Friday, February 8, 2013

The Higher Education Lobby Comes to UW-Madison

This morning, the UW System Board of Regents heard from a prominent speaker: Molly Corbett Broad, President of the American Council of Education.  Then, around noon, she joined a group on the UW-Madison campus to share a similar talk, but this time with an audience of faculty, staff, and students. Both talks focused on the theme of "higher education at a crossroads."

I had the honor of introducing President Broad to the second audience, in my role as Senior Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.  I also moderated the discussion portion of the conversation.

As I'm grateful to Broad for joining us, I feel it's among the most respectful acts to fully engage with her comments and offer my thoughts and questions here.  Simply receiving information from a talk without vigorously considering and debating the ideas is inconsistent with the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.  So, with that in mind, here are my thoughts.

First, let's begin with 10 key points Broad made in her talk:

  1. Today's undergraduates are quite different from yesterday's. In particular, they are often older, have fewer resources, and are especially interested in getting a return on their college investment.
  2. Students' reactions to loan burdens are often inappropriate, given the sizable return to college degrees.  Broad noted that it's better to have a college education than to own a home. She also clearly stated that students who take on too many loans are greatly in need of financial education.
  3. Many  colleges and universities are struggling financially to stay afloat.  Broad posited that this was an inevitable trend, unlikely to change.  She showed a slide indicating that 50% of universities are reporting lower enrollment growth.
  4. The federal government, said Broad, is a minor player in higher education and it's best that it remain that way.  A growing role of the federal government, she said, would be unwelcome.  She told the audience to remember the old adage that those with the gold do the ruling (or something similar, implying that the federal government will try to control whatever it funds).
  5. It is therefore problematic, noted Broad, that a growing number of undergraduates are "dependent" on the federal Pell Grant. 
  6. There is a lot of variation among institutions, Broad pointed out. To illustrate this, she showed data indicating that the selective private universities admit just 13% of applicants and spend $75,000 on each student, while less selective privates admit 67% of applicants and spend $21,000 per student.
  7. It is important, said Broad, that we provide better counseling to explain to students (especially those without family resources) that "not every student can afford to attend every institution."  
  8. We have done a great job expanding access to college, say Broad. 
  9. The classic iron triangle of higher education (which I've dissected many times, including in a blog for the Board of Regents) is now outdated, according to Broad, and must be rethought with a focus on innovation.
  10. The key innovation lies in online courses and services.  Broad said "isn't it time for us to take lessons from private business?" and pointed to MOOCs.  Udacity, Coursera, and EdX "will help higher education meet the forces of change," she reported. Of course, Broad noted the usual concerns about academic quality, and then said that we could be confident that ACE was helping ensure quality control. Specifically, she said that ACE had been "retained" by the MOOCs to assess quality.
Before providing my own comments, here is a taste of what the audience at WISCAPE had to say in response. First, a graduate student asked about the implications for academic labor, noting his concern that graduate student training opportunities would be diminished if MOOCs were the main mechanism for course delivery.  Broad responded that graduate student experiences with regard to teaching were already subpar.  A staff member asked how we might alter tenure incentives to focus more on innovative teaching, and Broad said she didn't know.  A faculty member asked about how MOOCs generate money for their schools-- and Broad said that remained to be seen.  And finally, the Chief Information Officer of UW-Madison noted that broadband access, critical to online education, is woefully insufficient in some parts of the country, and asked Broad to do the lobbying to help shore it up. In response, Broad suggested that he contact the Obama Administration and let her know what they said.

Ok.  I was struggling to stay silent throughout all of this for one major reason:  There is a abundant gulf between the (mainly accurate) trends among undergraduates and institutions that Broad described and the solution she offered.  So I asked her: "If on the one hand we know that the number of economically disadvantaged students in higher education is growing, and many colleges and universities have fewer resources with which to serve them, how can we expect a solution (MOOCS) which provide less student contact (particular the hands-on kind important to success of first generation students) and no additional revenue to help?"  

Her response was that our current model is broken, and that she would not want to be the person to "underestimate the potential of disadvantaged students to benefit from MOOCs" as much as any other student.

Hmm.  Well.  

First, this must be the new version of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" for higher education.  Now it's the skeptic of MOOCs who doubts the potential of poor students, rather than the potential of the proposed educational plan? This was especially remarkable since the comment was directed at a researcher who spends inordinate amounts of time with the same Pell recipients she was discussing-- who, by the way, would take offense at being termed "Pell dependent."  (Recall when welfare receipt became welfare dependence, folks?)  What I know, from spending time on the campuses of community colleges and less-selective institutions, is that their students prize their time with people-- they are happy to have technology be a part of instruction, but it cannot replace personal interaction.  If anything, perhaps MOOCs are best suited to the sorts of students increasingly in the minority/nontraditional category of higher education-- like the artificial intelligence students with whom Sebastian Thrum discovered his love for teaching online.

Second, it is uncommon for academics like Broad to uncritically accept and repeat claims that a system is simply "broken," without questioning how and why it broke and for whose benefit it is broken. To her credit, Broad alluded to politics when questioning the right of the federal government to be involved in the work of colleges and universities.  But she did not address the broader trends resulting in the defunding of education and research, the push towards "innovation" generated in the private sector, or the increasing focus on the deficits of students rather than the institutions serving them.  When declaring the push for access a "success," she failed to note that the chances of attaining a bachelor's degree for students born in the bottom income quintile is less than one in ten.  Moreover, instead of pointing to states for diminishing appropriations for higher education and driving up tuition, and institutions for catering to the rich students rather than keeping college affordable, she blamed students for their poor choices with regard to loans.

In the end, the picture Broad painted today was not so much of higher education at a "crossroads," but rather a disturbing vision of colleges and universities frantically trying to pull up the drawbridge and create a new moat for their protection. To keep out those unwashed masses of unkempt nontraditional students, and prevent federal "intrusion" colleges and universities can no longer simply raise tuition-- the public will not stand for it. Instead, they must shift to protecting the elite survivors (the A institutions, I think she called them) by generating MOOC courses that can be launched into the cloud to create a virtual wall -- satisfying those new degree-seekers whom colleges and universities will never adapt to serve in person the way their administrators and professors will serve their own kids.  Such efforts will only thrive at the most elite places, since as Broad noted, MOOCs require course release time to develop-- and the reality, despite her statement to the contrary, is that such time is incredibly rare these days. 

Will "quality" postsecondary education survive?  Does is now exist?  Color me unimpressed by the fact that ACE has been "retained" by the MOOCs.  A look at ACE's website and reports suggests close ties between the two, and tight relations with the Gates Foundation-- not what you want to see when looking for independent assessment.  And more importantly, it seems that the persistence of elite status among those powerful institutions fueling ACE's fire depends on the success of the MOOCs.  For without these educational alternatives, a real revolution might erupt-- with the masses actually demanding the same types of rich college experiences that American undergraduates are famous for enjoying.