This is what happens when you put people who care nothing about higher education in charge of higher education.

6 02 2012

I was actually enjoying this article about free, giant online classes until I got here:

The shift from “clock hours” or “seat time” to competency-based learning is just around the corner and much more fundamental to higher education than the explosion of online delivery itself. Awarding credits and degrees based on assessed competencies will significantly reduce time to completion and therefore increase completion rates and return on investment. More important, it ensures that students actually have mastered the set of competencies represented by the degree they have earned. Though not without significant challenges, this approach has the potential to revolutionize degree programs and all of higher education from within.

Competencies again. Who’s going to argue with less pain, same gain? People who actually care about education for education’s sake, that’s who.

After reading this deliberate slight against the very notion of a well-rounded, liberal arts education, I noticed that the author of this article works for a venture capital fund. How, pray tell, Mr. Venture Capitalist, am I supposed to measure competency in history? Are you expecting people to know all of it before they ever arrive in my classroom when I’m still learning new facts myself every day? Of course not, you’re expecting to reduce education down to the lowest common denominator so that you can make money from dismembering my job.

Unfortunately, Mr. Venture Capitalist has many allies in high places. I’ve avoided any comment on the Obama administration’s higher education initiatives until now because I haven’t seen the right opportunity, but this piece (via Zunguzungu) nicely explains what will happen if Arne Duncan and company actually introduce their “race to the top” approach into higher ed:

The carrot/stick approach to college graduation rates won’t work. That is to say, it may superficially work in increasing the raw percentage of degree-holding graduates, but there are myriad ways colleges can game that system:

* Poor and students deemed at risk of dropping out will simply be denied admission in the first place.
* Curricula will be dumbed down on orders from the administration, along with applying even more pressure on professors to not fail students. (I could easily see departments given “graduation quotas” to meet, by hook or by crook.)
* “At-risk” students will be diverted into poor quality Associate’s Degree programs.
* Harsher financial penalties for those who drop out or transfer, to make up for the loss of Federal dollars (e.g. scholarships contingent upon successful degree completion, so if you have to drop out or take a leave of absence your third year, you’re all of a sudden on the hook for the full price of tuition for the last three years).
* We’ll see outright fraud, misreporting, and other “creative accounting” techniques to either give students worthless degrees just to push them across the stage at graduation, or just lie about how many dropped out.

[Emphasis in original]

This kind of policy is the inevitable result of MBA thinking. Tenured Radical was, of course, on this a week ago:

Free market “lite” policies are still free market policies, Mr. President. The cost of higher education, and access to higher education, will not be addressed until the federal government and the states come to terms with what used to be common knowledge in both political parties: education is an investment. It is not a for-profit enterprise. It does not necessarily show measurable returns on that investment. It is something on which a nation agrees to lose money so that it has functioning, productive citizens down the road.

What’s so galling about treating higher education as if it’s just another commodity is that it plays the faculty off against students. We support actual learning while they cater to the “do the minimum necessary in order to get a degree” mentality that makes our job hard enough already. You can’t get excellence without money, and your college education is too expensive not to demand quality. If the “top” in higher education is the cheapest education possible, then the race to the top is the road to ruin. And I don’t mean just for faculty, but for students too.


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