We Don’t Need No (overpriced) Education

Rufus F.

Rufus is a likeable curmudgeon. He has a PhD in History, sang for a decade in a punk band, and recently moved to NYC after nearly two decades in Canada. He wrote the book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (2021).

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46 Responses

  1. ThatPirateGuy says:

    In my darker moments of elitist nerdy, I wonder how many problems would be solved by the simple act of banning the televising of college sports. Or at least the compensation of the universities and sports organizations for the televising.

    We’d still be screwed by the profound distrust of educated elites and their institutions.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

      I remember reading about a Canadian university that, in response to tuition going up, simply cut their entire sports budget. It worked, in spite of the fact that Canadian universities already spend much less on sports in the first place. I don’t know if you could try it in the US without riots breaking out!Report

  2. mike farmer says:

    Just wait, education will be very cheap, once the old, physical university model fails. It will be mostly online and inexpensive — the “experience”, with all the unnecessary costs, will be squeezed out, and education will be offered as a tailored service to meet specific needs.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to mike farmer says:

      I hear a lot about the coming internet panacea. Clearly I must believe in it to some extent; after all, I’m reading the classics with like-minded Internet comrades! I do wonder, though, how widespread the taste might be for the pain that goes along with genuine learning.Report

    • ThatPirateGuy in reply to mike farmer says:

      When this happens the US can say goodbye to the best and brightest immigrants.Report

    • Chad in reply to mike farmer says:

      I’ve taken part of online classes and have seen how they work from both sides. For at least 50% of what I’ve seen, online classes are just a way to read a damn book and get college credit for it.Report

      • mike farmer in reply to Chad says:

        Like all innovations, online education will become more sophisticated and effective. There will be many alternatives to university education, such as hiring private tutors in conjunction with online courses, then passing competency tests to get degrees in areas such as engineering, architecture, business. Education will be decentralized, more specialized and practical, rather than university-centric, general and exclusive.

        Much of the knowledge required to get a degree can be verified through comprehensive testing, which will benefit the autodidact. After all, what does it matter how you gain the knowledge, as long as you have the knowledge — verification will be all that’s necessary to satisfy employers.Report

        • ThatPirateGuy in reply to mike farmer says:

          Do you know a good test of someones ability to systematically evaluate new knowledge?

          Raw skills and knowledge frequently fail to be sufficient, one must know how to think and a good university experience is supposed to teach this. I hope that we don’t lose this vital attribute.Report

          • I imagine the experience for serious students who choose this alternative will be part on-job-training and part online education for specialized knowledge in their chosen field. Universities aren’t very adept at teaching students to process and evaluate new knowledge. There will always be the option for the college experience, but I imagine many young people who are eager to get on with it, and older students, will prefer a more practical and less expensive option. You’re thinking high school graduates, but there is a huge need for adult education.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Chad says:

        That’s been my experience too. It’s also really easy to cheat I’d imagine.Report

  3. Online universities will not be a universal panacea, for a large number of reasons. There are reams out outstanding literature on this topic, if you’re interested in the topic I recommend looking at the knowledge management track of ICIS (http://icis2010.aisnet.org/) or HICSS (http://www.hicss.hawaii.edu/hicss_43/apahome43.htm).

    Some classes can be effectively taught online (albeit require someone who actually studies how to do this properly, the all-too-common University of Phoenix model of “read a book, get a grade” is not effective knowledge creation). Others can’t due to logistical reasons (lab sciences) or problems properly replicating a discussion environment (almost any upper division or graduate level seminar class). In addition, many students simply don’t learn effectively in the environment.

    I absolutely agree with the premise of the original post. To ensure that people can gain a quality post-high-school education, we subsidize education. The unfortunate response to the addition of cash into the system has been for universities to spend a very large chunk of money on glitz, to attract additional students. It doesn’t help much that many of the universities (in an attempt to become more lean) have hired for-profit trained business types at various levels of an organization, which has led to as many attempts to market the school as it has effective cost-cutting activities.

