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October 22, 2004

What's a College?

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Over at University Diaries, Margaret Soltan continues a spirited debate with the world, and with herself, over what it means for an institution to be a college, and for a person to go to college.

Check out the two most recent posts. They make for a nice contrast--a paradox, even.

In the first, Soltan reprints an anguished letter from a Middlebury student, who is upset over that college's large tuition and fee increases in the recent past. The student writes that big increases leading to better educational outcomes might be tolerable, but that he thinks all they've done is fuel unneccessary building programs. Good point: recall last year's New York Times article on the spread of "Jacuzzi U.." There's definitely an arms race out there.

Soltan's second post goes on to mock the University of Phoenix. That semi-august for-profit institution recently agreed to a large fine from the Feds, who were concerned that its "admissions practices" amounted to heavy-handed razz-ma-tazz worthy of David Mamet--get da butts inna seats.

(Cut to Glengarry Glen Ross:

"What the fuck, what bus did you get off of, we're here
to fucking sell. Fuck marshaling the leads. What the
fuck talk is that? What the fuck talk is that? Where
did you learn that? In school? (pause) That's "talk,"
my friend, that's "talk." Our job is to sell.
I'm the man to sell.")

Well, for the record, Phoenix admitted no wrongdoing. But they'll be scrutinized closely going forward.

But here's the rub: is it fair to criticize Middlebury on the one hand for pushing up tuition by pampering the upper-middle class, and to criticize Phoenix on the other for offering a convenient, low-cost educational alternative for its lower-end customers? In one respect, Phoenix represents all that Middlebury is not. It doesn't do rock-climbing walls. It barely does campuses. Rather, it often rents space, using it for instructional programs, not campus fun and games. And it offers programs at times convenient to its customer/students (like after work), irrespective of whether faculty would prefer to teach in the middle of the day.

Of course, in a different respect, Middlebury and Phoenix do not represent polar opposites but flip sides of the same coin: higher education responding to market forces. It's fine to complain about rock-climbing walls and luxury dorms--I do it myself as an administrator--but it's hard to argue that these accoutrements are not a response to the market.

Ditto Phoenix. While non-profit educators often turn their noses up at Phoenix, and at the concept of for-profit in the first instance, my understanding is that what Phoenix does it does rather well. Phoenix believes it can handle education-as-transmission-of-information (as in accounting) and does not aspire to education-as-transformative-experience-through-critical-exchange (as in studio art, or literary theory).

All well and good to disparage that, but the world needs accountants, too. I daresay it needs more of them than it needs literary theorists--indeed the surplus of the latter is one of higher education's current complaints.

Timothy Burke, at his excellent website, wrote a post a while back in which he posited a new model for a 21st century college. You can find it here.

Burke is an academic who is savvy about resource issues(a rare bird, he!), and is fully aware that you can only spend the same dollar once. He wonders whether costs can be controlled by stripping away all of the ancillary stuff--the health centers, the multi-cultural institutues, the student life programming. Tuition in his model would be used for basically one thing: to provide instruction.

It's an appealing notion in some respects. Given that college is wasted on the young, and that I am getting pretty creaky, this model is tremendously appealing to me. But would it be appealing to the young?

College-age students seem to want the extras. Plus, as Burke himself seems to acknowledge, some of the extras are not just fluff--they can go to the heart of establishing the "community" part of "a community of learning". If colleges are rebuilt as instruction-machines geared to serve the needs of atomized individuals, they might end up looking more like . . . the University of Phoenix, with Chaucer. And even today, if young scholars want more of the medieval/monastic model, St. John's in Annapolis and Santa Fe are out there. But both campuses together enroll less than a thousand students. That may well be the market for the monestery.

Soltan seems to want to return to Newman's Idea of a University. Alas, that seems constrained by the forces represented by Newman's Own.




posted by Fenster at October 22, 2004


"College-age students seem to want the extras."

Anybody's going to want the extras if he's not paying for them. Between Federal student aid and parental student aid, an awful lot of students are being thoroughly cut off from the price signals in the educational market, and the behavior that results - from a preference for "extras" to a greater-than-desirable tendency to select courses of study that show small to negative return on investment - isn't really very surprising.

Posted by: Ken on October 22, 2004 4:03 PM

Seems that one of the biggest puzzles/challenges where college is concerned is the in-between status of college kids. Are they totally self-responsible adults? Or are they still children, in need of (and deserving of) lots of loco parentis, if I'm using the term correctly? Or something in-between? And how to handle that?

What's your hunch about how higher ed's going to evolve over the next few decades? Didn't I read somewhere that more education is being gotten via nightschool, continuing-ed, and on-the-job-ed than via traditional colleges already? Stir in online learning and places like Phoenix, and it starts to look like the standard college thing won't be standard much longer.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2004 6:09 PM

"Seems that one of the biggest puzzles/challenges where college is concerned is the in-between status of college kids. Are they totally self-responsible adults? Or are they still children, in need of (and deserving of) lots of loco parentis, if I'm using the term correctly? Or something in-between? And how to handle that?"

The only puzzle/challenge related to the "in-between status of college kids" is "how do we get parents and the powers-that-be to knock it off and let these people grow up already?"

