Some Noise About Signals, Education & Other Likely Stories


D.A. Ridgely

D.A. Ridgely holds degrees in philosophy and law. (He doesn't really hold them, they just hang there on the wall or peek out as initials after his name. (Actually, that isn't true, either. Those are mere symbols giving evidence of his possession of those degrees. (“Possession,” strictly speaking, being a metaphor of sorts.))) (He is overly fond of parenthetical expressions.)

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45 Responses

  1. Avatar RTod says:

    Another good post, DA. I have been told it’s different on the East coast, and perhaps it is, but my experience in the PNW is that the quality and quantity of one’s higher education matters to two distinct groups of people: those in academia, and those under 30. (Making allowances, of course, that one has at least the minimum amount of education required to practice a particular type of profession.)

    That being said, I do think that one of the things higher education does that is helpful is continue to teach people how to learn in a rather focused way – and that learning includes continuing to learn how to learn and interact with others. You ask “is an online lecture from a noted scholar at Princeton or Caltech so substantially inferior to the same lecture from the same scholar heard in a campus auditorium?” I would answer that it clearly is not. But being relatively cloistered with a group of others from different backgrounds that are all struggling to grow is. And I know that the immediate response by many will be that on-line chat rooms/blogs/skype-y things can replace that in the flesh face to face experience, I’m not convinced that it can.Report

    • Avatar D.A. Ridgely says:

      I am, in fact, inclined to agree. On balance, it seems to me that commuter students are deprived of much of the real and important learning environment that takes place outside the classroom in a residential campus. Still and all, economies of scale suggest that the latter may, as I said, eventually be reserved for a very small number of people.Report

      • Avatar RTod says:

        Without getting to dream pie-in-the-sky, it seems like it would be nice if secondary education would do a better job of teaching some of these skills. My memory of high school was that it felt like sitting in rows and memorizing things without contributing, in a system that took 2 years worth of things to learn stretched into four years of a combination education/child care.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I think the environment helps a lot. I’m not sure how it is with the ivy league universities, but I went to a fairly competitive “public ivy” as an undergrad and simply being around nurds and overachievers made it really clear that I couldn’t slack off without sticking out like a sore thumb. My graduate work has been at a big state university and in some ways it’s better, but I do miss being around overachievers and I probably have taken advantage of the more lax climate, although I do think that the requirements are probably similar (comparing however undergrad there to graduate here).Report

  2. Avatar RTod says:

    “O tempora! O mores! (Whatever that means.)”

    A kind of Japanese deep fry and a type of eel, respectively, I believe.Report

  3. Avatar Thoreau says:

    I largely agree with your post, DAR, and I say that as somebody who makes his living inside a non-selective portion of the Ivory Tower. However, I am dubious on the notion that the brick-and-mortar campus will die, as RTod said. For information delivery, you don’t need a physical campus. But to provide 18-22 year-olds a formative experience, the physical campus matters. Even if they are commuter students, campus is where they spend their day and home is where they sleep.Report

    • Avatar D.A. Ridgely says:

      I certainly have no crystal ball on the matter. I do, however, think that some very serious cost reduction and containment is a necessary condition to the future of the brick and mortar academy.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I think you’re both right. The university needs to learn how to tighten its belt (step one: stop the proliferation of unnecessary staff who seemingly can’t be layed off) because they’re going to reach a tipping point in which the cost so obviously outweighs the benefits of a college education that it’s not an investment worth making (we’re probably already there, but there’s plenty of sentimentalism about higher ed).