    The solution is to change the way we subsidize education. We don’t need to close sports programs or stop universities from building first class facilities (which after all can produce their own good outcomes); we need to stop giving taxpayer funds as tuition supplements to those universities that spend significant funds on luxury improvements.

    I don’t have any problem with USC funding a football team, it’s a private university. I *do* have a problem with the fact that we’re indirectly subsidizing the USC football team by giving the 17,000 undergraduates attending USC a break on their obscene tuition (especially given that a bit more than a third of them will fail to matriculate).

    We could also have some significant reform in the educational market if the business community would stop tacking, “Bachelor of Foo or better required” from their job description postings, but that’s an aside.

    You should go to college to get an education, not learn a trade. You should go to trade school to learn a trade, and that should be recognized as an appropriate accomplishment. It’s not, but that’s hardly trade schools’ fault or colleges’ responsibility to fix.Report

    • Actually, you know, the reason I like face-to-face education is that I can tell right away by their body language if I’m just boring the students to death or if they have no idea what I’m trying to get across; and I can change gears right away. It’s hard to do that online. It seems like the model requires very active students to work well.

      I like your ideas about subsidizing education. Part of the problem with tuition is just that most students don’t actually pay the tuition- the loan officer does, and he’s okay with the high price tag. Imagine going to the grocery store with an agent who would negotiate with the manager over prices and pay them, and then you could pay him back over a number of years. You’d end up with $50 apples!Report

      • > It seems like the model requires very active students
        > to work well.

        Generally, yes. It also works best if the subjects are *extremely* technically savvy, as they have to be able to grok synchronous vs. asynchronous communication methods and be well versed in whatever tools you’re using for online educational functionality to get the most out of it.Report

  4. Rufus F. says:

    Also, I’ve talked to a number of employers in the corporate world and I’m not hearing that they think recent college graduates are over-educated. Corporate America already spends billions of dollars in what amounts to remedial education for recent grads- teaching them how to read and write. I’m not sure I understand how calling online vocational training “education” really solves that problem. What would make more sense would be hiring high school grads and giving them in-house education, and I’m thinking that’s where corporate America is headed. Also, personally, I’d have no interest in working ten years for a PhD in order to sit at home emailing lessons to people.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Nor do I imagine you’d get a majority of 17 year olds begging their parents not to send them off to spend four years away from home reading books, getting drunk, and “finding themselves”; but instead to make them spend a few years alone in the basement doing online courses in order to get a certificate.Report

  5. Nob Akimoto says:

    While I think you’re right that universities (especially State Universities) do place an over-emphasis on treating students like “consumers” of a bunch of services, I do think there’s something to be said about the whole concept of “experience” as being a vital part of an undergraduate degree. Being socialized is one of the largest parts of a university education. You meet and interact with people of varying social classes and interests that you would have no other way of doing so, and of professions you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to see. Yeah this can be overstated, but I think it’s still an important part of what makes the whole thing worthwhile. Classes tie these experiences into a certain anecdotal memory (for example you’ll remember facts from courses where there was a particularly memorable professor, or you and your friends had to do a particularly odious group project).


    I’d imagine part of the point of these universities is to raise money from the undergraduate programs to fund their massively more expensive graduate programs. And for many fields graduate students are basically cheap researchers who can crank out a good amount of work on short commons, not an inconsiderate resource.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Okay, I do agree that the college experience is something to be cherished. I can still sing my school song by request! What I’m saying is that it’s just as easy to have those cherished moments, while maintaining academic rigor, as it is to create the experience, while making undergraduate education so easy as to be perfunctory. Indeed, if you look at the fact that 20-30% of the average student body will flunk out if the standards are very rigorous, the grade-inflation-and-lots-of-perqs model just makes good business sense. So I see seniors at Mall University who aren’t able to read a five-page article and tell me what its argument was, but they’re about to graduate. For the people in charge at a university like mine, creating the experience of education is often considerably more important than actually making sure the students are getting an education. If they get out in four years and had a good time, what’s the diff?