Seriously, 18 year is plenty long enough to be a child or even an "in-between". Dragging it out and babying them doesn't do them any favors. It just takes years away from their effective lifetimes, time they'll never get back.

Posted by: Ken on October 22, 2004 6:57 PM

Agreed, though only on principle. I don't think, realistically speaking, that total laissez-faire is what most kids expect or most parents want from colleges. And since the kids-and-parents-together are kinda/sorta the market most colleges are selling their wares to ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2004 7:13 PM

I graduated from St. John's College - the great books school, and I loved it. I think its the perfect model for students who want the transformative education rather than training for a profession.

Posted by: JasonM on October 22, 2004 8:12 PM

“What's your hunch about how higher ed's going to evolve over the next few decades? Didn't I read somewhere that more education is being gotten via nightschool, continuing-ed, and on-the-job-ed than via traditional colleges already? Stir in online learning and places like Phoenix, and it starts to look like the standard college thing won't be standard much longer.”

I grapple with these issues on a daily basis as the director of an online graduate program. Yes, I know that graduate education is different in many respects, but still …

I’m old-school, and still cling to the notion that a love of learning should inform most educational decisions; however, I’m also aware that this belief system is becoming increasingly … mmm … archaic, shall we say. On several recent occasions, when I attempted to interject theory into an online discussion, I was met with a somewhat bewildered response along the lines of “How is that going to help me in my job? It won’t.”

Indeed, perhaps it won’t – yet I still believe that a substantial grounding in theory can be instrumental in the creation of a splendid professional, at least in my field, which is disability studies. But Michael also makes an interesting point when he notes the range of venues that are available for furthering one’s job prospects. My students frequently investigate these alternatives and subsequently engage me in long, at times passionate discussions about the meaning of education vs. on-the-job training.

I should note, however, that my institution’s shift to online education was in response to intense public demand – it was do-or-die. Thus, I am responsive to market demand and am certainly not resistant to change, but as a somewhat thoughtful, analytical person, I also grapple with the implications inherent in this pure transmission-of-knowledge model.

Posted by: Maureen on October 23, 2004 11:09 AM

I wouldn't say that St. John's and other Great Books colleges completely comprise the "medieval/monastery" atmosphere--I chose Chicago so I could have a lot of that atmosphere and still have some leeway in what I was learning (and because my parents were convinced that St. John's wasn't practical, a sentiment apparently shared by many parents of Chicagoans).

Posted by: Maureen (not the one above) on October 24, 2004 10:16 PM


You ask a profound question, but I'm not sure it's one with any very good answer. College and university degrees are a mystery wrapped in an enigma to me. Clearly they serve some of the following functions:

1) Validating intelligence and drive for future employers (although in a remarkably fuzzy way)

2) Providing the Federal government, and indirectly, industry with basic science research. (What this has to do with the rest of the tasks listed here is unclear, unless it is training its own cadre of researchers.)

3) Giving young people a chance to live away from home but with a good deal of structure and without the full burden of adult responsibility (i.e., socializing the affluent young and inculcating them with the values and self-image of the elite.)

4) Providing a home for "scholars" of the humanities which benefits 'culture' as well as a number of ideologues who may, possibly, be performing some kind of R&D for the political class.

5) Instructing young people with knowledge of various subjects. This, of course, is mostly wasted, as the vast majority of young people have no idea what trades they will end up practicing. Also, many universities (especially elite ones) do a remarkably poor job at this, because they use Federal government research contractors (i.e., their professors and graduate students) to perform this task, without requiring that they be any good at it and without much in the way of supplemental pay.

6) Providing young people with some clue as to what types of intellectual work they might either like or be better at, although this is equally obscured by the dissimilarities between college tasks and those dominating real-world professions.

Obviously, many of these tasks would appear to be better performed on a stand-alone basis, so I'm surprised by the continuing dominance of the multi-tasking college or university. Likewise, many of these tasks would appear to be better handled by organizations that would serve people who have already begun careers and who have a much better idea of the training they want in life, rather than of career-ignorant high school graduates. I guess this trend is beginning to show itself.

Isn't it Pete Drucker who maintains that the dominant university model will disappear over the next 20 to 50 years?

Who knows? I'll admit I find the whole thing very puzzling.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 27, 2004 10:06 AM


Drucker did indeed make that prediction and, being partial to Drucker's thinking, I trotted it out quite often at work as a way of getting the juices flowing in the usually somnolent academy.

Problem is, I used that argument about 10 years ago and Drucker must have written it sometime before then. If the academy is on the way out, time is beginning to run out. Is it happening, and we don't yet see it, since we need to pass a tipping point first? Or is the academy more resilient than Drucker supposed?

I sided with Drucker but now I'm not so sure--and for some of the very reasons that cause your puzzlement.

Consider the role of generality and diversity in evolution--overspecialization can be a curse, and fuzziness can be a shrewd bet for handling uncertainty.

Look at your list: colleges are not just about one thing; they are about multiple things. They sink their taproots into industry, adolescent lifestyles, nostalgic sentimentality, public service--this all in addition to the formal role of the spread of intellectual knowledge through teaching and research. I wonder whether some of the resilience of the f*cker is due to its multiple, hard-to-reconcile, natures.

Posted by: fenster on October 29, 2004 6:32 PM

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