        But I do think that, if the costs can be brought down, it’s hard to imagine a majority of 18 year olds begging their parents to let them do their college work in the basement instead of going off to university for four years.Report

        • Avatar D.A. Ridgely says:

          Ah, but one reason for that is the enormously expensive lengths universities now go to pamper undergraduates. Compare that to my own far more spartan college experience (e.g., no air conditioning in dorms, institutional dining hall food, etc.) and I think a good case can be made for the notion that undergraduate education is straining under the weight of the cost needed to attract and retain those students.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            Yeah, that too. And here is the ridiculous part of the war of needless perqs- universities across the country are experiencing historical levels of enrollment. Nobody is struggling with empty lecture halls. But they’re all caught up in this totally unnecessary arms race with each other based on the idea that, okay enrollment isn’t down now, but it could be at some future date if we don’t do everything we can to turn the college “experience” into something between a luxury resort and four year chartered booze cruise. Yeah, I’m with you on this. Incidentally, here’s a business proposal- I’m guessing that, if you told the parents, “Okay, we have a university with great professors and high educational standards, but we don’t offer all of the resort living perqs as the other schools- oh, but in exchange for having more Spartan conditions, our tuition is one half that of our competitors”- well, I suspect that you wouldn’t go out of business for lack of students.Report

            • Avatar Kolohe says:

              This *was* one of the identified trade offs between going to a state school and an Ivy school twenty years ago, at least for me (except the tuition & fee + room & board ratio between the schools was more like 4:1)Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                Oh, I’m sure it’s still cheaper to go to a public school, but still a lot more expensive than it used to be.

                So you went 20 years ago, which means that you, too, remember the 70s? Do you remember when people used to be saying that state universities should be free to attend since they were getting public funding? Admittedly, they used to get a lot more public funding…Report

              • Avatar Kolohe says:

                We’re within six months or so of the point that ‘Twenty years ago’ was when Grunge wiped out Hair Metal. My personal memories of the Seventies are confined to Big Bird, Scooby Doo, and the rest of the Henson and Hanna Barbera pantheons.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                Really? I don’t know why it is but I have these really intense Proustian memories of the 70s, even though I was at the Hanna Barbera age as well. I think part of it is that the era seemed really kind of insane to me as a child and, the older I get, the more it seems like that impressionwas accurate. Admittedly, my parents were trying to go back to the land on a small farm next door to a PCP lab, which might account for some of my impressions of the 70s.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe says:

                Although I do seem to rememeber schools in the University of California system having $0 for in-state tuition in the Barron’s (etc) college guides.Report

  4. Avatar James Hanley says:

    As one who’s occasionally gone toe-to-toe with DAR on education issues, I’d like to say that I am in almost total agreement with him here. I would sign on to the commenters who suggest that the “formative experience” of being in the academic environment (assuming the specific college in question at any point actually provides such a thing), and the influence of being around those who are, if not ubernerds, at least working relatively hard academically, is something that can’t (at least easily) be achieved in other ways.

    I do wonder, though, about the claim that higher ed as we know it won’t survive the 21st century. (Actually, reading DAR carefully, he suggested that higher ed won’t “survive the 21st century as we know it, a curious thought for sure.) It seems almost inevitable that a century hence we won’t recognize higher ed, and yet 90% of it is not actually that different from what it was a century ago–technology has created add-ons rather than fundamental changes, I would argue. And not only is enrollment up at present, a continually growing population (assuming it does continue that trend) and a continually increasing push to get more and more people into college (and while the merits of that push are debatable, I don’t see the push itself diminishing in intensity in my lifetime) seem to suggest that perhaps brick-and-mortar institutions are going to be more durable than we would casually expect. It’s not that they’re successfully resistant to change. Quite the opposite–they seem to fairly successfully incorporate the changes that have, to date, been demanded, largely because those changes are peripheral rather than fundamental. Education is education, as fads come and go (not that DAR was proposing any fads), and I think Plato would find a modern classroom, even an on-line one, amazingly familiar and easy to adapt to.

    My prediction would be that the changes we predict today in education a century hence will either not come to pass or will be of minimal importance, but that there will be changes we can’t at present imagine, and that in the end the basic image will still be the same, but with intriguing new wrinkles around the edges.Report

    • Avatar RTod says:

      “My prediction would be that the changes we predict today in education a century hence will either not come to pass or will be of minimal importance, but that there will be changes we can’t at present imagine, and that in the end the basic image will still be the same, but with intriguing new wrinkles around the edges”

      That sounds exactly right.Report

    • Avatar D.A. Ridgely says:

      (Actually, reading DAR carefully, he suggested that higher ed won’t “survive the 21st century as we know it, a curious thought for sure.)

      Worse yet, DAR actually edited that sentence into such awkward ambiguity. Like Ralph Wiggum, I can only exclaim, “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!”

      In my feeble defense, however, I predicted that the institution of higher education would not survive the end of the century as it currently exists. (By which I do not mean as this century currently exists, Mr. Smarty-Pants Professor!) But as I acknowledged to the other smarty-pants professorial type who commented earlier, I have no basis for my prediction beyond what I’ve already mentioned.Report

  5. Avatar D. C. Sessions says:

    Arguments that physical proximity is necessary for sexual intercourse but not for intellectual intercourse seem to me to dismiss the emotional value of both.Report

  6. Avatar Freddie says:

    The prediction of the end of higher education is nonfalsifiable nonsense, utterly without reference to evidence, and perpetrated entirely by people with an anti-intellectual agenda, as this gentleman here is clearly an example of, whatever pretensions to intelligence notwithstanding. Make no mistake: there is no difference between this and those who simply want to fling excrement against the entire edifice of human intellectual flourishing. Indeed, people like that are better, because they are honest. This is not.

    There are 80 human institutions in the world that have existed in largely the same form, uninterrupted, for the past 500 years– governments, the Catholic church, organizations, etc. Of those 80, 65 are universities. By almost any metrics, the university is now more popular both in America and abroad than it ever has been. Against that, we have only the say so of embittered and jealous outsiders who allow their envy and petty resentment to drive them. I will stand with history and the academy.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      DAR an embittered and jealous outsider driven by envy and petty resentment? Well that explains a lot! *grin*Report

      • Avatar D.A. Ridgely says:

        That being so, permit me in my embittered jealousy to fling a bit of feces at Freddie’s reading comprehension skills. (1) No one predicted “the end of higher education.” (2) Reasonably specific predictions about future events by a date certain may be many things, but nonfalsifiable they ain’t.

        But thanks for playing, Freddie.Report

    • Avatar RTod says:

      Arguments that higher education is overly expensive, not necessarily for everyone, that the quality is going down, and that there might be some changes that could be made that might address some of those things are only made by those with an “anti-intellectual agenda?” There’s no difference between that point of view and flinging ” excrement against the entire edifice of human intellectual flourishing?”

      Nice that you avoided hyperbola.Report

  7. Avatar Thoreau says:

    The lavish dorms will get no defense from me, but note that the lavish dorms are the only part of the bill that is actually itemized. Sometimes the recreation center is itemized as well. For the rest, well, you’ll never know how much of that tuition bill paid for the professor to lecture, how much for the TA to grade, how much for keeping the building lights on, how much for information technology, how much for the Resource Center for Blah Blah, how much for the Deputy Vice Provost for Assessment Coordination, how much for well-photographed fluff, etc.

    *As an untenured white male professor, let me assure you that I think the Resource Center is absolutely crucial to social progress and worth every penny. The Resource Center Director, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, is the warmest, bravest human being I’ve ever met.Report

  8. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    Awesome post D.A. Thoughtful and relaxing!

    As far as the bricks and mortar vs. lectures on the internet goes, I think there will be certain programs that will survive in their proximitous form and others that won’t. Clearly, if you want to do many things in the arts…music, theater, studio art, etc. you’re going to have to be there. Upper level sciences require lab facilities.

    On the other hand, some subjects like chemistry and physics, at least at the lower levels, don’t require being in a lecture hall/professor environment.

    This is my anecdote reason why. My first year of undergrad, I took chem I and chem II at a rigorous sciences school. Nearly everyone was a psyche, chem, bio, or pre-med major (at this school the bachelors or science required psyche majors to have a broad background in the sciences). As a result more than half of my dorm floor was in the same chem lecture. All of us were also high achievers, and use to casually doing our homework while enjoying great academic success. Chem was a wake up call of course. It was based on three exam grades showcasing a pretty accurate bell curve, despite a class full of 300 serious students. We attended lectures, collaborated on assignments, and had study groups, etc. and things went alright.

    Second semester, we landed such a horrible professor that going to the lectures actually felt like a waste of time. So instead, every lecture we went to the library and worked through the textbook ourselves. We went to less than 3 chem lectures that semester (not including exam dates). We all did very well that semester.

    On the one hand, was it necessary for us to all be at the university for that course? Well not in terms of lecture hall, but in terms of what else the university provided, that is, space to collaborate with similarly situated students working in close proximity, eating and living together, it provided a whole lot.

    Now of course that won’t work with every subject, or even higher level chemistry which is not so easily acquired from words and pictures in a book. I can’t say that had it been a Shakespeare class, our little set up would have worked. But at least at the survey level in courses like chem, physics, calc, the material is laid out in such a way that students can, and often already do, a lot of the work themselves (am not one to think that a majority of professors are communicative geniuses who are uniquely adept at helping younger scholars to understand complex material, it is often the exact opposite).

    Maybe this says less about the nature of lecture halls and professors focused on research than it does about what many collage survey courses actually require, how they are structured, and what constitutes “learning” them.Report

  9. Avatar Trumwill says:

    But is an online lecture from a noted scholar at Yale or Caltech so substantially inferior to the same lecture from the same scholar heard in a campus auditorium?

    To the students that matter the most? Yes. As you demonstrate, one of the most important thing for a university’s prestige is to attract quality students. I believe that most quality students are always going to be most attracted to the total package. Therefore, those with the total package are almost always going to get the best students.

    Rare is the university that is truly comfortable in its own skin. The University of Colorado wants to become Berkeley. Colorado State wants to be come CU. Northern Colorado wants to become Colorado State. The best way to get there is to attract quality students. The best way to attract quality students is to give them relationships with quality professors and to promise that they will be surrounded by quality students and that their degree will associate them with quality students. You can take care of the third with a good online program, but not the first two.

    Further, due to the availability of student loans, people are not very price-sensitive. They can take the long view and justify (or rationalize) the added expense. Online universities can tack their prices to those of regular universities. Regular universities have no reason to give too much discount to online learners because they can attract the best students to their campus and keep the excess savings from online classes. Also, they wouldn’t want to devalue what a college degree is “worth” by giving discounts.

    And so the University of Phoenix is not much cheaper than Arizona State University. ASU’s online program is not much cheaper than their Tempe campuses. There is no real downward push in prices. The ones that would most able to be able to confer status on an online education (by associating their name with it) have no incentive to make it cheaper. Those that do cater to the price-conscious are catering to students they know are not going to give them prestige. Those looking for profit will take whatever margins they can.

    I could rather easily envision a scenario in which lesser universities are overtaken by online education. If the university itself does not confer prestige, maybe you might as well get a degree from Kaplan. But I largely expect the elite universities as well as state flagship, land-grant, and even mediocre universities with good football programs to remain relatively untouched.Report

  10. Avatar Thoreau says:

    Some thoughts on prestige, graduate education, and faculty:

    1) Most professors at most schools did some of their post-baccalaureate training (PhD and/or postdoctoral research fellowship) in one or more of the following environments:
    -University at the top of the prestige heap
    -Department at the top of the prestige heap within the field (even prestigious schools have some mediocre departments and even mediocre schools can have a few outstanding departments)
    -Research advisor at the top of the prestige heap (even a small pond can have a big fish)
    -For scientists, a national lab, elite research hospital, private research institute, well-known museum (for paleontologists, etc.), government agency (especially for geologists, field biologists, etc.), or other prestigious non-university setting.
    -For social scientists, a think-tank, government agency research gig, maybe a bank for economists, etc.
    -For humanities, various elite museums, archives, private foundations, etc.
    -And for liberal arts college faculty you might include a Visiting Assistant Professorship at a highly selective liberal arts college. (Unlike the typical part-time teaching gigs, these gigs are considered prestigious and carry weight on the CV when applying for jobs at teaching-oriented schools.)

    Yes, there’s always that professor who got his PhD from a mid-ranked department and a mid-ranked school with a no-name advisor, but published some really good work and built a solid CV and got a faculty job somewhere, but these are exceptions. Most faculty have spent a portion of their training in a prestigious environment.

    2) One consequence of this is that any PhD student who is enrolled in a mid-to-low-tier program at a non-famous school, if he/she is planning on an academic career then the only hope is to either work for the big fish in the department or publish something awesome to get a postdoc at a top place. Otherwise, the student is seriously deluded.

    3) Another consequence is that, while I won’t pretend that most of us at my school are as accomplished as our peers who landed gigs at top research universities (I’m certainly not), we at least move in the same circles as them, collaborate with them on research, publish in the same top journals (though not as prolifically), and at the end of the day the difference between us and them is not as big as our school names might suggest.

    4) Although most professors have similar pedigrees, some professors are still more pedigreed than others (which is NOT the same as being more accomplished or capable than others). There’s a certain type of student who discovers which professors are the most pedigreed, is amazed that they are teaching “at a place like this”, and then latches on. Generally, these students are really, really annoying. I’ve had a few of these students, as have some of my colleagues, and it’s not fun. What’s especially strange is that these students often don’t do homework, and even with my pedigree I can’t write a good recommendation letter if they don’t do their homework.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Let me say that all of this is totally accurate and I wish I’d known some of it when I was an undergrad. But, if you’re a professor at “a place like this” and you have graduate students who, presumably, are hoping for careers in academia, and I’m assuiming your department didn’t tell them how totally unlikely that dream is when they applied, don’t you think your department is basically ripping them off?

      From the sound of it, the grad students who are not “really annoying” in that way are even more screwed, right? Because they’re not latching onto the big names, and so they have to publish something really incredible. But even that sounds like a pyramid scheme- the chances are stacked heavily against you, but hey maybe you can beat them if only you’re good enough.

      I mean, sure, they should know all of this stuff about academia on their own. But, the bookish type of undergrad isn’t always aware of social norms anyway. And having been to a lot of those dinners with the prospective graduate students, is it fair to assume that your department is telling them something very different from “If you get a PhD here, you’re unlikely to have an academic career”?Report

      • Avatar Thoreau says:

        I’m in a university that has no PhD students and very few Masters students. I’ve had one Masters student, from another department (I do interdisciplinary work so I can supervise students from other fields) and he isn’t planning for a university faculty job.

        And the students who latch onto highly pedigreed professors are undergrads who often consider themselves to be above their peers. Often they are indeed smart but their intelligence exceeds their work ethic and/or other career skills. They tend to look to us as gurus, and while I’m fine with providing mentoring and guidance, it’s a challenge to do it patiently with somebody who has latched on because he thinks that he and I are fellow travelers in the “too good for here” circle. In fact, I don’t consider myself “too good for here”, I consider myself a reasonably accomplished person doing an important job in a place that I mostly enjoy (though, like any academic, I have a list of grievances against my employer).Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Okay, well then, I’m very sorry to have made that assumption about your university.

          I’m maybe a bit touchy too. For me, grad school’s been tough precisely because I wasn’t that undergrad at all. I saw plenty of those students who latched onto some professor as if they were a guru and figured it was sort of annoying nonsense. Instead, I spent every day in the library working hard. The problem is I was totally clueless and naive about picking a grad school. I’m now at the grad school that was near where I wanted to live and offered me the world to go there, and they’ve delivered, but I had no idea what the tiers even were. So, I was about two years into the program when an elderly professor told our seminar that he thought it was unfair that, just because we’re getting PhDs at this school we’ll never have jobs in academia! That was the first I’d heard of all of this. So, again, I’ve heard tell that everything you’re saying is totally right. It’s just a bit frustratingly right. I guess I can’t really complain because my wife now has two therapeutic practices and I’m very much okay with adjuncting- which many academics seem to think of as hellish, but again it really helps that my wife makes a good salary. Nevertheless, when I go to conferences and see those same suck-up students deliver mediocre papers coming from the Harvard graduate program, it sticks in my craw a bit.Report

          • Avatar Thoreau says:

            It’s not necessarily as bad as you think. If after your PhD you do some sort of research fellowship with the right folks, you might still position yourself well. You apparently present excellent papers at venues where Harvard students present mediocre papers. That shows you at least have potential. But, yeah, it’s still something of a lottery.

            The bigger problem is that if your wife has a therapeutic practice then you are probably geographically limited. Of course, that’s also a boon if you don’t get a tenure-track job, as you said.

            Also, adjuncting isn’t hellish if:
            1) You can afford it because you either have a good day job or a spouse with a good day job.
            2) You either don’t want to do research, or your scholarly work doesn’t require much institutional support, or you have a day job that supports your scholarly work (e.g. scientists who work in industry by day and teach a bit at night).Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. says:

              Actually, my wife’s practice was something we did really well. The norm with a degree in therapeutic social work is that you go to work at someone else’s practice for a (usually lousy) commission. Instead, she and some colleagues have built a successful women-run ‘health centre’ from the ground up, so she knows how to do that if we move. Also her degree translates across the border and I now have dual-citizenship, which is a big plus with Canadian universities.

              I’m also a lot more okay with adjuncting than a lot of people because we’re not in any debt and would really like the ability to travel randomly without it ruining our life. I think adjuncting is terrible for people who in debt and when people talk about it becoming the norm in academia, I have to ask how they expect to ask the next generation of bright young people to stay in school for a decade and take out thousands of dollars in debt for a job that pays about as much as a Wal-Mart shift manager and has no job security.

              Finally, where I really feel bad for a lot of grad students I meet is how emotionally-leveraged their degree is- I know PhD candidates who think they’ll be unemployable if they don’t make it in academia, but I suspect that getting a PhD still counts for something in the job market outside the ivory tower and, in this economy, I think everyone needs to have a Plan B, regardless of their profession.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill says:

          Often they are indeed smart but their intelligence exceeds their work ethic and/or other career skills.

          My post-college roommate was so smart that he felt it beneath him to do pretty much anything. He flunked out of my university with below a .5 GPA. After six months in the working world (white collar job, but with the third worst employer in the nation according to employee satisfaction surveys) he decided that maybe he was not above effort and graduated with a 3.9 in physics and is now in a graduate program at a generally well-regarded private university.Report

  11. Avatar Heidegger says:

    “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.”
    “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.”
    “Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge”. Mark TwainReport

  12. Avatar Scott says:

    I’ve begun to wonder what exactly the purpose of undergrad was. It seems to me that your undergrad has become what a high school diploma used to be. Everyone seems to have one so the value has gone down and therefore you need a graduate degree to get anywhere with some exceptions. The same thing started to happen to graduate degrees. With the proliferation of law schools I have seen the diminution in value of my J.D. as the ABA has allowed every third rate college to open a law school.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I think this is sort of what’s happening. Part of it is that high school doesn’t teach what high school is supposed to teach and so college is trying to cover that. There are people who have suggested that the first two years of university is basically high school work.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        I’ve always been attracted to the idea of “entrance exams” for this reason. Basically, a test (I can hear the groaning of some now) that demonstrates that your are prepared for high school. If you don’t pass it, you go off to JuCo for a couple of years and get caught up.Report

  13. “Still, it not only matters whether one went to college but where one went to college and what one studied while there. “

    Not so much as one might think. I believe there was an article in the NY Times recently (still searching for it) which cited a study showing that the greatest predicting factor in long-term financial success was not the institution but the student’s SAT scores. The takeaway is that a good student will excel wherever they go including their future career.

    Of course, I may also just be a bit touchy as a proud graduate of a state college.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill says:

      I think it depends in large part on what your career path is. If it’s something meritocratic in nature (such as engineering), I think it matters a lot less. But if it’s one of those ultra-competitive fields that is hard to measure (media, for example, or law) then where you went to school matters a lot more.Report