Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Higher Learning: Path to Equality?

Charles Eliot
Charles W. Eliot.    .    . the forty-year president of Harvard beginning in 1869, was a “towering liberal humanist” who followed in Jefferson’s footsteps by .   .   . grounding the aristocracy in merit and the “competitive excellence” of earning a degree through higher education. Democracy, in other words, fostered an aristocracy based on talent and merit: the Jeffersonian meritocracy.

--"Random History of Higher Education”

To Eliot, an American aristocracy is acceptable as long as it is a meritocracy.  But how does that fit with American higher education today?

Donald Kagan
In his "farewell lecture" at Yale, 80-year-old scholar of ancient Greece Donald Kagan faulted universities for no longer providing the clash of great ideas that historically buit a meritocracy :
Universities are failing students and hurting American democracy.  "I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness." Rare are "faculty with atypical views.  Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our Western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values."
"You can't have a fight because you don't have two sides. The other side won.  At the university, there must be intellectual variety. If you don't have [that], it's not only that you are deprived of knowing some of the things you might know. It's that you are deprived of testing the things that you do know or do think you know or believe in, so that your knowledge is superficial."
"The other side won."  Kagan elaborated further in a post-speech interview, saying faculties have gained "extraordinary authority" over universities, then used that authority inside and outside academia to move the country toward “equality of result and every other kind of equality that could be claimed without much regard for liberty." That result now means “the menace is certainly to liberty."  

Kagan re-enforces a distinction much discussed in this blog--the tug between liberty and equality.  Liberty--freedom, negative liberty--is connected with conservative values such as individual achievement, hard work, free enterprise, success.  Liberty also means the free competition of ideas, since all begin with "equal opportunity."

Equality of results--“care for victims,” positive liberty--means taking action to rebalance society, government correcting existing inequality, the welfare state, socialism.  It means “the meritocracy,” in the name of “care for victims,” having control over others.

Kagan noted that a century ago, most people worked the land for themselves. Today they work for a paycheck, usually in an office. "Fundamentally we are dependent on people who pay our salaries.  In the liberal era.   .   . we have come more to expect it is the job of the government to provide for the needs that we can't provide." 

The drive for equality of results has left us with a hierarchical, unequal society where a supposedly meritocratic national elite rules over the rest of us.  But at least admission to that elite via universities is open to students from all classes, right?

In their new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, professors Elizabeth Armstrong (U. Michigan) and Laura Hamilton (UC-Merced) present depressing results from a five-year study that tracked the women from one freshman dorm at a Midwestern flagship university: Not a single one of the working-class women they’d monitored had managed to graduate.

Armstrong and Hamilton believe colleges regularly admit students who aren’t ready for college-level work. In 2012, they found, of the 250,000 who took the ACT (the main alternative to the SAT), only 52% scored as college-ready in reading, only a quarter as ready in reading, English, math and science. Yet many started school anyway.

The authors are also persuaded that working-class kids don’t receive the guidance they need. To them, “advising matters.” Better-off students have parents who help them figure out how to get through college — what courses to take, and when; how to manage time, get help or mercy from professors, etc.  These parents also use connections to get their kids jobs regardless of academic performance, while the “intensive advising” working-class students need is vanishingly rare in college today.

Armstrong and Hamilton find that the mission universities seem focused on is raking in money--far from Eliot's promise of a Jefferson meritocracy open to all, with ideas freely competing as Kagan so desired.


Derek said...

It takes a very peculiar sort of academic observer to conclude that the critical problem in higher education today (to the extent that there is one - and at Yale, no less??) is "the power of the faculty" (?) rather than the starving of resources for public higher education and the poor quality (also resource-starved) nature of public primary and secondary education in the US.

A few reference points.

Tenure-line faculty teach an increasingly small fraction of courses, and a distinct minority (probably 25% is typical) of student credit-hours. They have been replaced by adjuncts and instructors who are paid either per-course or, if they are full time, about half the salary of the tenure-line faculty.

University public funding has been decreasing monotonically since the baby boomers completed their Federal- (GI bill) and state-funded, tuition-free or nearly so, higher educations in the sixties.

In return for their tuition dollars, students today (and their parents) demand new and high-quality dorms and sports facilities, computer and network infrastructure, health care, and counseling resources. Contrary to the idea that "intensive advising" is somehow a key missing ingredient of higher ed today, the resources devoted to this sort of activity on campuses now are hugely more than they were in the "golden era" of public education, and are only increasing. (Not that we couldn't do better! But it takes money.)

As a result of these trends, the ratio of administrators to tenure-line faculty has also been increasing monotonically since the sixties. I truly, truly do not understand the claim that faculty are the dominant political power on campus (huh?) and that even if this were true this would be a problem somehow. It takes particular chutzpah to make this claim with respect to the average public institution - aka not Yale - during the "new austerity" era when schools (including Penn State!) are closing departments and programs and laying off tenured - not tenure-line - faculty in order to cut costs.

I would remind Ms. Riley in particular that a 21st century tenured professorship in the US is no one's - NO ONE'S - idea of an easy road to riches. The only reason anyone should pursue this career, no matter what their specialization, is for the sake of the intellectual freedom it affords, and because you *as an individual* care about the education of future generations, and providing *each individual student* who passes through your program with the best possible care and preparation for a productive and fulfilling future life. Who then, I ask - WHO? - among the entire US population of thoughtful and informed and actively engaged adults, has more at stake, has demonstrated greater clarity of purpose, at greater sacrifice to their own
financial prospects, than the tenure-line faculty at our public institutions of higher education? I would argue: No one, most particularly not those accustomed to lobbing their rhetorical bombs from behind the well-fortified edifices of the Wall Street Journal, New York Post, etc.

