Thursday, September 10, 2015

We got problems. But is this the solution?

Oliver Lee Bateman, who penned last year's widely read defense of grade inflation, has finally had enough. On September 8, he published this:

From the article:

1) Too many people go to college

...not out of any particular interest in the field, but in order to receive raises at work or improve their position in a crowded job market.

2) Online education isn't the solution

...a grader for one of our online courses supervises approximately 30 to 50 students for an entire course. The grader typically makes $700.

3) Tenured professors pity adjuncts. But we can't help them.

It's not that we full-timers don't care; it's that we can't.

4) "Alt-academia" isn't a solution — it's surrender

...when it comes time to pay it off with a real job? Sorry — best look somewhere "alternative."
5) The students and professors aren't the problem; the university system is

The quickest and most painful solution to the crisis would involve greatly reducing the amount of money that students can borrow to attend college.

And that's where I heard the needle-scratch (youngsters, ask someone what that is).

Would that help? I understand the impulse to shut off the money spigot, but as Bateman acknowledges in point one, students go to college for career reasons. Desperate to enter or stay in the (shrinking) middle class, they would simply switch to private lenders.

Those institutions that excel at marketing themselves and helping students take out loans would thrive. Community colleges and four-year publics, already running so lean that they don't have real marketing departments, would suffer.

Like childhood poverty, this isn't a problem higher ed can solve by itself.  If I were Empress of Everything (and what a wonderful world that would be), I'd start by matching up infrastructure repairs with people who want to work. (And because the Empress doesn't have to worry about distinguishing among federal, state, and county projects, let's start with elementary schools.)

Yes, making more jobs available would reduce the number of students, but we'd lose the ones who are only here because they have a gun to their head (economically speaking). And if we reined in  class size, we wouldn't have a mass die-off of universities, just a better student-faculty ratio.

What else? I'd make accreditation contingent on percentage of full time faculty (looking at you, Rio Salado). And I'd throw in universal health care.

What do you say? We Miserians are an optimistic and creative lot. OK, we're creative, anyway.

Q: How do we fix this? 


  1. I'm PG, and I approve this message (the one by Frankie). Especially if by "Universal" health care, you mean single-payer. Skilled trades! They can't be outsourced.

  2. I'm EC1, and I approve this (PG's) message.

    On top of that, Bateman writes quite well, but is generally slightly wrong in subtle and not so subtle ways. Frankie's writing not only beats the c***p out of Bateman's, but she's right, too.

  3. Aside from Frankie Bow's excellent suggestions, I'd point out that Bateman's problem could be solved nearly entirely by making student loan debt bankruptable: it would take some of the load off of students, students' families, and would make lenders tighten the requirements for giving out loans in the first place. (This has to come along with increased financial aid in other forms, to keep from locking lowest income students out of the system)

    1. I'm all for making loans easier to pay, especially by simply making the prices more reasonable. However, I don't think bankruptcy should be available, and I'm glad it was not available to me when I may have needed it. Back then, my parents had actually printed out some information on bankruptcy, not realizing that the type of debt I had was not dischargeable. I'm not sure I would have known better than to choose this option, if I had it.

      I'm really glad that the temptation to accept what may have seemed as the easy way out was simply off the table. It may seem to solve the problem, but a young adult should not start out in life with such a credit blemish, perhaps without even fully realizing its potential repercussions. I'm glad I can truthfully declare that I never went bankrupt. I actually resent having the kind of parents who would have made me sell my unblemished credit for so little. The amount was ridiculously low and my parents were well-off. I'm not saying they should have paid it all, but they were, in fact, keeping a sibling at home until he was nearly 30 and paying for his private school, multiple degrees and car.

      Call me old-fashioned, but I actually believe that paying off one's debt, even if it's very hard, is the right thing to do. In my humble opinion, if it is to exist at all, bankruptcy should be more rare than a huge lottery win rather than a potential solution for many people.

    2. Honestly, nobody in their right mind considers it a "huge lottery win" except perhaps for business tycoons like Republican front-runners who do it routinely.

      Whether it's a great idea or not, it should be an option. for people who take out loans for education as much as for people who take out loans for real estate speculation.

    3. I did not say that bankruptcy is a lottery win or a good thing. I said that, if it is to happen at all, bankruptcy should happen even more rarely than something else that happens very rarely.

      The lottery win was just my example of something that happens very, very rarely. I said "huge lottery win" because winning a couple of bucks is not a rare event. It's winning lots of money that happens rarely.

    4. > and would make lenders tighten the requirements for giving out loans in the first place

      There was a time when the loans we're bankruptable (though they were harder to discharge than most debt) and the banks bore the cost when they were discharged in that way. Back then they did think about the future prospects of the loanee.

      Of course, it didn't result in the outcome the policy makers wanted. Meaning it didn't let absolutely anyone who wanted to go to college actually go to college. Worse, if favored people from backgrounds already well acquainted with higher ed.

      So congress agreed to carry all the risk. That's right: they made student loans both profitable and zero risk to the banks. Zero. And then they professed surprise when banks made lots of high risk (of default; but still zero risk to the banks) bets and the costs fell on the taxpayer. If there is anyone I can believe would actually be that stupid and lacking in foresight it would be a congresscritter, but I'd still have expected a few of them to see it coming.

      It was only then that Student Loans were made impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.

      In the mean time, with plenty of money "available" students have prioritized plush accommodations; beautiful student centers; offices of student this; campus that initiatives; deanlets of the other; and other non-academic beanies higher than might otherwise have been the case. Colleges have responded by providing those things up to the limit that the students can "afford".

