Let’s talk about irony for a second. DIY U is getting attacked–from the left–because my analysis is TOO rooted in economics.

“It’s not enough to bring its cost back in line with what a student can reasonably afford. That is not the vision of education reform I hoped for in DIY U.” writes Ottonomy in a very thoughtful review. And Jim Groom, in an obviously and sincerely anguished post, is worried that focusing on reducing costs means reducing higher education in general, and specifically, gutting public higher education, and even more specifically, further casualizing academic labor (I could accuse that of being an ultimately self-serving point but as a print journalist I know what it’s like to fear losing your job to technological change).

“I’m afraid the rhetoric behind privatizing education, i.e., efficiency, reduced costs, and curricular freedom, will ultimately accelerate the decline of higher ed into a series of feeding lots for the private sector job market—-which is the worst possible scenario in my mind.” 

Here’s some ideas I want to establish and maybe we can go from here.

#1 To bring college tuition back in line with what students can reasonably afford is absolutely a bleeding-heart liberal, left-wing, public good. Period. It’s about expanding opportunity. It also is a surprisingly revolutionary goal. I believe it requires transforming all of higher education AND ending the university’s monopoly on learning, knowledge, and expertise.

#2 I don’t believe public college tuition in the United States is ever going to come down through massively increased public subsidies from states or the federal government. I wouldn’t be against that happening, I just don’t see any scenario where that is realistic. Also, I and many others have observed that higher education, like health care, as currently organized, absorbs ever-greater amounts of resources and goes back for more. That’s an internal dynamic of the institution that needs to be changed.

#3 If public subsidies aren’t going to significantly, proportionately increase, then the only way to make higher education more affordable is to change what you do with the public money you do have. That’s leaving aside the question of what “higher education” really is–whether college is or should be job training or liberal arts or anything in between. The only way to make higher education available to more people is to lower the cost of delivery.

#4 Technology can be used to raise quality and cut costs in public higher education. I’m sorry, but it can. That’s what NCAT has been proving for over 10 years. That’s what every other industry in society has proven.

So. Cost cutting has historically happened in public institutions through an adversarial dynamic of unilateral budget cuts that colleges respond to by shafting the newest faculty members. What if faculty members at public institutions, the ones who really care about students and who really care about the higher liberal arts/ non-vocational values of education, put the adversarial dynamic aside, and actually stepped up and got involved in the conversation about how they think resources would be best deployed? As in, “Our department is going to cut 25% from its budget this year by redesigning our courses along NCAT lines, put 5% back into salaries, 5% into a new skunkworks open education blogging project, and pass 10% back to the university.”

And here’s the stick part of what I’m describing. If we (note the “we”) who care about the impossible-to-quantify, soft-skills, liberal-arts, bleeding-heart, Plato-and-Aristotle soul of higher education, if WE don’t get intimately concerned about the dirty cost-and-efficiency-and-productivity stuff, then the future of higher education belongs to the privatizers and to the for-profits.

The fear that all of higher ed turns into “job training” is ultimately a red herring, because the most desirable and highly compensated jobs in an increasingly complex knowledge economy continue to depend on ever more highly abstract concepts, critical reasoning and social skills that are transmitted in something that resembles a collegiate liberal-arts context.  (Dan Pink’s book A Whole New Mind is essentially an extended argument for the liberal arts that is also a current bestselling business book.) In other words, even if Jack Welch ran Harvard, he wouldn’t get rid of all the namby-pamby Greek and Latin and stuff. The super-rightwinger state legislatures that attack humanities programs do so not because it is impractical but because they know it is valuable material, and having access to rational free thinking empowers poor people and also turns people into liberals.

What we’re talking about is broadly affordable public access to those experiences, AND what that requires, I believe, is the flowering and more recognition of a new type of learning context: the “ways for people to organize and share freely and openly through a series of trust networks that aren’t necessarily mediated by institutions,” that Jim talks about so beautifully.

And I actually put my ultimate faith in people’s ability to figure out how to do that. Maybe we pull together and renovate our floundering public institutions, or maybe we create entirely new types of institutions and pay for them with new combinations of public, private, and philanthropic money.  Capitalism is oppressive, but people are resilient, and the desire to teach, learn, and discover together is an innate and powerful drive, and social media gives us more and more ways to do that every day, and that’s a good thing. G-d forbid we woke up tomorrow and the entire University of California was razed to the ground, never to return, we’d be in a better position as individuals to recreate more of its functions with fewer monetary resources than at any time in the past.

2 Responses to “Economic Analyses and Useful Idiots”

  1. Well, I mostly talked about some stuff I dreamed might be in the book, so maybe “book review” was the wrong title to choose for my post. Nevertheless, I have gotten a lot of good thinking, knowledge-building, and personal educational network-building out of DIY U and #DIYU for a mere $15. Treating the book and #DIYU hashtag on Twitter as a syllabus to an ad hoc course has grown a learning experience better than many from my in-person university classes. So I find it hard to imagine a future where a better higher education isn’t available more cheaply than today.

    The “worst case scenario” from Jim Groom’s post doesn’t fit the country’s needs, so how could it be the future? I think the current backlog of college grads who are un- or under-employed may fend off progress in getting shorter degrees than bachelor’s recognized. On the other hand, higher competition for jobs only helps initiatives that try to emphasize other factors, like real skills knowledge in the hiring process. This lends people with the most successful learning outcomes an advantage.

    As I mentioned, I do worry that focusing on how education could be cheaper might make people lose sight of how it could be better. But that doesn’t mean cost containment isn’t along the only path to the survival of the modern university, especially the public ones. The economic situation is mostly outside the universities’ control (except maybe Larry Summers era Harvard derivatives trading), and providing a good education for less is very important.

    I’m in the process of DIYing a post-graduate education for a while myself, and finding the path forward is a challenge, so thanks for your contribution.

  2. Nice catch on the Pink book. I haven’t read it, but several reviews/blog posts of it, and that same thought ran through my head.

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