Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

19 08 2011

While I feel bad about kicking Britney’s excellent post off the top spot on this blog, I do think this kind of hysteria needs to be addressed quickly and directly:

Tenure won’t save us from a higher education collapse. Start making alternative career contingency plans now because this collapse could be sudden and catastrophic.

Of course, online education is part of this imminent doom scenario:

Many governors face enormous fiscal shortfalls, forcing them to choose which public employees to anger. Tenured professors, I suspect, have a lot less political clout in most states than do policeman, nurses, prison guards and public school teachers. If online education keeps improving, then I predict that some governor is going to propose firing most of the tenured faculty at his public colleges and replacing the high-priced teachers with online courses. Since Republicans consider academia to be a creature of the far left, many Republican governors would undoubtedly take joy in decimating the traditional higher education market.

Well, I don’t buy it. The fact that the author, James D. Miller, is an economist only makes me more suspicious. That entire profession is absolutely incapable of distinguishing between the quality of two similar goods. The assumption here is that online education will keep improving, but there’s only so much that online education can improve. Just to cite Britney’s example again, you can put all the bells and whistles you want on an online learning platform, but if students are still signing onto it at different times the discussions are bound to be poorly guided because you can’t pay a professor to sit at a terminal all day and wait for their students to sign on and comment.

Only towards the end of this essay does Miller begin to get to the heart of what’s really going on here:

Students gamble on the future when they fund their education with debt. Our current economic difficulties, however, are making Americans pessimistic about the long-term fate of our economy, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many parents are no longer willing to let their kids load up on debt. That is especially true if the parents have sent another child to college only to see him moving back home after graduation and taking a job that didn’t require a college degree. Unfortunately for professors, every capable kid who doesn’t go to college reduces the stigma of not pursuing higher education.

The problem with higher education is not in higher education itself. The problem is that economic restructuring is making it more difficult for students to find jobs when they graduate whether they actually learned anything in college or not. Suppose the social stigma of not going to college disappears. That’s not going to help anyone actually find the best jobs that remain in America if a large percentage of the god ones have moved to China. College may be a gamble, but it still remains most people’s best hope for the future.

And from a tenured professor’s perspective, running for the escape hatch screaming is absolutely the last thing most of us should do (unless, of course, they’re miserable in academia, but that’s a post for other people’s blogs). Do you actually think you’re going to have MORE job security outside of academia than you will within it? As Tim Burke points out:

Tenure itself costs little, by the way. Or more precisely, it costs nothing compared to the idea that you’d just keep extending the contracts of strong teachers and researchers until retirement. The cost of tenure is institutional and programmatic, not financial: it keeps a university from responding rapidly to changing trends in knowledge. Arguably, this is a good thing independent of its costs. Some believe that an important responsibility of academia is the conservation of intellectual traditions as opposed to chasing momentary trends. Tenure is only a financial cost if you want to follow the growing norm in white-collar labor of firing people when they’re in their fifties even if they’re still doing great work simply to save on their salaries. Maybe that is what some people want, to have everyone in the same miserable situation except for the billionaires. I’d rather see if the whole society can’t go in the opposite direction and increase job security for most people.

To me it seems like Miller wants all of us to get out of the frying pan and into the fire. Why don’t I just put all my investments into gold and build a bomb shelter in my backyard? I think that course of action would be about just as rational.


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19 08 2011
Middle Seaman

People such as Miller see the current economic collapse and conclude that it will last until the end of time. Eventually we will climb out of the hole and states will have more money for education. Furthermore, Miller assumes that we are getting back to horse and buggy. Without college graduates in all areas we will operate on a GED level; god help us.

Miller also lacks proper understanding of online education. It seems that he thinks that it is a car. That is, once designed you can sell millions. Online courses at their optimal best will still need a tenured professor to guide the students, grade, maintain, correct and change with time. New courses appear and existing courses change, but hey online is like deficit reduction: the new messiah.

Miller’s car has several dozen computers in it, the tires are made from improved rubber, the seats were designed by experts, the outer design was done (and redone many times) by art graduates, etc. All this is the result of many students in many departments. Without this evolving education we are back to ridding donkeys and believe me it’s not very fast or smooth ride.

Although, I found out that Miller is a tenured professor, I find his arguments pathetically inane. Did Miller get his degrees online?

22 08 2011
Dan Allosso

I sympathize pretty extensively with young adults looking for alternatives to the world of their parents (which is why I wrote Outside the Box). But I’m also encouraging my two college-age kids to go to school.

On the other hand, I agree that tenure is probably the one thing most likely to aid in the downfall of the academy.

I’m a grad student at UMass, so I have the occasional opportunity to interact with Smith College students and faculty. I don’t think there’s much chance that anyone going to Smith is going to opt for Kaplan anytime soon. But then, Smith, Amherst, Williams, Bates, and the like are not the institutions being challenged by online programs, any more than Harvard or Stanford.

23 08 2011
This is the End « The Pietist Schoolman

[…] that it currently takes, something recognizably like the university is nearly a millennium old. Or click here for a more complete […]

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