13.6.10

GETTING THE MODEL RIGHT. The dean at Anonymous Community presents a useful taxonomy of higher education.

At a really basic level, I'd divide degree-granting colleges into four groups: high-cost high-prestige, high-cost low-prestige, low-cost high-prestige, and low-cost low-prestige. The high-cost high-prestige places -- think Harvard and Yale -- will be fine. They have more money than God, and they sell exclusivity.

Low-cost high-prestige places -- the public Ivies, say -- will be fine if they can keep up their perceived quality. There's always a market for a good deal.

Yes, and there's excess demand for degrees of perceived quality (prestige, in the Superintendent's impression, correlating somewhat positively with the ambition and intellect of the entering classes). The challenge for the state institutions in keeping up their perceived quality is two-fold. Administrators would like to put the failures to keep up on stingy legislatures, ignoring their own complicity whenever beer-'n-circus or access-assessment-remediation-retention crowds out calculus and statistics and economics and chemistry.
Low-cost low-prestige places -- community colleges leap to mind -- will be fine if they can shift the ground of conversation from prestige to outcomes. A community college that does a good job at the first two years of a degree (or a two-year occupational degree) is a great deal; students who graduate from locally-respected programs in Nursing or criminal justice can find good jobs (in normal times) at minimal cost. And if the cc does general education well, it can become the first half of a low-cost high-prestige program. For a kid who's basically talented but still unfocused, doing the first two years at a cc before transferring to someplace good can make a world of sense, and can greatly reduce student loan burdens. (Conversely, a community college that does a lousy job at the first two years has no compelling reason to exist.)
"A community college that does a lousy job at the first two years" is probably devoting a lot of resources to doing what the high schools should have done. Discuss. And, extending an earlier paragraph, the Superintendent conjectures that much of the excess demand for perceived prestige is really excess demand for outcomes. Parents, and, more often than the cynics would have readers believe, students, would prefer to interact with strivers rather than party animals or high-school repeaters.

The dean focuses on a possible shakeout in the for-profit diploma mills, but his money quote is also a caution to administrators still too committed to access-assessment-remediation-retention.
I expect to see increasing liberties taken in the name of economic survival. Standards will be lowered, financial aid guidelines will be stretched, faculties will be adjuncted-out, students will be overtly catered to and covertly fleeced. All of which is terrible for the students, of course, but which will also exert downward pressure on competing institutions. It won't last forever -- death spirals don't -- but the process won't be pretty.
One can change each occurrence of "will be" to "are being" and find illustrations of the dynamic already in process. That dynamic, however, does nothing to meet the actually existing excess demand for higher education.

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