Friday, October 16, 2015

The Future of (Education at Places Like) Friends

It's simply a glorious October day here at Friends University--blue sky, light wind, temps in the 60s, the leaves of the trees (as I take in their colors through the windows of my third story office) are a mix of green, yellow, orange, and brown. This morning I raced a train on my bike to the crossing on Meridian on the west side of the Friends campus--trains are notoriously slow moving through Wichita, and I didn't want to be stuck there waiting for 10 minutes--and beat it by less than 40 yards. A good omen for the day, I hope.

We're officially inaugurating a new president here at Friends University today (though President Carey has been on the job since last July), and there are faculty showcases and tent displays and much pomp all around our small but (I think) beautiful campus here on the west side of Wichita, KS. I have a hopeful feeling today--though I'm sure the weather and my small bicycling triumph this morning, not to mention the fact that I've worked like crazy to get ahead on all the stuff piling up on my desk, have a lot to do with that. I think, though, that our new president, and a sensibility that feels rather new to be me as well--a sensibility that seems more realistic, more aware and accepting and determined in regards to the difficulties ahead--have something to do with that sense of hope as well.

It's been a rough few years here at Friends, and the rough years are going to continue for at least a few more years, that's certain. President Carey will be my third university president in the 9 1/2 years I've been here; like so many small liberal arts colleges (though Friends, with its small number of graduate and professional programs, prefers to style itself a "university," it's really a SLAC, and those who insist otherwise are just fooling themselves, I think), we're struggling to figure out how to survive as the traditional pool of students interested in small, mostly locally oriented, mostly religiously and/or academically homogeneous and focused, and generally rather expensive private institutions like ourselves disappears. Community colleges are less expansive, large state institutions (which are scrambling for students themselves, in the face of state and federal cut-backs) have more scholarship money to offer, and online programs claim (not always honestly, but nonetheless often persuasively) to have job placement rates that exceed anything we can promise. Particularly in this part of the country, where ethnic groups and religious bodies in distant farming towns all across the state historically pulled together to build colleges throughout the 19th and early 20th century (Kansas has nearly 20 schools that fit that description), there's a lot of scrambling and hard thinking--and painful changes--taking place. Here's hoping that, one way or another, the good work that I think we do here at Friends will be able to survive.

In the Democratic presidential debate this past Tuesday, Bernie Sanders--whom I've made clear I like a lot--said that going to college in America ought to be like going to high school: that is, free and universally available. (Specifically, he said: "This is the year 2015. A college degree today is the equivalent of what a high school degree was 50 years ago. And what we said 50 years ago and a hundred years ago is that every kid in this country should be able to get a high school education regardless of the income of their family. I think we have to say that is true for everybody going to college.") This led to a fair amount of discussion among various friends of mine--some of whom, obviously, criticized it as a massively expensive change to an already massively complicated higher education system, but others who, I think rightly, wondered about the deeper point: shouldn't we actually be encouraging people to find alternatives to college, rather than making it more and more possible to every single American to get onto the same meritocratic track?

This is something I've wondered on and off about for close to a quarter-century. On the one hand, it's undeniably true that "the academy"--the place where specialized education in the arts and sciences take place--can't help but be a somewhat elite enterprise. As I put it long ago, to pretend there aren't, or there shouldn't be, boundaries regarding who participates in and who is best suited for a university education is simply in denial about the whole justificatory structure of the enterprise, which (as I wrote over 10 years ago), depends upon people like myself who have been "highly educated, socialized to frame problems and discuss ideas in rarefied ways, and schooled to form expectations and think in terms of certain relationships and opportunities that are, frankly, the province of a leisurely, guild-protected elite." But at the same time, I resist strongly the idea that this structure requires a whole-hearted embrace of the aristocratic mindset which for centuries was its natural concomitant; global capitalism and the democratization of society have both so leveled our conceptions of the worlds we move through that standing firm on the idea that some particular sort of learning requires taking exclusivity as its premise strikes me a both ridiculous and unsustainable. Too much good has come from the spreading of knowledge and expertise and specialized, non-technical learning, I think, to want to embrace the complete re-aristocratization of post-secondary education, even if only indirectly (by kicking away all government subsidized loans, for example, despite the moral hazard they obviously present).

As a consequence, I listen to Senator Sanders, and I'm intrigued. Might it not be the case that the only way we can get back to apprenticeships and innovative local work and other routes to productive lives beyond professionalized, meritocratic races up capitalist staircases, is literally by taking money out of the equation (at least insofar of our own direct contributions as "buyers" of education, anyway)? Making higher education a free good might loosen up the demand for college by making people more willing to experiment with their time, in other words.

Does this have it backwards--is it, instead, the lure of college loans and other financial incentives which is discouraging such experimentation? Maybe. But it seems to me that the supposed "easy money" out there isn't there solely because of FAFSA; banks are delighted to get in on the game of financing (at long-term rates of interest) other people's dreams. One could respond by saying that such a prospect only became appealing to banks because government provides subsidies for them to do so--but that, I think, isn't so much an argument against Sanders's suggestion of tuition-free college as it is an argument against using redistributive means to accomplish the aims of affordable higher education for all when institutions of higher education are expected to turn a profit. It's basically the single-payer argument for health care reform, once again: are you going to use a kludgy collections of questionably constitutional laws and sweetheart deals with big insurance companies to essentially fake your way towards university health care, or do you just want to up and pay for it? As I tend to to believe that the socio-economic fears driving everyone to get their kids to college are probably permanent features of late capitalism, I think, rather than jury-rigging increasingly expensive ways to respond to those fears, maybe we should just take one of the contributing pressures off entirely.

