Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy Cal: what can you learn at university?

Part I: Occupy Cal, and the function of the university
Part II: Occupy Cal: The exclusive university

The Occupy Cal protestors have accused the university of functioning to divide the "haves" from the "have nots". Everyone recognizes that attending a university can provide economic advantages, and that many people are not able to attend a university (especially not their top-choice), so it's easy to see the logic behind that assertion of divisiveness. I argued that the exclusivity of universities contributes to their economic efficiency and educational effectiveness, so increasing enrollment and decreasing tuition is not an option. How can a university provide its services without excluding a large portion of our society from economic, intellectual, social, and political opportunities?

To address this issue, I intend to examine the benefits that the university provides to its students, and whether the university structure is the only way (or even the best way) for most people to gain those benefits. If there are alternative ways to acquire those benefits that do not require selectivity in admissions, then the university can either reform to adopt those more inclusive practices, or alternative institutions can provide these services to the people who were excluded from the university.

Since the professed ideal of the university is to advance learning, I'll start with that topic (a separate post will address the issue of getting "one's foot in the door" by way of professional networking and credentials). As described below, I do not believe that an institution like the University of California is the appropriate context for most people to study.

To begin, it is worth noting that many people -- both those who hold degrees and those who don't -- dismiss the effectiveness of formal education, especially higher education (see yesterday's comment). Many people are fond of the expression "The only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school.", or dismiss degrees as "Bull Shit, More Shit, Piled Higher and Deeper". I can attest that many people have developed strong critical thinking and writing skills without formal "higher education". There are also many examples of successful entrepreneurs who did not attend a university. A degree clearly is not a perfect predictor of economic or intellectual potential. Likewise, I have seen many students (in both high school and universities) who clearly had no motivation for book learning, and were therefore wasting their time by enrolling in classes; they would have learned more at almost any job.

With that being said, I do believe that many people (including myself) benefit greatly from the education offered at a university. I can think of no better way to quickly absorb a field of knowledge than to have a series of experts tell you what to study and how to verify that you have learned it. During that four-year grind through one abstraction after the next, it can be helpful to have a carrot dangled in front of you (in the form of a degree and the opportunities it offers) to make sure you stay focused and learn the full breadth of knowledge within the field.

What may be apparent for the above regimen is that there is no reason that it should cost $15,000 a year (UC budget pdf). Many universities have placed their curricula online specifically to facilitate independent study, and professors regularly post their syllabi online for their students. If a student studies 10 subjects in a year, then books should cost about $1000 if they are being purchased from the university book store, and work is being done to lower this price. If this is all a university offers (as some people suggest that it is), then a motivated student should be able to teach themselves the standard subjects without the expense or bother of the university.

The problem with the above setup is that it does not provide the student with either the peer group or the expert feedback that can address the student's confusions and assure that he does not walk away with a false understanding of the topic. If simply finding a few study partners were sufficient, then a university would not be needed-- meeting at the local library should be possible. However, it may not be easy to find good study partners from the general population; the academic exclusivity of the university (applied even at the level of individual courses) identifies groups of students with similar capabilities, and the administrative structure of the class pressures students to study the material at the same pace. If we could develop a system to allow independent students to find appropriate study partners -- those who are able to study the topic at the specified pace-- then this benefit of the university would be diminished. One troubling possibility is that by attracting competent students to their community, the university depletes their availability in the outside community, and essentially gains leverage via a network effect and a sort of "vendor lock-in" applying to the higher-education industry as a whole.

But leaving aside the availability of study partners, we still have to consider the traditional explanation for why the university is a good learning environment -- expert guidance. Peers often cannot identify each other's mistakes or explain concepts effectively. Only experts can reliably correct students or answer their questions. This part of teaching is very labor intensive, and since the labor comes from experts, it can be very expensive. To top it off, upper-level classes (in sciences, at least) often cover current research topics and rely on the extensive expertise of the instructor. Sometimes the course material is so new that it has not been synthesized into any standard text, and a detailed syllabus cannot be provided prior to the beginning of the semester. At this level, the content of the course can sometimes be dominated by the contribution of the students themselves, and relies on an extensive shared body of knowledge that can be hard to create outside of a formal program with several years of instruction.

The expense of this type of education forces us to ask "exactly what kind of higher education can be provided to the entire population?". Higher education is typically divided into three categories, and California supports all three as public institutions: the research university, the teaching university, and the community college. The first category is the most expensive to maintain, in part because it demands the highest level of expertise from the faculty (expertise arising from ongoing cutting-edge research). This is what I'm normally thinking of when I discuss the university, and the exclusiveness arises directly from the fact that there simply are not enough experts at this level to teach every student in this style. Furthermore, most students probably would not benefit from the type of instruction offered by these experts; only students who have mastered the broad knowledge of a field of study are at a level to understand what these professors are trying to teach. To top it off, these professors are not necessarily the best teachers, and they stereotypically have a hard time explaining concepts to people who do not already have extensive knowledge of the field.

The alternative is to learn from those experts who decided to focus on teaching, with research being a minor part of their activities (all people who hold a Ph.D. in sciences have successfully conducted research at some point). These professors are often better teachers than the professors who focus on research -- having more experience at teaching, and paying more attention to the theory of teaching. These professors would probably be the main workforce of "universal higher education". At the large research universities they often teach the lower-level classes, and they dominate at the smaller colleges that don't maintain active research programs. The third group of experts are those who have mastered their field of study, but have not conducted research of their own. We commonly see this among high-school teachers and the teaching-assistants at universities, but there is no reason that this level of expertise wouldn't be sufficient for most adult learning. My impression is that many instructors at the community college level have this sort of expertise.

The point of all of this is that when we talk about "universal higher education", we shouldn't be thinking of institutions like the University of California -- we should be thinking of the California Community Colleges. Rather than focusing on the institutions that educate the students with the greatest academic achievement, we should be focusing on the institutions that help the people who have had the most trouble. Even if the coursework offered by these institutions is no more advanced than that offered by many high-schools, there is still value in making these services available to the general public because many people were unable to learn these topics in high school, for a variety of reasons.

Focusing on community colleges rather than 4-year bachelor-degree programs is not only much more cost effective (~1/3 of the cost for instruction, as I understand it), but it also is more compatible with the ideal of a widely-educated population. Community colleges are spread throughout the community (as their name implies), enabling students to take classes without structuring their entire lives around study. This saves a lot of money that would have to be spent on room and board, and also allows a student to attend classes while holding down a regular job or raising children. While universities are attempting to be more accommodating to "non-traditional" (i.e. older) students, the basic structure of the 4-year program is optimized for young adults with no family commitments, and it would be foolish to try to extend that to the entire population.

Finally, we need to consider the elitist attitudes that prevent us from allocating our intellectual resources in a way that includes everyone. This "elitism" does not arise from the pragmatic exclusivity of the institutions of higher learning, but instead comes from our tendency to focus on the pinnacles of intellectual achievement rather than focus on enabling intellectual engagement among the broad base of society. This elitism is expressed in part by the attempts to increase the accessibility to the elite University of California, which necessarily draws resources away from the community college system. This largely reflects the selfish ambition of people with moderate opportunities who want to have the best opportunities, regardless of the poor opportunities that others have.

The other elitism comes from the fact that public science funding is often allocated to pure research in a way that provides no broad educational benefit. The decision to hire full-time researchers at national laboratories necessarily depletes the pool of experts who could be participating in broader (i.e. undergraduate) educational activities. Even professors at academic institutions often acquire so many grants that it eats into the time that they allocate to teaching. Our public scientific funding agencies has decided to pursue scientific advancement that is disconnected from broad education. This may be an appropriate decision, especially if we like our new technologies-- but if we care about public education, we need to consider how these decisions affect the allocation of intellectual resources. Scientific progress will continue at a rapid pace even if all public research funding is linked to broader educational activities, and the academic establishment needs to take a hard look at how it uses the resources that it has before it complains that outside forces are preventing it from achieving its educational mission.

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