13.11.10

CONCRETENESS OPTIONAL.

Craig Brandon spent some time teaching at New Hampshire's Keene State College and he had such a bad experience with yobbish students, craven administrators, and questionable academic practices that he chucked it all to work on The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It. I've made references to Margaret Soltan's and Peter Sacks's reactions to his thesis. and made time to read it and review it.

Book Review No. 28 suggests that Mr Brandon generalizes excessively from his own experiences, and his investigation thus paints with too broad a brush, sometimes unconvincingly.


The flagship universities of the northeastern states are weak to begin with (see inter alia ZooConn and ZooMass) and Keene State is probably a lot less selective than the somewhat less well known University of New Hampshire (which at least has train service) and it might well be the very model of a subprime party school (at least Mr Brandon is aware of one frame for the weaker providers of higher education).

The responsibility for the subprime sector, however, cannot be laid off entirely on the new crop of business-minded administrators that Mr Brandon fingers as the proximate cause of a fundamental shift in collegiate culture away from academics.

That's a shame.

I'd like to say good things about an author who titles his first chapter "How Retention Replaced Education at America's Colleges." That's part of it.
I use a four-word formulation to summarize what higher education is doing wrong. Access refers to lowered admission standards. Assessment does everything but perform market tests and enable professors to make mid-course adjustments to fine-tune student performance. Remediation is the consequence of access. Retention ensures that the unprepared receive something resembling a degree, all the same.
The faculty is complicit in the failure. Mr Brandon suggests that sub-prime party schools have fallen into what I call the Wayne State trap: the presence of non-traditional or first-generation or commuting students becomes an excuse to lower standards. (That attitude is a libel on non-traditional or first-generation or commuting students, but it persists.) And thus does the subprime party school emerge (see p. 49)
When I asked professors how they could justify this, many of them replied ... that given that these students are the first ones in their families to go to college, professors need to cut them some slack. But this argument only makes sense if you believe that going to college in and of itself carries some kind of benefit, even if you don't do any work, read any books, or pay attention in class. It seems to imply that knowledge can be absorbed by students from the college atmosphere.
What is actually taking place is a form of widespread fraud: certifying that students have learned something that they have not learned. If you probe deeper, professors who advocate this kind of grade inflation see it as a form of social engineering to increase the number of college graduates and hopefully increase their earning potential. Eventually, party schools grant diplomas to students who have not learned anything approaching what used to be required of them.
This widespread fraud allows party schools to collect the tuition money that keeps the wheels of Diplomas Inc. happily turning and avoids angry confrontations with its student customers. Everyone gets to go home happy by pretending that those high grades really mean the students learned something.
Well, no. Increasing numbers of graduates have racked up debts that they might not be able to repay before retirement because they are holding jobs that ... don't really require a degree. That might be the subprime party schools' doing, but the kind of data analysis that would permit a reader to agree or disagree with that conclusion is ... missing. Mr Brandon likes to use the phrase party school administrators, but its promiscuous use as a pejorative before any number of expense preference behaviors (food courts! climbing walls! deluxe dorms! sports arenas!) causes it to lose force. We find such things at universities with highly-regarded academic programs, and at universities that admit just about anybody who is breathing. It is presumably the latter that he wishes to address. The distinction matters: consider this assertion at page 88.
But the biggest obstacle to controlling binge drinking is that party school administrators understand that binge drinkers make up a majority of their customers and sending them packing or making them unhappy would be a very poor business decision. Binge drinkers and party schools exist in one of those symbiotic relationships that party schools find so convenient. As long as they pay their tuition, binge drinkers looking for the five-year party are welcome, but administrators have to play a careful balancing act when the actions of drunken students hit the front pages. Taking any kind of serious action against binge drinkers could change their reputation at student-run websites from party school to unfriendly to drinking and leave them with nearly empty classrooms and dormitory halls. The majority of students simply don't want to go to a college that won't let them drink themselves into unconsciousness, so a reputation for being unfriendly to drinking is a suicidal marketing position.
On the next page, we read of a case of fatal alcohol poisoning at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology: whether that supports the "majority of students" assertion or allows that some universities can take serious action against drinking to excess without losing enrollments is left unsaid.

Elsewhere, readers are cautioned that the deluxe dorm rooms shown on campus walking tours are generally for seniors, while the freshmen make do with quarters only slightly improved from army barracks, and in some cases a room designed for two is occupied by four in anticipation of high freshman year attrition rates: whether that factoid supports the "we-accept-people-for-the-student-loan-money" hypothesis or contradicts the "retention-is-the-prime-directive" hypothesis we don't see.

The book concludes with some suggestions for parents. Shorter form: if your kid doesn't seem like college material, don't push him or her into any place that will send a fat envelope, that could be a subprime party school.

I'll post the party school warning signs, starting at p. 195, as a public service.

  1. Student comments in college guides and rankings mention partying more than academics.
  2. The school admits students with combined SAT scores of less than 1000.
  3. More than 10 percent of the school's students require remedial programs.
  4. More than 10 percent of the school's students are involved in fraternities.
  5. The college's view books make no mention of learning or teaching.
  6. The college newspaper focuses on drinking and parties.
  7. The college covers up its real crime statistics.
  8. Students are making anti-intellectual comments on ratemyprofessors.com
  9. Dormitory rooms are trashed by students.
  10. Police officers, firefighters, and EMTs are busy dealing with out-of-control students.
  11. Students at sporting events are obviously intoxicated and obnoxious.
  12. Students at the library are playing, not doing research.
  13. Students tell you their school is a party school.
There is excess capacity in access-assessment-remediation-retention. The degrees produced from that capacity fail the market test. Perhaps consumer awareness of the nature of the excess capacity will speed the elimination of that capacity.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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