It’s nice to be special, or, I’m glad I am an alpha

Peter Greene takes Kevin Carey to task over at Curmudgucation. Read it. My first thought upon reading it is that most everyone bemoaning the failure of American higher education is a product of American higher education. So how would they know? Is this a case of the blonde leading the blonde?

Or is it that they feel such failure in understanding the world around them that it must be the fault of the education they received?

Must be it. Can’t be their own damn fault.

Or perhaps their expectations have changed over time. Or beliefs.

I don’t know Peter, but I like his writing and thinking. I do know Kevin and I like his writing and thinking. I don’t always agree with either of them, and both comments apply to a number of people in the education research, commentary, and punditry industry (RCPI).

Unfortunately, I know that a lot of RCPI simply are not as smart and well-educated as they think they are, particularly those I have been meetings or dialogue with over the years. I too often say things that should not go unchallenged, but do, and the statements I make that are challenged are usually those contrary to the Crisis of the Day or Cherished Myth. Those things that are not challenged, or fail to cause a “wait a moment, what did you just say?” are intended to see who is paying attention – or is as educated as they think they are.

I know I am not as well-educated as a lot of these folks. I went to unimpressive schools and have a degree in studio art (painting nekkid women and making jewelry) of all things. I’ve read far more Stephen King than the classics of western literature  (unless those classics are the golden age of science fiction and later). For that matter, I am pretty much enjoying King’s new book, Mr. Mercedes. And I have no shame or embarrassment about these things – I like what I like. Despite the source of my education, I did make what I could of it and I am pretty well aware of my biases. I also pay a lot of attention to what people say…sometimes more than I think whoever is speaking/writing.

During the last presidential elections, we heard a lot about “makers and takers” and on my last road-trip I saw a billboard using that phrase between Joplin and Kansas City. I have a strong bias when it comes to “information makers” and “information takers” in the RCPI class. Too many are in the latter group and have never been in the former group. They really have no idea, in my not-so-very-humble-at-all opinion, what is going on in the data, only what they have read about it or created as tertiary users of the data. Some have never really had a real job and simply write about the work of others applying their own biases and prejudices. Others are part of a revolving door of policy positions, think-tanks, and foundations – generally going places that support and reinforce their own belief systems. This is probably a completely an unfair bias of mine, but I admit to it. I appreciate the fact that RCPI has every bit as much of the societal utility and value of music, movie, and theater critics.

Peter makes a link about funding sources and agenda of New America Foundation, along the lines of one of my favorite reader commenters at CHE, IHE, and elsewhere (wherever higher ed stories appear), Unemployed Northeasterner. While the there is a certain conspiratorial appeal to follow the money and think that the think-tanks and researchers receiving money from foundations are being controlled in their work. Or that the foundations like Lumina are being to led in such a manner to direct their grant activities to fatten the wallets and coffers of SallieMae, it is far easier for me to believe in essential laziness of human nature. People are attracted to organizations that reinforce what they choose to believe and organizations attract people that reinforce the beliefs and agenda of the organization. The same is true in making grants to individual researchers and teams of researchers.

Of course, this essential laziness is key to understanding the pronouncements of the RCPI – they read, research, and write in a way that supports their chosen belief system. It’s a lot of work to constantly challenge your own thinking and belief system. It’s also wearying to be wrong all the time – or at least face a reality that says things are not quite as simple and clear-cut as you wish to make them out to be.

I had actually planned to write about the existential crisis that came to a head this week about whether or not there is a student loan crisis. Student loan posts get lots more views. This post might get twenty. I’ve written before about my difficulty in knowing if student debt is a crisis or not, but I am going to reinforce these basic facts:

Fewer than 5% of Virginia’s baccalaureate graduates in 2011-12 greater than $50,000. That means fewer than 2,300. Is this a large enough group on which to base public policy? In this day of of Big Data and seeming lack of sense of a collective good, we can imagine personalized public policy. In fact, I touch on that in a brilliant post over here. A more appropriate concern about growing debt is that, in Virginia, the median debt of graduates who borrow has increased from $15,253 to $25,000. That is a large increase. The percentage of borrowers has only increased from 54% to 61%, but the number of graduates has increased a bit more dramatically.

However, the very best analysis on student debt, crisis or not,  I have seen thus far is from Libby Nelson over at Vox who does a very nice job laying out the issues.

Defining it as a crisis is the easiest way to force change and perhaps attract additional money. I’ve read so many bloggers, activists, reformers, and the like saying “college is not worth the cost” and I still don’t understand why they think so. When I try to unpack their position, it seems very clear that they think students and families should bear little or no cost. That’s a different issue. Sometimes they seem to be saying that employment outcomes of recent graduates bear out their argument – college graduates aren’t all getting good jobs. Is that the fault of college or the economy? So much of this about expectations that it is hard to have legitimate conversations, particularly in the face of underemployed college graduates with significant student debt. That is a real issue, especially as we discuss the future of IBR, ICR, PAYE, and other “solutions” to the debt problem.

The fact that we have to have income-based repayment programs may be the biggest indicator of a problem.

On the flip-side, maybe it is a bigger issue that our solution to rising costs in higher education has relied predominantly on the use of part-time adjuncts in exchange for allowing other costs to rise for students (athletics and other experiential opportunities).

What if the single, unalterable, and perhaps unutterable, truth is this. Higher education is an ungodly expensive enterprise because it requires large numbers of expensively educated individuals engaged in high-touch practice?  (Which is what was in place before the US started failing in these measurements against other countries.)

What if the belief that higher education can be made cheap or essentially free is just plain wrong?

Will we look back in a few decades at all this policy churn and say,

“Gosh, that was a huge waste of effort, but I am sure some of the lessons were important.”


4 thoughts on “It’s nice to be special, or, I’m glad I am an alpha

    • Yes, you do make that point. I’m sorry to have missed (I am behind on my reading for the week), especially if I implied that you had a different position.

      And you know, it may well be that Darth Vader is not all that good at making the best purchase decisions in the first place. Evil isn’t always smarter or any better than good…just easier to believe.

      • Certainly. I wasn’t arguing– just elaborating. You know how it goes– you think you’ve finished and then just a couple more sentences pop into your head…

      • I know indeed and I didn’t think you were arguing. I was clarifying for the world and acknowledging your position. I tend not to write enough and then later worry about misunderstandings.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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