I recently discovered two posts by Jeffrey Alan Johnson, a deanlet at Utah Valley University, and apparently a believer in free lunches.  But in the middle of his predictable fretting about the difficulties non-traditional students encounter, the message emerges, that Utah Valley, or Chicago State, or Wayne State, or Northern Illinois, or Eligibility Junior, are in the same business as the Ivies.  Let's start with his reaction to Our President's proposed performance rating system for higher education.  (Pretend for the balance of this post that the rating system will be more effective than the non-stimulus-stimulus, or the Tax Preparer Protection and Overpriced Insurance Act.)  A crappy university with a lot of Distressed Material failing to graduate, or to successfully execute an articulation agreement, is going to get a low rating.  That, Mr Johnson notes, will not turn out to the advantage of place-bound applicants.
Non-traditional students already have jobs and families, so they’re tied to a place. Their resources are defined by their own income rather than their parents, and their status as non-college graduates means that they are bearing the brunt of the decline in wages for those without college. And the fact that they didn’t go to college as a traditional student suggests they probably lack the preparation for selective institutions. Unless they are in a large urban area, odds are that non-traditional students are not in a position to choose which school they attend. That is especially true of those looking at two-year institutions.
We'll make some progress when advocates for the non-traditionals start looking at the root causes of failed attempts at second chances.  Those causes probably manifest themselves somewhere around second grade.  Mr Johnson, however, focuses on the death-spiral of returning adults with poor life management skills attending subprime institutions pretending to offer preparation for trades and professions, in an environment where "subprime" is no longer perceived or rumored, rather it now has a government stamp of approval.
So what happens to them when the only college in their area is a low-performing institution? That so many in these positions have knowingly opted for poorly performing but fiercely expensive for-profit institutions tells us that a low rating is unlikely to dissuade someone who sees the only alternative as not getting an education. They will go to low-performing schools. Those schools will likely perform even worse as the rating funnels away better students—and their tuition money—along with increasingly common state performance funding, and makes it even more difficult to recruit quality faculty. But they will still go. And if they graduate, their resume will have the name of a school dubbed, with all the pomp and circumstances that the National Center for Education Statistics can muster, “low-performing,” making it less likely that they will get the good job for which they came to school. And they will still go.
Perhaps. The reason U.S. News sells those college guides, and parents hire brain coaches, and your good public school comes bundled with a granite counter-top is precisely because more than a few aspirants to the upper middle class understand the toxic effect of disengaged, hostile, unprepared, surly, or simply dysfunctional people. Stratification is emergent, and until advocates for so-called social justice grasp that reality, the life of the poor will not improve. Contrary to Mr Johnson, a system of ratings, perceived or with the imprimatur of the Department of Education, can only reflect what others are doing.
And when the choice isn’t real, ratings only increase the stratification of higher education, and with it of American society. Don’t believe me? Look at primary and secondary education.
Yes. The common schools have been disrespecting bourgeois convention for years, and more than half the students in the common schools live in poverty because too many common schools are residually inhabited by people with poor or non-existent life management skills.

To Mr Johnson, however, the problem is that even that taxpayer-supported common school still requires students to have school supplies, and that students have to do homework.
There is also a more ominous challenge to making community college “as free and universal as high school”: high school is, in most of America, neither free nor universal. Students must provide their own supplies nearly everywhere, and the penalty for a student without paper or pen (let alone iPad and home computer) is too often failing grades for not submitting assignments or being kicked out of class for “being unprepared.” Spending four hours a night on homework is 20 hours a week that a student can’t spend working. That isn’t what I’d call free.
Right. A pencil and a pad of paper cost less than a week's supply of lottery tickets. And more than a few people have worked their way through a respectable college and somehow managed to get the homework done and the day job -- or the night shift -- as well.  I mean, seriously: having to bring supplies or do homework is somehow oppressive, and students of suitably accommodating institutions are going to graduate and compete with others who somehow have school supplies and life-management skills?

It's easier, apparently, for Mr Johnson to attempt to blank out the reality of higher education as an endeavour that uses scarce resources and involves opportunity costs.
Policies that make the lives of most Americans just a little easier, that make the difference between success and failure for most Americans their own effort rather than the lottery of birth, are preferable to many alternatives, including the status quo. I support these proposals. ...

Free community college is especially important because it decommodifies at least a segment of higher education. As long as higher education is a good that must be purchased on a market, even one whose price mechanism is as heavily skewed as that for higher education, then education will accrue to those who already have advantaged positions in society. I firmly believe that there are far too many things that have been commodified, and changing that in education is where I would start. That truly is radical, because decommodification makes income inequality far less relevant to people’s lives.
The State is that grand fiction by which everyone attempts to live at the expense of everyone else.  "Decommodification" is a fancy way of saying "Somebody Else will cover the opportunity cost of providing your schooling."  That is, until Somebody Else opts out: perhaps harder to do if a national government is doing the taxing, rather than a state government or a school district.

To deal with stratification, start someplace else.
But make no mistake: these proposals, individually or collectively, are not The Solution to poverty. Higher education is not the solution to poverty, full stop. These proposals are not—and are not intended to be—proposals that will radically remake the American social fabric. Even if an associate’s degree becomes universal, jobs have to be available; otherwise we have simply changed the winners and losers in what is still a zero-sum game. Certainly the President’s vision of middle class economics acknowledges that, but it will have to deliver as well.
It's not a zero-sum game. It's all about identifying and acting upon the gains from trade.  Public education turns out a lot of Distressed Material: fast food joints equip cash registers with pictures of the food items, and circuitry to calculate the change.  And when the Distressed Material makes noise about being paid more, there are rewards to improving the cybernetics.  And the skill premium increases.

Michael Barone recently asked, Are Today's Millennials a New Victorian Generation?  He's more interested in the changing attitudes of young people toward trashy entertainment.  He concludes with this.
There remain stark differences between the experiences and behaviors of high-education and -income and low-education and -income Americans, as Charles Murray showed in his 2012 book, "Coming Apart." But perhaps they are starting to converge.

Liberals and conservatives often assume that moves away from traditional moral rules must inevitably continue. How can you keep them down on the farm once they've seen "Paree?"

But today's America, like Victorian England, shows that virtuous cycles are possible as well. People can learn from experience, and those who have seen the downside of bad behavior may choose to behave better.
One can at least hope. To return to higher education, it is the strivers and the penitent who deserve a fair shot at tackling the same intellectual challenges that their more favored or properly socialized from the beginning face.  No hand-wringing about the expense of a pencil and pad of paper.


Dave Tufte said...

Ooh ... I wish you'd been harsher. Really.

UVU is the primary competition with my school, SUU, in the state of Utah.

Except that UVU didn't even need to check its mirrors as it blew by us.

UVU is the provider of credits to people unlikely to graduate for a growing metropolitan area (Provo).

Utah's legislature, like that of most states, appreciates that more than a school with a regional draw that actually graduates people.

For my part, I think this is part of the broader problem in education of valuing easier to measure inputs over harder to measure outputs. Dr. Johnson (a Wisconsin poli sci Ph.D) is merely echoing this behavior.

Stephen Karlson said...

No, outputs matter. That's precisely why U.S. News sells those guides, and Chicago State and Northeastern Illinois are hemorrhaging students.

As far as your spats with UVU, that's your fight.