      Now the graduate research model that you talk about is the envy of the world. There’s no question about that. But, as with the experience, I think an overemphasis on research has worked to devalue undergrad education. I’ve certainly been told by professors that you should not focus on your teaching until you’ve made tenure and not very much when you have! In the humanities especially, the emphasis on research and publishing over everything else creates perverse incentives, to say the least.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Don’t get me wrong, I agree with what you say on the rigor and the perverse incentives created in graduate programs. Particularly the presence of such problems in the humanities. I would argue maybe that this is a problem in how the incentives for hiring are structured and the way phd programs as a whole are built up. That is, perhaps there should be some pedagogical requirement (even, god forbid a certificate!) before you can actually qualify for a post-doc fellowship or a teaching position at a university.

        There is also a problem with low achievement undergraduate programs in that in the long run it costs the university money. Why? Because they’re forced to retrain many of their graduate students (depending on the field, this actually has to be done as academic standards and say professional standards of reading/writing can be quite different) and that’s a considerable cost particularly at tier 1 but not quite top3-5 schools.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

          Yeah, you’re absolutely right. The crazy part is departments hiring post-docs and telling them, “we want you to publish two books to get tenure”- in the humanities, this means that people in their prime teaching years spend all their time and energy on writing books that about ten people will ever read! It’s supposed to add “prestige” to the departments, but it really means that academics are researchers first and teachers a very, very distant second.

          What I’d like to see instead is a whole new hiring model. If they like your dissertation, they hire you to teach- full time- a 5/5 course load, with the agreement that, within the next twenty years or so, you’ll develop a manuscript for publication. Otherwise, your emphasis will be entirely on teaching. I think you’d see much better undergraduate education and slower-cooked, much stronger academic texts being published.

          I do agree that beefing up undergrad education would make grad school less of a several year slog for us grad students! I think the real endpoint for the status quo is going to be when the real “customers”- namely those companies that hire our graduates- call our bluff. At that point, I’d imagine you’ll see a demand for some sort of standardized exit exams for all college grads. It’s not the ideal solution, but I see it coming.Report

          • Nob Akimoto in reply to Rufus F. says:

            All I have to say to that, sir, is amen.Report

          • Dan Knoepfle in reply to Rufus F. says:

            I agree with your thought about exit exams, or a proliferation of standardized exams for various industries. While there would be substantial drawbacks, they could succeed at reducing the lag between improvement in academic standards at a university and improvement in job placements. My impression is that, for a large segment of schools, the graduates they produce are viewed as interchangeable college-educated individuals, with no labor market advantage to students from Generic U. #1 over students from Generic U. #2 conditional on them having the same GPA.

            If this is the case, the incentives for administrators cut against improving academic standards; even if it might eventually lead to a long term gain in reputation, the short term effects are mostly negative.Report

            • Rufus F. in reply to Dan Knoepfle says:

              I think that’s right. The other part of it is, if you improve the standards, you create an industry in which you weed out a large percentage of your customers and they stop paying you. Maybe that’s too cynical.

              I do understand the feeling academics have that what we teach wouldn’t fit a series of exams well. However, exams could be administered at any point in the college career, not just at the end. The real problem is how to deal with students who lack basic skills, but might do well once they have them. In a more perfect world, they wouldn’t be graduated from high school without being proficiently literate and numerically competent, for instance; but, alas…Report

  6. Kaleberg says:

    There is a community college boom going on. For one thing, they are cheaper. For another, you don’t need to make a four year commitment right out of high school. Community colleges have other benefits, for example, student health services and student loans. Don’t laugh. If you need health care and have a GED or better, community college might be your path to getting that vital surgery.

    The community college a block from my house has built four new buildings and is working on a fifth. (One of them is an Indian tribal center, but that’s a long story, pun intended.) Apparently, enrollment has soared even though they eliminated their student housing. I know that a number of the professors at our local college do research, but it is primarily a teaching institution and generally skills oriented, though it does teach skills that would help one get through a four year degree program.

    As far as I am concerned, it is great, except for the student loan angle. We need a new GI Bill or perhaps a Federal Spare Change program. It isn’t as if we are all going to starve or have to sit in the dark if too many people are enrolled in college. If anything, we have more people than jobs.

