Americans have long done their children a disservice by maintaining the broad fiction that going to college at all is more important than which college one goes to. It’s nice to dream about mediocrity and meritocracy somehow crossing wires and producing a society in which worthy elites are supplanted generation after generation by the truly deserving, who manage to filter up through an efficient farm system of public schools and universities to the positions of public power and responsibility. But of course it doesn’t work that way outside the preserve of conciliatory ideology: In truth, elites tend to conserve power within their hereditary ranks, and it takes an act of supreme, relentless, and most likely life-perverting ambition to break in among them, along with a great deal of luck and brown-nosing. (Think Danny Noonan nodding and smiling as Judge Smails tells him, “I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber — didn’t want to do it; I felt I owed it to them.”)
In this orgtheory.net post, Fabio Rojas assesses the U.S. university “system” with admirable clarity:
Higher education is a split system. On the one hand, you have elite research universities and liberal arts colleges. These institutions have a built in market demand – people want the prestige of spending time with leading thinkers. On the other hand, you have the other 95% of the higher education system: the army of community colleges, state colleges, and technical colleges. These colleges survive on a simple model: they sell basic training at a high price (a few hundred $ per credit) and the labor is cheap (often grad students or adjuncts).
I’ve been part of that cheap labor pool, as a grad student at two different state universities. I was overwhelmed by the teaching I was expected to carry out, and the more time and effort I devoted to trying to do anything besides a piss-poor job, the more my own studies would suffer. And since I was attending a state university, if I was ever going to distinguish myself in the field I had chosen, I needed to write some brilliant attention-grabbing papers. Which meant that I, like many of my peers, guiltily found myself doing a worse and worse job of teaching.
Not that my students minded: My divided attention meant they could turn in substandard work and get the grade least likely to result in my having to justify it. And it was probably pretty obvious I wasn’t going to lodge any complaints about cheating or plagiarism. I just wanted to churn out a plausible distribution of grades onto the grade sheets at the end of the semester without actually having to teach anyone anything. Like something out of Soviet Communism as viewed by Western Cold War zealots, it was a cynical racket that derived from a cynical system, and it coarsened everyone who was involved with it. The pretense of equality — that equally talented students and teachers occupied higher education’s lower rungs, and these students were all equally teachable and had an equal shot at postcollegiate opportunities — was too large an fantasy for anyone to sustain for long, and we all broke down into pretenses, that the school work was completed, that the grades were fair, the anything was learned other than a practical knowledge of how to exploit an institutional bureaucracy more invested in its own illusions than in fulfilling its social mission.
Rojas, noting this Washington Monthly story about the disruptive potential of online education for State U.’s business model, thinks this racket will soon be winding down. If you’re not attending an elite university to network with professors whose repute will help you along in your career, why bother going anywhere at all?
Why spend thousands of dollars, when you can get your math-accounting-econ courses efficiently done from the comfort of your own home? Working on the weekends, a lot of folks could do three or four basic courses for about $300. Huge savings – not just on tuition, but also on travel, lodging, books, etc. Sooner or later, people will realize that a lot of basic education can be done in this manner.
For “non-traditional students” (aka, undergraduate students older than 23), this makes a lot of practical sense. And if this comes to pass, it will reveal college for what it generally is at non-elite venues: a four-year adventure in spectator sport attendance, alcohol abuse, boundary testing and self-actualization. Like high school, it will be important primarily for assuring that pre-adults are “socially adjusted,” that is, that they are subjected to enough humiliation to guarantee conformity. Autodidacts and nonconformists will be able to opt out and save themselves some money and a lot of grief while obtaining the degree necessary to signal employment worthiness. Are the lesser institutions of higher education anything other than credentialing rent seekers anyway? If they are going to market themselves as training centers rather than as bulwarks against market prerogatives and ideology dictating the form of everything, then their doom is sealed.
For the shock troops who have been drafted into doing the teaching at nonelite universities — the graduate students and adjunct professors — there may be troubled times ahead, as the demand for their labor is consolidated in various online-education sites. If community-college students are to become clients, and college can be supplanted with watching videos of old lectures and exchanging emails with a generic instructor out in the cloud of computer servers, then fewer adjuncts will be necessary (and those university departments that have traditionally taken in large number of grad students to teach undesirable undergrad courses will shrink — and perhaps as fewer are accepted into literature programs in graduate English departments, the topics of dissertations will become less ludicrous). Adjuncts could find themselves in the same situation as reporters, as local colleges go the way of local newspapers — to extinction.