I’m not sure that interest in Obama’s plan for colleges has survived the weekend. Bankster scourge Matt Taibbi quickly pronounced it dead on arrival:
The key number in it is a date. This is from Time: “Obama will also ask Congress to tie those ratings to federal student aid by 2018. . .” One friend on the Hill laughingly called it "complete bullshit" and stressed the loose time frame, noting that we won’t even know what the rating system looks like until 2015, and then nothing actually happens until 2018. Which, conveniently, is two years after the President leaves office.
Mr. Taibbi reads the plan as an attempt to distract the base from “monstrous screw-ups” in most other areas of administration policy, since he’s going to need the base for the autumn’s retread budget stand-off with the Republicans.
In Part I of this post I argued that Obama is spoiling his program—and hurting colleges--with a framing that traces high tuition to college mismanagement for which the cure is federal auditing rather than real solutions. The first two are (1) financial reinvestment and (2) supporting professional expertise by letting faculty and staff do their jobs. I was happy to see that the president of the American Association of University Professors, Rudy Fichtenbaum, in the most important response thus far, made similar points. He said that “consultation” about the rules should not mean “they will consult with college and university Presidents and not with the faculty who must actually do the teaching, much less the students they claim to assist.” Prof. Fichtenbaum also made graphic use of budget statistics, noting that between 1987 and 2012, in constant dollars, “government support has declined from $8,497 to $5,906 per student, while net tuition increased from $2,588 to $5,189.”
These are the kind of points that President Obama should be making again and again. Colleges did make lots of ad hoc and often bad decisions scrambling for dollars against a secular trend of declining public revenues, especially raising tuition repeatedly and excessively. To repeat, the way to fix this is to reinvest in public colleges and universities, and to put the reinvestment decisions in the hands of the experts –the faculty, working in a more forthright and empowered way with their senior managers—and not in the hands of government regulators.
This is not what President Obama is saying. He has heard it from some quarters. In his disappointed post, Bob Samuels noted that last year he was at a higher education meeting in the White House in which he called for reforms to focus on support for the “core missions” of the institution of instruction and research. “Unfortunately, my arguments fell on deaf ears.”
This raises the third huge omission in the Obama plan—its lack of interest in supporting the college learning process. Attendance and completion statistics are important, and the bad numbers generated by the for-profit sector and by many poor public colleges should be used to get people’s attention. But the deeper issue is how students learn, and what colleges need in order to help them do that. What are those things that colleges need?
A lot of false confusion has surrounded this topic recently. The most widely noted recent book on the subject of learning was Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift (2011), which was interpreted to show that students don’t learn much at all in college. This view gave comfort to the Right, which has been trying to downgrade public colleges for decades, and to educational technologists like the current generation of MOOC enthusiasts, who have deflected criticism of the poor educational outcomes of MOOC courses by saying that they “could not be worse” than what traditional courses do.
Unfortunately, this interpretation was wrong.
In fact, Academically Adrift’s core finding was that most students learn quite a bit. 36% of students learn little in four years, meaning that about two-thirds do learn, some a great deal. In addition, we also know a lot about the institutional conditions of student learning.
Professors Arum and Roksa’s analysis showed that much of what goes into good learning is “academic preparation” that occurs before students get to college. The quality of “academic experiences in high school” explains virtually all of the learning differences between students from college and non-college families once they get to college. They explain 2/3rds of the differences between African American and white college students (page 50). This means that local and regional colleges who educate the majority of first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color—with less money per student—are being unjustly blamed for the failures of the K-12 system. (See the UT-El Paso comments in Part I.)
In addition, we know fairly exactly what these good learners do in college. Here is what I extract from Professors Arum and Roksa’s findings for typical student Jane. For Jane to learn higher order thinking in college she must do all of the following:
- Take many demanding courses (20 or more pages of writing per term and 40 or more pages of reading per week) (72-73, 94-95).
- Spend much more than the current norm on her academics (class time and studying together average 16% of a student’s week, with studying averaging a total of 12-13 hours a week) (69, 97-98).
- Work with faculty that have high expectations for her and her peers (93).
We also know some other things: academic rigor is hugely helped by a small set of institutional and practical conditions. Jane must
- Major in a strong academic field in the liberal arts and sciences, not in a vocational or strictly “practical” field.
This is the most grossly under-reported finding in the study. The figure is taken from a later summary.
All those “practical” majors that colleges have added to satisfy business and parents and students’ desire to learn something that will help them get a job? They are the majors where student learn the least. If you want to learn a lot in college, take art history, anthropology, electrical engineering, or chemistry—all of these kinds of subjects produce learning. If you want to learn the least possible in college, major in business.
The list continues.
- Minimize non-academic social commitments: no fraternity and sorority membership, minimal off-campus socializing, minimal group study (103-04, 101).
- Minimize work for pay, do not work off campus, and never work more 10 hours per week (the current average is 13 hours per week) (102, 85-86).
- Bring your net cost of college as close to zero as possible, with no loans (109).
The genius of American public colleges was that they at one time satisfied all of these conditions. They had the resources to offer low tuition, low-cost and low-principal loans, and little paid work for most students, all because of generous public funding. This supported intensive academic study at colleges with plenty of staff to run the hands-on practical laboratory learning in biology or handle the 30 pages of writing per semester of freshman English—sometimes times 2 drafts. No one who voted or spent this money invoked a measure like the baseline for amazing creative proficiency popularized by Malcolm Gladwell – 10,000 hours to become the Beatles, and also 10,000 hours to become an excellent intellectual property attorney, multilingual business executive or great eighth-grade teacher. All this is still true, or more so, since we’re supposed to educate everyone to be card-carrying members of the “creative class.”
Only generous public funding and autonomous college staffs can allow the college majority to get much further into the long arc of their personal greatness than the austerity colleges that both major parties are delivering now.
If President Obama wants to maximize learning, he must relentlessly educate the country on its real ingredients. He will also have to come clean on the major public funding increases and the new respect for educational expertise that better learning will require. And if he can’t or won’t do these things, which is likely, the rest of us will have to do them instead.