    That’s why high school became such a big thing in the 1930s. In the 20s, no one went to high school. They went to work after 6th or 8th grade. (At least the boys did which is why you’d find twice as many girls as boys in the graduating class.) The Depression changed that by eliminating the jobs. So, kids went to high school, and a lot of them even went to college. It kept them out of the labor market for a few more years and let us ratchet up our standard of living.

    Right now, a lot of high school graduates are considering college now because they can’t find jobs, and a lot of people are going back to school in hopes that things will be better when they graduate. It doesn’t look promising, but it is a plan. As long as everyone doesn’t get crippled by debt, it’s probably a good trend.

    I’m not particularly worried about the ongoing and long lingering death of the liberal arts. That’s probably my non-liberal arts education speaking. I tend to think of a liberal arts education as half an education; it always seemed too easy to BS one’s way through it. Since I could never find a suitable rock to kick like Samuel Johnson, there always seemed to be something seriously missing. While Giancarlo Rota, who taught probability when he wasn’t designing death rays, was fond of waving his hands about and invoking “Italian proof”, that didn’t work for us students.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Kaleberg says:

      Community colleges are great if you love to teach and don’t want to be on the publish or perish treadmill. I’m actually hoping to instruct at one when I get done with the PhD. I also really like that they are accessible for working class people.

      As for the humanities, I think it depends on the student. You can BS your way through a liberal arts education, or you can devote your entire life to it. I guess the way I’d put it is that I’ve known dozens of people with liberal arts degrees in my life, but only 2 or 3 with a liberal arts education.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Rufus F. says:

        On the contrary. I think the biggest tragedy of modern Liberal Arts education is that most students BS their way through it without realizing it–Largely because their professors BSed through their education as well, and don’t have much of value to pass on to their students.

        Most ignorant Liberal Artists are just plain ignorant of their ignorance.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I’ve known dozens of people with liberal arts degrees in my life, but only 2 or 3 with a liberal arts education.

        Indeed. I have friends who have degrees in English who don’t read and can’t write and complain about their jobs in IT and call college a waste of time.

        I have other friends without college degrees at all but they put their 20 in the Army/Air Force and have on-the-job training that you probably would not believe and they do a very good job of mocking people who, for example, have English degrees but don’t read and can’t write.

        Once people started noticing that degrees were being seen as a signal on the part of employers, they ceased to be useful signals.Report

  7. Freddie says:

    This might explain why most state universities have a seriously top-heavy administrative structure.

    According to a large ACT study, the number of full-time administrators working at four year colleges and universities increased by 41% between 1997 and 2007. That’s where a huge amount of the money has gone.

    That’s the perfect place where a conservative critique has done a world of good, but such a critique doesn’t exist; because, sadly, conservatism has made itself simply the enemy of universities and of the academy. It’s another sad facet of our slash and burn politics: you can’t be a voice within a system if your every urge is merely to destroy that system.

    That online education argument is a sham, by the way– number one, online education doesn’t work. Number two, people don’t go to college just for the education or primarily for the education– they go for the experience. All of this talk of the online university “replacing” the physical university is just wishful thinking by conservatives who hate the university. The fact of the matter is, if the physical university was getting less popular, the number of students residing would be dropping compared to commuting. The opposite has been happening; the number of students in residence at 4 years has never been higher. Add that to the fact that some 3 million more full-time college students are at 4 years compared to ten years ago, and you have a university system that is, in fact, wildly popular, among both students and employers. The online university thing has always been motivated by anti-university animus and nothing more.Report

    • mike farmer in reply to Freddie says:

      Can’t you just argue the pros and cons of a subject instead of turning it into an attack on your imaginary enemies and making accusations of animus? It seems like any ideas contrary to your own are dangerous “conservative” ideas — those conservatives who want to destroy everything good and valuable. You come off as a paranoid fringe kook when you continue doing this.

