The Reemergence of Bifurcation in Higher Ed

KCRW’s To The Point was in the trend as it focused on why college is so expensive, and asked whether online learning is becoming the way to get an education (starts at about 8 minutes in).

The recent emphasis of cost and student loan debt in discussing the worthiness of a university education is not just the result of the economic depression, though it may seem that way. The discussion is certainly much more centered around cost-benefit analysis now than ever before. We argue, as in this radio program, about why costs are going up, and how students are taking out huge loans that can’t be paid back.

Dana Summers c Tribune Media Services 2011

I work at a community college, the ultimate guarantor of opportunity in getting a college education: low tuition, small class size, no entry requirements. As universities fill up and begin to cancel guarantees for admission (UCSD will be ending its TAG program in 2014, seriously impacting my students) community colleges are clearly what they have always been: the best deal for completing lower division work.

Whatever else you think of the conclusions of her 2010 book DIY U, Anya Kamenetz did a great job reviewing the history of higher education in this country.  She notes that there has always been an exclusionary aspect to college – a small percentage of the population attended college at all in the 18th century, and though larger now the traditional divides of race and class still exist in terms of college attendance.

As expenses rise, the wealthy can continue to go to college, the poor must continue to rely on government support and tuition breaks to go to college, and the middle class borrows more and more money to go to college. As with the loans undertaken to buy houses that were larger than they needed, the middle class now complains that the amount they’re borrowing for education isn’t good value and the cost is too high (I have little sympathy for those borrowing huge amounts to go to Harvard instead of their state college.)

The result is that, as in the 18th and 19th century, the exclusionary element of higher education is reasserting itself. The wealthier class will attend the expensive universities, and those who are not wealthy will not be able to afford to go to the major universities. This may increase the value of the B.A., since fewer will be given by those universities.

The idea of college as an entitlement will fade at these higher levels. As Daniel Luzer notes, people can pay $40,000 at Harvard or at Occidental, but they’ll feel less screwed if they go to Harvard.

The new abundance of for-profit online colleges is testimony to the desire to get a college degree even if the quality of the education is poor (as I believe it is in most of these places, based on my understanding of their canned courses and lack of pedagogical freedom and preparation in their faculties).  Online education is the answer to place and time conflicts, and an answer to finding alternatives to old pedagogies, but it is not a cure for high costs or socio-economic class divisions. (I had hoped to see online education become absorbed into teaching pedagogy in general, and although I work very hard at helping online teachers, I am dismayed at the perpetuation of the distance ed mode as a way of creating standardization and tracking instead of pedagogical innovation.)

As Diane Ravitch notes, the fact that recent changes may lead to fewer university degress is not a bad thing economically, since only 23% of the jobs opening up in the next few years will not require a BA or higher. She says under the new economy, college should be for those who want to learn. This is another kind of bifurcation, similar to that noted as part of the 18th and 19th century in Kamanetz’s book, between the vocational/trade learners and the college/intellectual learners. Actually, it’s similar to every timeframe – ancient Greece comes to mind.

I do believe that everyone should have the opportunity to go to college – that’s part of my programming as a democratic American. But if the intellectual and financial standards are high, some will not be able to. Colleges should offer scholarships and governments should offer aid (more in grants than loans, but loans should be extremely low interest) for those who are academically excellent but don’t have enough money. This would maintain our goal of allowing anyone with the intellectual talent to go to college, which is good for the country. Instead we’ve gone way past that into schools where many are on scholarship, including the wealthy,  and community colleges ar expected to focus on “student success” and get everyone transferred to university who wants to transfer.

We should be able to say “you’re just not college material”, but it’s unfortunate that today’s combination of high prices and overenrolled universities may be the only way to do that.