5.2.19

FAILING THEIR MARKET TESTS.

Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, which once had the chops, or something, to induce failed presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy to hold down a faculty gig there, takes to the house organ for business as usual in higher education to decry a widening stratification in higher education.  "Applications are up, and acceptance rates down, at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities, as the number of students applying for early admission there continues to climb."

Ah, the U. S. News problem.  Unfortunately for the Hampshires and Antiochs (and Macalesters?) of this world, there might not be enough matriculants to make payroll.  "According to a recent survey of admissions leaders, a majority of colleges and universities do not expect to fill their new classes by June 1. Meanwhile, Columbia University had an acceptance rate of 7 percent in 2018."  The regional comprehensives are getting hammered, as well, with the retrenchment at Wisconsin - Stevens Point meriting mention.

It's just another opportunity to trot out the class struggle, or something.  "Telling students at Hampshire or Stevens Point that we are living in a golden age is a bit like telling teachers in Los Angeles that life is good because Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, recently bought a $250-million yacht. Great news — it has two helipads."

There's a lot more wrong with Los Angeles than the failure of the Rams, the typhus outbreak, and the crappy public schools, none of which would be made any better if Mr Jones didn't buy that yacht, or if he deeded ownership of the Cowboys to the Archdiocese of Dallas and an American Legion post.  But Mr Rosenberg's feelings evidently trump facts.
Just as a healthy middle class has been shrinking in the United States for decades, so too has what we might call the "middle class" of higher education. A few institutions — the Ivy League, the most prestigious liberal-arts colleges, a few public flagships — have long been wealthier and more selective than their peers. But not long ago, places like Beloit, Earlham, and Stevens Point were solvent and serving an important purpose by educating — usually very well — those students who were not candidates for MIT or Amherst. The student populations on the less-storied campuses, not to mention the millions who attended community colleges, historically black colleges, and small, rural institutions, were generally less affluent and more diverse than those at Princeton. Providing them with a college degree was, and is, arguably a more important social good than the work done by the ultraprestigious colleges, most of whose students have a range of excellent options from which to choose.
Yes, and once upon a time those institutions actually delivered higher education. Or, in the case of Wisconsin State at Stevens Point, and Northern Illinois Teachers College, their mission was preparing school teachers.
It's ultimately about the common schools inculcating the habits of the middle class, isn't it? Followed by the land-grants and the mid-majors recognizing that they are in the same business as the Ivies, and understanding that one promising kid recruited by a Harvard or Amherst away from Stevens Point or Colorado State or Northern Illinois or Ball State is still going to leave a substantial population of "gems" who deserve better than access-assessment-remediation-retention or a subprime party school.
These days, maybe not so much. It's not so much that the hundred institutions claiming to be among the top twenty in the U. S. News league tables are doing some token diversification as it is that the other institutions have neglected their work. Here's Mr Rosenberg. "It is admirable that elite institutions now admit more students of color and more first-generation students than they did a decade ago. But these numbers will always represent a minuscule percentage of their enrollment, and we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that the problem of unequal access will or can be solved by Harvard."

No, nor can Harvard alone do the job.  The U. S. News problem exists in part because some of that "vanishing middle class" has vanished upward and because some of the applications that make the rejection rates at the Ivies what they are are coming in from middle-class students in places that didn't previously have middle classes, and those applicants pay full fare at the state flagship universities.  Meanwhile, diversification for its own sake too often deteriorates into lowered expectations.
The real issue might not be the number of students a professor teaches, but the caliber of the students taught. "We're all in the same business, and the rubric of low-net-worth-first-generation-minority-nontraditional-access does not have to be a low-level expectations trap."  Too often, though, it is.  And the locus of financially unsustainable and educationally counterproductive tendencies in education includes everything that goes on before the kids hit college.  How, though, to persuade the universities that the strategy to deal with tight state budgets is to not apologize for being selective?
It might be too late for Stevens Point.  "Not to be too blunt, but what happens when somebody in Madison takes a look at three regional campuses (Eau Claire, Menomonie, and Stevens Point) within a few miles of each other and suggests a consolidation to one campus might be in order?" Macalester?  Might Mr Rosenberg's problem be a variation on a phenomenon I witnessed in high school?  "The social set weighed the relative merits of Oshkosh and Whitewater."  Those tiny acceptance rates at Harvard or Columbia?  Go after those students, already.

Or recognize that there might be excess capacity in higher education.
Some will argue that struggling colleges have only themselves to blame for not coming up with a more sustainable economic model. Others will argue that what we are witnessing is simply an inevitable disruption of an outdated industry. Both of those arguments have some merit, though the fact remains that right now we have no obvious and equally effective replacements for good colleges that disappear. Allowing colleges to die makes sense only if we have something as good or better to replace them.
I heard the same sorts of arguments about Chrysler (twice, now, in my lifetime) and Youngstown SteelAnybody seen Bethlehem Steel, lately?  I suspect we'll manage without Hampshire or Macalester or Evergreen State.

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