BREAKING THE SOCIAL CONTRACT? "Declining by Degrees" aired this afternoon on the Greater DeKalb PBS affiliate. (Check your local listings.) The producer's concluding message suggested that much was wrong. First, the producer interpreted a public policy shift that gives greater primacy to the private benefits of a university degree as the breaking of a social contract that emerged after World War II, with the G. I. Bill, Pell Grants, guaranteed loans, and research and development programs opening the university to all who wished to attend. Second, he suggested that there were difficulties with the teaching and learning that went on in college. Whether the two phenomena might have been related ... regular readers know my penchant for equating access with admitting the unprepared ... did not come out in the program.

Much of the content is a video version of this New York Times article, still available to readers, which I commented on in April, and now that I've seen the in-class transponders and what the learned astronomer did with them, I do want to get some. The Times writers spent more time at Arizona than at the other three colleges featured, Western Kentucky, Amherst (and the video folks correctly pronounced the silent "h," forsooth!) and Community College of Denver, and some of the vignettes from the other colleges (a documentary is at best a collection of anecdotes, there is nothing systematic here) prove instructive.

The president of Western Kentucky, who has the look of a televangelist about him, was very open about his responsibility. An interviewer asked him about retention, and he was honest enough to note that absent students enrolling and continuing, legislative support would not be continuing. But that puts the faculty in a difficult position; an assistant professor has a principles of macroeconomics class in which a few students are capable of 96 points on a 100 point quiz, but the class mean is about 55, which he treats as a C. Such grading policies might run counter to another Western Kentucky initiative that received some attention, the recruitment of merit scholars. Why take a full ride at a mid-major if your grades are inflated and the content might be dumbed down made more accessible? Other professors confront other difficulties: at Arizona the star-teacher astronomer is not on the tenure track; a tenured professor of political science complains that she's a political scientist, not a composition teacher (presumably she wrote some stuff in proper English to win tenure and promotion) and a freeway flyer in Denver is earning the same nominal salary teaching feminist theory at three or four Denver area colleges (whether his marginal value product has been accurately evaluated is left to the reader as an exercise; he was not happy about the prospects of never being able to draw a pension.)

Arizona's administration (motto: lots of lottery players but we let an Economics Nobel get away) is already doing damage control.

The program clearly reflects the mind-set of the producers that the spillover benefits of higher education are something worth buying, a perspective that clearly comes out in this comment producer John Merrow makes to interviewer Tavis Smiley. (Hat tip: University Diaries.)
The other thing that's happening is that, well, back at the time of the G.I. Bill, this country said education is a significant investment, a public investment, a worthwhile public investment. It's a good thing for Tavis to get educated, for John, and so on, because the whole country benefits. And we kept on doing that up until about the time Ronald Reagan became president, when people realized, hey, wait a minute. If this guy goes to college, he makes a lot more money, let him pay for it. And so for the last 25 years, we've been withdrawing the public investment so that now, as some wag put it, a rich white kid, dumb white kid, has as good a chance of getting into a top college as a poor smart nonwhite kid. So we're limiting access. So two things are happening. One is the standards aren't as high as they need to be, and the second is that your economic status is becoming your educational destiny. That's a bad thing
for America.
Perhaps it is no accident that the documentary followed a macroeconomist. A microeconomist might make one of the following points. First, to the extent that that university graduates make more money, the "social contract" is a net transfer to the middle and upper income brackets ... I think that's called "regressive" in the slightly normative world of public finance. Second, to the extent that university graduates are more culturally competent, they might have learned that in kindergarten ... the marginal social benefits are nonexistent. Third, to the extent that graduation rates are lower for "Juanita and Carlos and Tavis," might that be a consequence of universities pursuing their vision of diversity by lowering admission standards for some people, setting them up to fail? Fourth, to the extent that the returns to education are specific to ability rather than to institution (a point the documentary makes when it notes that "prestige" is not the same thing as "performance") mightn't the merit aid Mr Merrow criticizes simply be a continuation of the social contract by new means, particularly if less prestigious but better performing universities attract sufficiently many strong students that some combination of student pressure and faculty toughness leads to improvements in the teaching and learning? The documentary notes both the non-aggression pact between party animals and researchers and the enthusiasm those same researchers have for working with the inspired students. Finally, who says that the return to a university degree will always and ever be there to exploit. Whether the high return is a speculative bubble or not, the existence of a premium for one type of worker provides an incentive to substitute. Long ago, the Luddites objected to textile machinery that could be serviced by less-skilled operatives, something that may have peaked with Fordism and time-and-motion studies, a development that lowered the premium to skill and which permits Thirteenth Generation sub-literates to earn tattoo money selling those fries you want with that sandwich simply by touching the picture on the screen. The premium to skill might be on a twenty-year rise but, again, to quote from the documentary, "past performance is no guarantee of future results."

Yes, higher education has a performance problem and an image problem. But there might be more than one way to address those problems.

Other commentary on the documentary available at Phantom Professor, King at SCSU Scholars, Ian at Truck and Barter, and Panopticon.

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