      Online education will grow and become competitive with physical attendance at universities — this doesn’t mean I’m a conservative or that I hate universities and want to see them destroy, it just means I think online education will become more popular as university education becomes more expensive, and as adult education becomes more vital. I assure you I don’t want to bomb universities.Report

      • Freddie in reply to mike farmer says:

        Sorry Mike! Let’s try it this way: I think that the rumors of the demise of the physical university are exaggerated. I think this is true for a variety of reasons, the most pressing and obvious being that most people attend college as much for the experience as for the degree– and I don’t think they are wrong to feel that way. This suspicion of mine is backed up by the rise in people attending college and by the rise in people residing at college. The option of commuting exists, after all, and is a great way to reduce costs for those who want to. But people want their college years, and they should; college offers a lot of really rare and valuable experiences.

        I think that online education is an exciting development that can be adjunct to the physical university, but that there are a number of disciplines and classes for which online ed just doesn’t work (a lab section of chemistry, exercise medicine) and ones for which it is poorly suited (seminar sections that are based on a back-and-forth, conversational model). I think that what we will see won’t be an end to the physical university but an online system that enhances and improves it, partly though the kind of streamlining you suggest. I think that this could actually increase the prestige and success of physical universities, actually. The online components will serve to subsidize the physical university, I’d wager.

        Situations that are unsustainable won’t be sustained, and despite everything, colleges and universities are filled with intelligent people who are capable of evolving in the face of new conditions. Some of the changes will take some getting used to, and it won’t be painless in some transitions, but it is an exciting time to be involved in American higher education.Report

        • mike farmer in reply to Freddie says:

          I agree that the college experience won’t go away, but that the prohibitive expense will demand options, and online education will be a stand alone option, especially for older students adjusting to a changing, technologically advanced work-place. But, even young students right out of college, who now can’t afford the college experience, will choose a less expensive, less comprehensive and more specialized education online. I know someone who works in this field and he says it’s expanding quickly, but that’s just one example — common sense, though, tells me it will only grow.Report

          • Where I ‘m coming, mainly, is my own experience gaining specialized knowledge through online education, then, through autodidactic efforts, expanding my education in a more comprehensive way. Much of what’s taught in universities to receive a broad liberal/arts education can be gained outside the physical university. You are right about fields which require lab work and such, but the future might include industry involvement where people go through a combination of on-the-job training and online courses — educational offerings within private companies, so that the physical tools are available. Private companies have to address education in innovative ways, because there’s a serious shortage of specialized knowledge in America. Specialization has it draw-backs, and a broad education has many benefits, but hopefully young, middle-aged and older people will be offered both in ways they can afford, and that they are taught the virtues of autodidactic learning as well.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Freddie says:

          Mike, I took your comment like you say it here- that online education will be a great solution for people who either don’t have the time or the money to invest in an overpriced university experience. I also think it will grow. For me, part of the joy of education is being able to interact with students and involve them in university life, which can be pretty impersonal when you’re 17 and just left home. But, for older people especially, I think online education can be ideal.

          I didn’t read your comment the way Freddie did, although I can sort of sympathize with his bristling. I’ve been complaining about the state of the university for some time, always with the intention of improving it. Since my complaints are so traditionalist, I’ve expected to get a lot more support from conservatives; but many of the conservatives I’ve encountered seem, to me, to be entirely too invested emotionally in the collapse of the university, since they see it as a haven for liberals. Instead, I see it as a central pillar of an open society and its decline as tragic.

          So, I know what he’s talking about in terms of conservatives. Having said that, once again, I didn’t take your comment as rooting for the collapse of the university. Also, I’ve always seen you more as a libertarian anyway, although I could be wrong.Report

          • mike farmer in reply to Rufus F. says:

            Yes, Rufus, I’m libertarian-minded, and I value the college experience. For anyone who can through a unviversity experience, I think it’s valuable in many different ways — the liberal bent in universities is understandable, especially in the true meaning of “liberal” — some of the political correctness within some universities is very troubling, but kids usually find their own way.Report

  8. Pat Cahalan says:

    I’m mildly curious as to where my comment went.Report

  9. JOHN Q PUBLIC says: