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Requiescat in Pace, Universitas
Did you hear that? It was the sound of academia’s lifeless corpse thudding against the ground, having finally succumbed to COVID-19. Higher education had a preexisting condition, you see.
Bryan Caplan is known for his signaling theory of college education: A college education is valuable because of what it signals, and not because of the learning it involves. If this is true, it’s only part of the truth. A college degree may be valuable mainly as a credential, but college is more than just the degree. Why didn’t online education kill the four-year college? If the university is just a credentialing mechanism, won’t any credentialing mechanism do? Well, no. As it turns out, an online education isn’t a perfect substitute for the value provided by a conventional university education — or, at least, it wasn’t until coronavirus came along.
I chose to attend a college for three reasons, only one of which had anything to do with credentialing. First (and foremost), I went to college because I was a reasonably good student from an upper-middle-class family, and going to college is what reasonably good students from upper-middle-class families do. Second, I went to college to find friends. Not satisfied with the cramped social scene of a generic suburban high school, I threw my lot in with the homeschoolers and archaisms of Hillsdale. I also went to college to learn something and train myself for a lucrative career — until I decided that the sciences weren’t for me and kissed my future earnings goodbye. But my personal history is beside the point. What’s important is that my interest in furthering my career was only a part of the calculation I made when I chose a college. People think it’s shallow to say this, but it does matter more than they’d care to admit.*
Now, thanks to the ongoing pandemic, having a social life is all but illegal. It’s possible — likely, even — that most colleges will extend online-only education for at least another semester. And even those institutions which do allow flesh-and-blood teaching will bar most of their social events. No more clubs, football games, and movie nights. Stay away from the cafeteria!
The response to coronavirus has, in effect, removed the brick-and-mortar university’s competitive edge. Why pay truckloads of money to sit alone in a far-away dorm room and take classes online, when I can pay mere wagonloads of money to sit alone in my childhood bedroom and take classes online?
Before coronavirus, the university was the only half-functioning institution in American life that still built real social networks, as opposed to the simulacra of social networks the Internet specializes in. (Sorry, Ricochetti.) For the time being, building social networks is verboten. So, what good is that sub-Ivy school which has been soliciting me? As long as I can take in the information I need to graduate with my desired credential, I’m golden — or as golden as I can be in the middle of a depression.
Nothing good can come of this. Colleges and universities will close. Those which don’t close will limp along, maimed by a lack of funding and by unfavorable cost-benefit calculations by their would-be students. Scores of unemployed (and unemployable) Ph.D.s will be unleashed upon the land. There are optimists who predict that this pandemic will shock American civil society back into life. I’m far gloomier. I can’t foresee any outcome except an acceleration of the trends already enfeebling western civilization: more fragmentation, more loneliness, more hopelessness — and an indefinite extension of an already prolonged adolescence. Finding a job, owning property, marrying, having kids — all these trappings of bourgeois life, already endangered, will fall victim to a simple path-dependency problem: You can’t get there from here when you’re cowering in your basement, binge-watching Netflix dramas.
* A caveat: The more elite the college or university, the more social the value it provides. Conversely, the less elite the college or university, the more economic the value it provides. People go to community colleges for skills or credentials; they attend elite colleges for the social opportunities.Published in Culture
Well, thank you. You’ve made me feel a little better about all that $$ I spent to send Max to Boulder. He is to graduate in a few weeks, so it looks like he just made it with the social scene part of an education before it was closed down possibly for good.
I’m not sure what his major was (something in biology/medicine), but he did avail himself of the social life, and had several jobs while there to help defray. So I gave them a kid, scared and excited to get started, wondering if he’ll measure up, and I’m getting back a young man, confident and excited to go out and get started.
Reading your post makes me think maybe this was all a good thing after all.
I’m finishing this comment, then jumping in the car with his brother and driving out to see how he’s doing. All further dispatches will be from I-80 westbound.
If enough of them survive by doing away with all the”Deans of Diversity” etc to cut costs, that alone would be helpful.
Interesting observation and I love the way you put it.
The longer lockdowns remain widespread, the more industries will be changed by necessity.
I would love for it to break the university in regard to useless degrees (as opposed to useful degrees for knowledge-based industries). But I’m not that optimistic.
