our current university system is that it is full of 18-year old kids who have never had any freedom or responsibility. Most students would probably get more out of school if they spent a couple of years acting like adults and learning life lessons from real adults, and then returned to studies.

Anonymous said...

"the fallacy of exclusionary institutional injustice serving as an argument for greater tax subsidy of said institutions"

So? It seems obvious enough that most academia-bashing is motivated mainly by the perception that higher education as a profession is a left-of-center enclave. I'll be the first to admit that my generally (but not unconditonally) supportive stance toward higher education is motivated in large part by the fact that it serves as a source of employment for the kinds of people who tend to get filtered out by the social screening (dress conservatively, boys and girls!) of the corporate world. I also defend at least the continued existence of tenure (even if for smaller numbers, but I'm suspicious of that agenda, too), as I'm enough of a "workerist" to know that economic security is a prerequisite for freedom and/or independence.

As to the charge that education=indoctrination, I am sympathetic to the unschooling movement, but I've also found that I often learn more in a classroom environment than through self-study. Dono, maybe that just means I'm mediocre. Anyway, when I envision a world in which being highly educated is the rule rather than the exception, I mean critical thinking skills, not "schooling," and I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Also, I was positing the presence of high-education-level people in low-level jobs, not a furthering of the education arms race, or more and more education needed in order to get a job. Perhaps there is some Iron Law of Economics to the effect that you can't increase the number of educated people without increasing education requirements all around. But certainly I've heard plenty of horror stories about college graduates being rejected by potential employers for being "over-qualified," so I'm skeptical.

Indoctrination is certainly one component of higher education, but I think it plays a much larger part in professional and vocational education than in "liberal" education. For example the for-profit ITT Technical Institute is currently running a TV ad in which one alum talks about how ITT Tech "molded me." While I can see how a 'well educated' populace can end up socially compliant," I'm sure it's still a lesser evil than a populace "under arms," or subject to universal military service. In the case of liberal education, where there is at least lip service to the idea of learning for its own sake, I think it's quite possible that the effect of critical thinking skills learned outweighs the effect of social conditioning etc. that is also part of the education enterprise. And behavior conditioning plays a much bigger role in military training and even corporate "pep rally" type orientation sessions than in higher education.

I agree about some applied adulthood between high school and college. Eventually I'd like to see an overall trend away from college being part of the "privilege of youth," and not just business degrees...

Ricketson said...

"some Iron Law of Economics to the effect that you can't increase the number of educated people without increasing education requirements all around."

One of the difficulties in reforming the educational system is that it does not operate in isolation... it influences the broader society, and is in turn influenced by it (particularly in how it is funded).

It's frustrating when the educational system is blamed for problems that are external to it, but we do need to bear those problems in mind.