2.5.04

POSSIBLE SOURCE OF COMPANY MAIL. King at SCSU Scholars points to University Diaries, who has given up on course evaluations:
They corrupt our demeanor, our seriousness, and our grading. They grant factitious wisdom and influence to students, teaching them to regard professors as petitioners. Like so many aspects of the market-driven university, they deprive the student of the one great and good thing only the university can give: the chastening experience of devotion to thought rather than to the self.
Her declaration of independence is part of her reaction to a David L. Kirp lament on the state of the market-driven university. Unfortunately, the lament is not that well laid out.
Those who run universities bear considerable responsibility for creating these inequities -- and not only in admissions. These trends are just the most visible sign of how much the market ethic has come to dominate higher education. To be sure, dollars have always greased the wheels of academe. What is new and troubling is the raw power that money exerts over all of higher education, including the emphasis on research that adds less to the storehouse of knowledge than to the institutional coffers, and the shift from liberal arts to the "practical arts." While competition has strengthened some colleges, embedded in the very idea of university are values the market does not honor: the belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers; in the idea of openness and not ownership; and in the student as an acolyte whose preferences are to be formed, not a consumer whose preferences are to be satisfied.
"To get a good job, get a good education." Methinks the damage was done in the Sixties. That's the Eighteen-Sixties, with the Morrill Act creating the land grant colleges precisely to strengthen those practical arts -- and to keep the midwestern States in the Union. It is no accident that Abraham Lincoln's statue is the centerpiece of the Bascom Hill Historic District.
The operations of admissions offices display the marketers' handiwork. Consider the reliance on early admissions. That practice has no academic justification, just a market rationale -- the crucial U.S. News & World Report rankings stress selectivity, and colleges favor early decision because those accepted are expected to enroll. Going this route improves a student's chances by as much as 50 percent, but only those whose families don't have to shop around for the best aid package can afford to take advantage of this version of affirmative action.

Admissions decisions are, more and more, based on statistical models that leave little room for hunches about character and potential. The paper credentials of students -- A averages and high SAT scores -- don't necessarily translate into intellectual fireworks. Many top-performing high school students are burnt out by the time they're freshmen, while working-class teenagers and community college transfers with less sterling records arrive with a hunger for learning and often fare at least as well.
Not only that, many of those strivers attend the less-famous (and less-congested) universities and fare as well over their lifetime as the more driven members of their cohorts. On the other hand, if there's this obsession with ability, why does the accreditation of universities depend in part on their remediation efforts? But Professor Kirp has only begun to be illogical.
These new models are also intended to increase revenues by shrinking scholarships -- what the new breed of "enrollment managers" calls the discount from the tuition sticker price. In an environment where admissions offices are sometimes referred to as profit centers, the "full payers," students from wealthy families, are in greatest demand. In addition, aid, which has historically been based on need, is increasingly being granted on academic merit. A dozen states have also adopted this approach, awarding millions of dollars a year in merit scholarships to students who would have attended college anyway, instead of helping those who otherwise can't afford an education.
Ah, value of service pricing. Any railroad rate man would get it in a New York minute. The complaint about basing some assistance on pure merit is a bit off point, unless Professor Kirp has evidence that merit as measured by these state programs correlates perfectly with ability to pay.
The current focus on admission inequities provides an opening for a long-overdue public discussion about what's wrong with market-driven higher education -- a discussion that identifies the spheres where money shouldn't be the coin of the realm. Paradoxically, market-based concerns -- anxiety about the outsourcing of jobs for knowledge workers -- may be the Sputnik crisis of this era, prompting changes in higher education that make it easier for teenagers who don't come from affluence to get the education needed to compete for those jobs.
Again, there's nothing new under the sun here. The state universities have long been a vehicle for subsidizing the upper-middle class, either by providing frugal parents with a decent place to send their kids, or by turning their gradutes into future members of the upper-middle class. The outsourcing, however, is a symptom of the failure of the universities to properly equip graduates to handle knowledge worker jobs. That failure has multiple causes: a coreless curriculum, the folly of admitting unprepared students and calling it "access," misguided "productivity" measures in which large credit hour per faculty member ratios are desirable come immediately to mind. That professors fail to challenge students so as to achieve favorable word of mouth strikes me as a second-order effect at best.

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