I hope it breaks the useless university bureaucracy.
The problem, though, is that coronavirus doesn’t discriminate between worthy and unworthy institutions. Hillsdale, St. John’s, and the University of Chicago are harmed just as much as Woke State University. Perhaps generous donors will keep the former schools afloat, but, still, lost years are lost years.
I wonder if colleges and private schools are similiar to other industries in that the larger, more politically connected schools will fare better. In education especially, we need the smaller members.
But of course you know those are the last positions that will get cut.
I disagree. Although a lot of the culture universities try to cultivate, along with a few of the degrees, are totally superfluous, we really need the universities themselves.
Most of the degrees are training programs, not signalling devices. I’m a pre-speech-language-pathology student. That field is incredibly wide (The scope of practice includes Autism, swallowing disorders, dementia, strokes, chronic cough, voice disorders, language disorders, speech disorders…). The undergraduate program is just background knowledge, while more in-depth information as well as clinical training come with the Master’s degree. Many liberal arts degrees are probably signalling, but one could argue that such knowledge is important even if not directly useful.
I can’t imagine speech-language pathologists, or any other health professionals, not to mention teachers, accountants, social workers, or many other careers without a college degree. We need these people in our workforce, and we really need the universities to train them.
And as any student recently forced online will tell you, online classes won’t cut it. It’s not the lack of social life. It’s the service learning I can’t do right now. (As an aside, service learning is one of the best experiences I have had, and I highly recommend taking advantage of any opportunities to do it.) It’s the internships the grad students can’t do. “Real-world learning experiences” often is just thrown around as an educational buzzword, but they are necessary, especially at the college-level, and universities set a good system in place so that this can happen.
Even with all the craziness in college cultures right now, we need a place to train professionals, and the universities are it. I think they need reform, but not death. I really don’t think there’s ever going to be a better system, despite all the inefficiency of the current one.
As far as I have been able to tell, government support for higher education has fostered the same sorts of consolidation and centralization as we see elsewhere.
I agree. Some people have narrow pictures of what happens in universities. A lot of their criticisms are apt, and we’d be better off without some aspects of universities that foster political and intellectual corruption, but we need universities. Learning isn’t just the kind of passive incorporation of information that can happen easily online. Some of it is, but there is a lot more than that.
I had never before heard of pre-speech-language pathology. I’m not sure if our daughter would be more accurately labelled a speech therapist or speech pathologist, but I am aware of some of the aspects of the education program that you are talking about. She did it in a graduate program some years after having obtained a bachelors degree in history. But she first had to spend a year catching up on prerequisites.
Confession: I made up the label, somewhat. I want people to know that I’m not in the main training program yet, and “Speech-Language-Pathology undergraduate” doesn’t seem to communicate that. “Communication Sciences and Disorders undergrad” is even worse.
Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) and Speech Therapists are (usually) the same thing. Speech and language are different things, so SLPs like to be called Speech-Language Pathologists because they work with both. But everybody else calls them speech therapists, because that’s the easy way to communicate what they do. (You know, it’s funny that a profession that works so much with communication can’t name itself in a way that properly communicates its function.)
It sounds like your daughter was a leveling student who took a year of undergrad prerequisites after her bachelor’s. The other option is a full undergrad program; four years of prerequisites, or two if you have an Associate’s.
“Narrow picture of what happens in universities” is such a great way to put this! Nobody sees the labs and clinics that can only happen in a university format, that are training grounds for future professionals and, in some cases, provide cheap services to the public in the university town. Probably because those students are too busy to talk about it.
Perhaps my post isn’t clear. I’m not relishing the death of universities; I’m lamenting it.
We’re on the same page, more or less.
Re-reading your last paragraph, I see it. I could have stood to read that more carefully, considering I was also taking a research methods exam at the same time.
But I think I’m mostly arguing with the idea that people go to college for reasons other than learning and because these have been removed, online education will take over. I think that being in a physical place to learn is necessary for many disciplines, and results in an education which is better than merely a signalling device. Because being in a physical place will continue to be superior, I don’t think we have to mourn universities quite yet…at least, I really hope not.
This is a fair point.
For the kind of education you’re talking about, universities must exist, so they’ll continue to exist. Chemists need labs, and doctors need hospitals. But I could see the non-vocational parts of academia falling victim to coronavirus, so that the universities of the future look a lot more like community colleges than they currently do. And they’ll be fewer in number. We’ll still lose a major social institution — bad news for impractical people like me.
Perhaps I should’ve gone with a “goodbye, liberal arts” theme rather than a “goodbye, university” one.
I still remember one of my professors at UW Eau Claire commenting in one class that for many students, college is effectively just a bar with a really high cover charge.
My kind of bar.
I was reading an article yesterday that was talking about the death of colleges and that they were mostly expect to be gone by 2030.
The virus has accelerated the demise.
It can take years to destroy something sometimes. Erosion will bring down the mountain eventually.
I’m not quite so pessimistic. STEM will certainly need in-presence classes for labs and fabs (less so for math, perhaps). I’m not so sure liberal arts will die–I think there will be a demand for it after the corrupt dross burns out. I’m conflicted, as there will be unwelcome losses as this transformation kills the invaders. You can think of online education as a chemotherapy for the liberal arts.
I am a convinced believer in the signaling theory. The real origin of this is the Duke Power decision, which has wreaked havoc in this country for years.
The Supreme Court ruled that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if such tests disparately impact ethnic minority groups, businesses must demonstrate that such tests are “reasonably related” to the job for which the test is required. Because Title VII was passed pursuant to Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, the disparate impact test later articulated by the Supreme Court in Washington v. Davis, 426 US 229 (1976) is inapplicable. (The Washington v. Davis test for disparate impact is used in constitutional equal protection clause cases, while Title VII’s prohibition on disparate impact is a statutory mandate.)
As such, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment tests (when used as a decisive factor in employment decisions) that are not a “reasonable measure of job performance,” regardless of the absence of actual intent to discriminate. Since the aptitude tests involved, and the high school diploma requirement, were broad-based and not directly related to the jobs performed, Duke Power’s employee transfer procedure was found by the Court to be in violation of the Act.
Since IQ type tests were no longer permitted, a substitute was needed. A college degree became that substitute. First, it confirmed adequate intelligence, no matter the type of degree. Second it added evidence of sufficient motivation and discipline to complete four years of the required education.
Now, the intervening years have seen the explosion of frivolous major fields of “study” such as gender studies, plus grade inflation so that no one fails, especially if a member of a protected group. Student loans have added the funds for wild inflation of college budgets.
The National Football League requires the Wonderlic test for all players who declare for the NFL draft.
50 multiple choice questions in 12 minutes. Maximum score is 50. Median score is 20.
I am fortunate in being at Hillsdale, which is not going down the tubes and which has not lost its way. Our administration is not bloated. We do not have grievance studies. We limit ourselves to the traditional disciplines, and we attract students by making demands on them. I have found that online classes are no substitute for personal contact, and I look forward to the day when the worst of what we are going through now passes.
Many other institutions have lost their way. Much of what they teach is nonsense, and their aim to a considerable degree is ideological indoctrination. They attract students by advertising themselves as a halfway house between a brothel and a country club, and, apart from indoctrination, they offer their students a four-year vacation funded either by their parents or at the price of heavy debt.
One — perhaps, the chief — cause of all of this is the decision, prompted by the Rockefeller Commission appointed by President Eisenhower in the 1950s — that nearly everyone should go to college. At the University of Tulsa, where I used to teach, fully half of the incoming freshmen had no reason to be there. Most of them were intelligent enough, but there was nothing on offer (apart from fornication and the country-club amenities) that they really wanted.
Our educational establishment is overbuilt. There are many fewer eighteen-year-olds in the US today than there were twenty years ago, and once respectable institutions compete for the high school graduates that do exist by upping the amenities and cutting standards. We would all be better off if there were a substantial drop in the percentage of high school students who go on to our institutions of higher education.
I am a big fan of community colleges. Many of them serve real needs.
My middle daughter spent two years in community college and then transferred to UCLA. Her major was Anthropology, which seems to be popular on the left but she then got a Masters in Library Science, which I think is more useful. She ended up in the art world, working for an art gallery (very high end) in Santa Monica where she saved the owner hundreds of thousands by detecting a forgery. He returned it to the auction house which will probably sell it to another sucker. Her husband is now a quite successful young sculptor selling his work online and making a good living.