Selling College Students Down the River

One of the principal differences between K-12 and higher education is that people representing elementary and secondary teachers often go to elaborate lengths in denying the extent to which they’re pursuing a narrow self-interested agenda at the expense of student welfare and the public good, whereas in college they’re completely upfront about it. Two recent examples illustrate. Last week, the Chronicle reported how Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor’s efforts to enroll more minority and low-income students, provide more need-based financial aid, and improve engagement with the surrounding community is meeting resistance among the faculty:

One of the most-contested parts of Ms. Cantor’s plan to remake the student population has been the acceptance rate. The rate, which stood in the mid-50-percent range after she arrived, spiked up to around 60 percent in each of the last two academic years. That sent up warning signs to both professors and students, who worried that Syracuse was becoming less selective. “Ivy Leagues pride themselves on minuscule acceptance rates of less than 10 percent,” said an editorial last winter in The Daily Orange, the student newspaper. “The shift in recruitment strategy and subsequent rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the SU diploma, cause larger freshman classes, and affect the quality of an SU education.”

Some professors agree, although they have been reluctant to speak out because questions about the university’s admissions policies have touched off charges of racism here. “My fear is that the university is moving away from selective to inclusive,” says David H. Bennett, a professor of history. He says that Syracuse already had a diverse student population before Ms. Cantor arrived, but that the chancellor has taken it to a level unmatched by other selective universities. “If you look at the universities with the top 50 endowments and the percent of their students who receive Pell Grants, none of them were anywhere near even what we were before Nancy Cantor came,” he says. “This may be an admirable goal, but it is going to have an impact on our reputation. It’s a road to nowhere for a place like Syracuse, which is asking parents to pay a lot because they think they’re going to increase their kids’ life chances.”

One might think a university’s academic reputation rested on the actual scholarship produced by faculty and the actual quality of education provided by professors to students, but no, apparently it’s all just a function of admissions rates and SAT scores. If pursuing radical goals like “larger freshman classes” and “inclusive” admissions policies automatically devalues the university’s reputation, doesn’t that mean the entire reputational mechanism is a fraud? And as is generally the case, all normal scholarly standards of evidence (e.g. “citing evidence”) are thrown out the window in discussions of educational quality, with assertions that enrolling a larger and more diverse student body will “affect the quality of an SU education” unaccompanied by research or data of any kind.

Meanwhile, in California:

“We believe that if courses are moved online, they will most likely be the classes currently taught by lecturers,” reads a brief declaration against online education on the website of UC-AFT, the University of California chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, “and so we will use our collective bargaining power to make sure that this move to distance education is done in a fair and just way for our members.”

Now the California lecturers, who make up nearly half of the system’s undergraduate teaching teachers, believe they have used that bargaining power to score a rare coup. The University of California last week tentatively agreed to a deal with UC-AFT that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in “a change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.

Bob Samuels, the president of the union, says this effectively gives the union veto power over any online initiative that might endangers the jobs or work lives of its members. “We feel that we could stop almost any online program through this contract,” Samuels told Inside Higher Ed.

And stop it they would. Regardless of any data administrators trot out to argue that students learn just as well online as they do in the classroom, the union would do whatever it could to block the university from moving courses online if it decides the move would make life worse for lecturers, says Samuels. Because some of the important social benefits of classroom education are hard to quantify, Samuels says he distrusts those who argue for the equivalency of online learning based on “the evidence.” “I don’t think you’re going to find any conclusive analysis or study of that,” he says. “I think it’s [always] going to be a judgment call.”

As we all know, college is very expensive and getting more so all the time, causing increasing numbers of students to borrow large amounts of money to attend. The U.S. News & World Report college rankings are often fingered as a culprit, forcing colleges against their will to engage in ruinously expensive positional status competition. We are also told that colleges are chronic sufferers of Baumol’s cost disease and can’t possibly use technology to become more resource-efficient over time. But as these examples show, it is more often than not colleges themselves causing these problems. If you’re a tenured faculty member, it’s in your best interest for your university to spend a ton of money recruiting rich kids with high SAT scores in order to climb the U.S. News status ladder, because some of that money and status will come to you. And if you’re a lecturer it’s in your best interest for your university to not migrate toward a technology-enhanced educational system that serves more students for less money. So, big picture, universities like Syracuse remain the exception to the rule, public universities have a hard time expanding their digital offerings, prices rise, access is constricted, and hey look! The University of Phoenix Online is enrolling hundreds of thousands of undergraduates.

This strikes me as substantially a political problem. K-12 teachers unions are under intense scrutiny and have lately been backing away from some of their least defensible policies as a result. In higher education, while you can read about this stuff in excellent publications like the Chronicle and InsideHigherEd, such issues just aren’t among the suite of well-understood concerns that political and media elites incorporate into their worldview as a matter of course.

[Cross-posted at The Quick & the Ed]

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.