Of course, if we take Senator Sanders's words literally, and the goal ought to be to turn higher education entirely into high school--that is, make not only free and universally available but also more or less compulsory--then we'd be missing out entirely on the opportunities for alternative flourishing that allowing for an ease of experimenting with different forms or approaches to higher education might provide, to both students and us faculty alike. (Experiments that have long been in evidence in many Western European countries, where free or nearly-so higher education is combined with an extensive system of testing which has encouraged, over the decades, the development of a multiplicity of vocational, technical, as well as professional routes to productive living.) So no: I don't want college to be like high school--I have too many students who act like it is already. But maybe, just maybe, knowing that college was a non- (or at least far less) burdensome option would help many of these students see that perhaps a middle-class or better life needn't be a college-diploma-or-nothing game. And, in seeing that, that in term might enable employers and government agencies adjust their social expectations accordingly. I suppose it's possible that allowing the whole system to collapse, and trust that home schooling will take its place, might achieve the same ends. But that would mean, among other things, that there wouldn't be very many liberal arts colleges like Friends left anymore, and the teaching we're able to do here would disappear. Selfishly speaking, I think that would be a loss. And, as I look around at the good work that is done by so many here, and the good ideas and high hopes which I feel around me on this day, I think: and maybe not so selfishly speaking, too.


MC said...

Free college would only exacerbate the problem, which is the unholy union between the vocational aspects of college and the educational ones. More time could be spent in real education if there weren't so many kids there who "just need a degree" for some position that plainly doesn't require a degree in "Communications," or to apply to professional schools. If I had been able to apply to law school without a B.A., I wouldn't have taken up space at the State U. for three years going through the motions. And while I wasn't much of a grade-grubber, lots of other careerist kids were, and they just ruined things whenever they spoke up.

So if Bernie got his way, and everyone went to college for free, the credential would become even more imperative, and you'd have even more people there who are totally uninterested in learning anything.

Mind you, I had a blast in college, and I even learned a few things (although most of it was just from reading the assigned books). But it made no sense as an economic proposition given my career ambitions.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Free college would only exacerbate the problem, which is the unholy union between the vocational aspects of college and the educational ones. More time could be spent in real education if there weren't so many kids there who "just need a degree" for some position that plainly doesn't require a degree in "Communications," or to apply to professional schools.

This is a good comment, and you may be right. My thought experiment--and really, it's no more than that--is that if the costs of college were greatly reduced (because, obviously, getting rid of tuition wouldn't get rid of fees, housing, etc.), then the reigning calculus that governs most higher education institutions would have to change. The acceptance of students would be less of a desperate competition (because many schools would no longer have to make use of ruinous discount rates to attract enough students in order to, in conjunction with those students bank loans and federal aid, pay the bills), and that would lead, I think (or at least hope) to a raising and diversifying of standards. The idea that every university has to sell themselves to every prospective student along the same very narrow metrics might come to an end. And if that came to an end, then the cult of credentialism would come to an end as well, and we'd see a renaissance in vocational and apprentice education. But you're right that things could work out quite differently than I imagine here; maybe college would become even more of a way station, and in 20 years we'd see law schools, medical schools, etc., struggling with the same student taking up space that we undergraduate colleges have to deal with already. Just kicking the can down the road, in other words.

Bob said...

'where free or nearly-so higher education is combined with an extensive system of testing which has encouraged, over the decades, the development of a multiplicity of vocational, technical'

Not quite so here in the UK, where Higher Education i.e. University is now charging approx. £9000 pa (about $14000pa) for the privilege of learning. For my son this has resulted in a loan of $42k which is not the great start one needs in life. At the Further Education level i.e non-degree there is a lot of free(ish) learning and most of these Colleges are being pushed to offer apprenticeships, mainly due to government funding.

The apprenticeships do help some youngsters get a start at work especially at the vocational level - the plumbers and electricians. These are usually one year in length, certainly not the old style 5 year indenture. The problem is there is a lot of abuse where the apprentice is 'slave' labour and the pay is paltry.

Free learning would undoubtedly hurt the banks who are prime lenders of educational loans and that would, I believe be no bad thing but perhaps one issue would be that UNis would get more selective (as they once were) whereas now they take anybody who has a the correct entry criteria (lower?) and the money. The selectivity would take us back to a darker age. where

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for the comment. I said "Western Europe" in the original post, because I'm aware that the way things worked in the UK for much of the 20th century have undergone some pretty radical changes. I can certainly empathize with your son as his $40,000+ in loans--my daughter will be facing at least that by the time she's finished (why, oh why, couldn't she have chosen to go to school for free here at Friends?!?). You're correct, of course, to point out the abuses possible under a system of apprenticeships, but I don't think that's an argument against them entirely. And as for selectivity? If the results of free (or at least tuition-free higher education could be directed towards the kind of multiplicity of educational routes that I originally mentioned, then I suppose I wouldn't have a problem with greater selectivity. The problem with universities that select their students in accordance with some inegalitarian criteria is when those universities are the providers of the only reliable route towards social mobility; if that wasn't the case, then greater particularity in university admissions wouldn't be a great problem, I think.