If I may say, it also takes a particularly warped personality to use the fundamental conclusion of the "Paying for the Party" study - that public colleges are in danger of giving preferential treatment to higher-class students because of decreases in public support and ensuing dependence on student tuition - as supporting the case for further slashing public support of these institutions.

I respect far more the attitude, expressed by the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, which says instead "Please restore my taxes to earlier levels, so that our governments might be able once again to afford to provide the highest-quality services to those in need, especially the next generation."

This entire blog post, then, has not just the diagnosis, but the direction in which advice should be flowing for the sake of the next generation, oriented 180 degrees in the wrong direction.


Galen Fox said...


Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed response, which was offered in the spirit in which I wrote the blog. I certainly agree that the poor state of primary and secondary education in the U.S. is a basic reason for working-class student difficulties at university. Another is the breakdown of the American family, which leaves less parental time for child raising.

I'm no expert about what goes on at public universities or Ivy League institutions, so I presented the thoughts of others. Yale's Donald Kagan doesn't say faculty are rich, but rather that they have helped redirect America away from pursuit of freedom, as represented by the free competition of ideas in the academy, and toward a society focused on equality of results. He also decries the decline of teaching about Western civilization, understandable from his perspective as a retiring classics professor.

From what I see of the University of Hawaii, public institutions are shifting resources--scarce resources, as you say--from faculty and students (the increasing use of student loans to finance education is a large and growing problem) toward more and more, and higher-paid and higher-paid, administrators. I have a huge problem with bloated, non-competitive bureaucracies sopping up our resources, including those at large primary, secondary, and university-level institutions. In the end, I am a Republican and a conservative because I believe a growing economy is the best way to care for our needs (grow the pie, don't fight over the crumbs), and that leaving more of our resources with the only people who actually create jobs, the striving small businesspersons, is the best path to growth.

Obama's post-Great Recession "recovery" should not be the new normal.

I am in no position to argue about whether working-class students receive adequate advice to help them navigate through the college experience, but Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality does call for a response to the facts the authors present. Thank you again for your response.

Derek said...

Hi Dad,

I appreciate the attempt at even-handedness but you begin to contradict yourself.

If assuring "equality of outcomes" is the problem in higher education then (1) Why have all metrics of economic inequality in America been increasing steadily since the 1970's? and (2) Why would "College Maintains Inequality" (subtitle of Paying for the Party) be a problem? From the hard-nosed libertarian perspective, isn't inequality the goal?

Unfortunately Kagan's argument is nonsensical. If the all-powerful faculty (of Yale?) indeed have had a goal of achieving equality of outcomes then they are incompetent failures, as the US is further now from such a state than we have ever been in our history (even worse than the Gilded Age, by some metrics). Perhaps that was not their goal? Perhaps they are not all-powerful? Perhaps both?

I tend to look at these issues differently. First of all, one needs to put the Ivies and all other selective private institutions to one side in talking about society-wide trends, as they educate a small fraction of our college students. The "median college student" in the US today attends a "public" 2-year or 4-year college and seeks an Associate's or Bachelor's degree. Public support for these institutions of higher education has been decreasing since the 60's, resulting in dramatic (over the long term) increases in their tuitions. Since a college degree is the key to a professional career, and only children of professionals can afford college without part-time work and student loans, this has had the effect of decreasing social mobility - and indeed, social mobility in the US is now worse than in the traditionally class-stratified UK.

Personally, and contra Kagan (but consistent with your stereotypes of college faculty), I see this as a problem for our society at large, and not just for those who end up at the bottom - since even the elites in highly-unequal societies are found to be less happy - and less healthy, and to live shorter lives - than their peers in more-equal societies.

(part 1 of 2)

Derek said...

So I would agree with "Paying for the Party" that inequality is a problem that colleges should be working to alleviate, and plead guilty to preferring less inequality of outcomes in our society. To me, the obvious solution to the problem of inequality is to restore the public subsidies for higher education, and for high-quality primary and secondary education, that supported social mobility and a vibrantly growing economy throughout America's - and American education's - golden post-war era. Ideally we would add on, or even prioritize, public support for preschool since this turns out to be the most important educational age of all. And since restoring these public subsidies will cost the government money, the government will need to collect more taxes, preferably from the upper income brackets since (a) that is where the money is, as Willie Sutton put it; (b) they have done much better than the lower, middle, and plain-upper classes over the last 40 years; and (c) this independently helps move us toward a more-equal society, to the benefit of everyone - wealthiest members included.

With respect to your complaints about college administrators - join the club! Faculty have been organizing to fight and complain about administrative bloat since the sixties - unfortunately mostly in vain. This is a serious issue and I think it connects in a way you may not have anticipated to the relentless ongoing privatization of the public universities - decreases in public support have driven public institutions to adopt a hard-nosed approach to fiscal survival, including adopting a business-like (over)pay-for-performance approach to administrations, and a risk-averse approach of expanding bureaucracies in hopes of avoiding scandal. The fact that these approaches have not really worked as such, over the long term, has not prevented them from proliferating wildly (as with similar trends in the business world).

Finally, as far as "growing the economy" goes, I would say my claim is very explicitly that the US has drifted too far away from public support of the economy's basic infrastructure, including higher education (and the taxes needed to pay for that support), and that our economy will grow faster, to the benefit of everyone, when our businesses can hire from a highly-educated workforce that draws young people from every sector of our society, as it once did.