      We're in a policy driven education bubble, and when it crashes its going to hurt a lot of us. I don't know if being at the bottom (i.e. cheapest institution) in a State Uni. system makes me more or less vulnerable than the rest of you.

      Anyway, your parenthetical remark is critical if you want to let everyone have a fair chance and still filter the intake to those who have either a reason to go or a reasonable chance of getting something out of it.

  4. Frankie for Empress!
    Bateman or anyone can certainly do or not do any job they see fit, but I admit I don't get the rationale behind quitting because the system is unjust. What job are you going to find where you're not exploiting someone, or providing a genuine good but providing it unequally? I had a friend who quit medicine because he couldn't stand having to turn people in need of care away, but teaching students who have crippling loans isn't quite the same as having to refuse to operate on someone's cancer.

  5. Yes, please to universal (single-payer/no middleperson) health care, respect communicated through appropriate training and decent wages through skilled labor (including the sort of organizational and caretaking labor that has traditionally been performed by women, and is way underpaid compared to the traditional "trades," though getting more women into those is an excellent idea as well), and yes, of course, smaller class sizes, more full-time faculty (tenure-track, please; full-time isn't a complete solution as long as TT/non-TT research/teaching class system persists), and a better, fairer, funding system. Personally, if I were trusted advisor to the empress, I'd recommend returning Pell Grants *and* state funding of public higher ed to 1980s levels (or better; why not better?), which would probably be enough to get rid of the need for most loans (especially if we did something about the minimum wage at the same time).

    Basically, I'm pretty sure that we could solve most of the serious problems with higher ed if both the majority of students and the majority of professors had more time to spend on the whole enterprise, with a minimum of money-worry distractions. Institute the same class-size reductions in K-12, return the control of those classrooms, and the curriculum taught therein, to the teachers, and drastically cut the amount of standardized testing, and in a few years many of the other problems would disappear (especially if there were, indeed, viable alternative paths for students with talents not best nurtured through college).

  6. By the way, there are a couple of other responses to Bateman's article (neither, I'd argue, better than Frankie's, just different; quit-lit pieces seem to have a certain rorschach quality) here and here (the second with bonus Jesse Stommel news).

    1. If I may be crude for a moment....

      from the 2nd link: Jesse Stommel calls this a “Tool Parade,”
      personally, Jesse Stommel IS a tool parade.

    2. Yes, I read that, too, and the juxtaposition of "Jesse Stommel" and "Tool Parade" sent my mind directly to the same conclusion.

      But I also found myself feeling a bit of charity towards him. He is described as a "future Virginian", with a link to a post that explains why he is about to be a former Wisconsonian. (Wisconsinian? Wisconsimian?) It seems that being an ardent Kool-Aid drinker is not enough to prevent one from being subject to the bullshit that we all encounter.

    3. The only trouble with a "tool parade" (in the original sense; we'll leave aside other possible meanings for the moment) is that there's some danger of the tail wagging the dog: making up pedagogical uses for a cool tool rather than looking for a tool that will solve a bonafide, probably pre-existing pedagogical problem. I think Jonathan Rees, who wrote the post to which I linked, understands that; I'm not quite so sure about Stommel (though I could be wrong; he's got some good ideas as well as some that strike me as, well, not-so-good. And then of course there's the high-white-horse problem, which may diminish a bit with age and experience; I'm not sure how young/old he actually is, but he sounds young in some ways -- and boy does saying that make me feel old, all the more so because he probably isn't all that young, except perhaps in comparison to me).

      Getting out of Wisconsin is a perfectly sane thing for any academic who can manage it to do (and I hope the miserians there are faring okay. Anybody heard from Burnt Chrome lately?).

      I'll be interested to see how he fares at Mary Washington. It's a place with some very real strengths, especially in teaching and technology, which makes it sound like a good fit. It's also a *very* teaching intensive place (a former female-only normal school turned coed state liberal arts college, which only recently became, at least in name, a university); last I talked to a friend who works there (which was admittedly a few years ago), the load was still 4/4, and faculty were expected to teach, and hold office hours, five days a week (an arrangement which makes the "oh; I'll live in D.C. or maybe Richmond or Charlottesville and commute" approach likely to appeal to many urbanophilic young faculty a real slog, especially given the realities of traffic in the region). It looks like Stommel's position will be partly administrative, so he probably won't be teaching the 4/4 and might need to be on campus every weekday anyway, but it will still be interesting to see how he fits in -- either very well or very badly, I suspect. It *is* possible to get tenure there mostly on the basis of teaching, but, conversely, an identity based on being "the one who cares about teaching" really won't fly, since everybody needs to embrace that sort of identity (admittedly to different degrees/in different ways) to succeed.

    4. His post on his new job says that he was born in '76 - to me this is probably old enough to understand hat blogs & tweets aren't part of the tenure "conversation".

      I also feel some charity for him - his spouse is now out of work - but I would have felt more if he hadn't consistently been so preachy.

      Wisconsimiam cracked me up. A good epithet for Scott Walker perhaps? Ae there red-handed howlers there?

    5. He's Walker, Wisconsimian Ranger.

      My neighbors to one side are pro-union, but Horowitz-believing, anti-tenure, supporters of Walker. If I were to launch something at their house, it would never hit it, because the logical inconsistencies and moving-goalpost arguments that emanate therefrom set up a kind of Schrodingerian wave function, the result of which is that the house can appear to be there yet not BE there, exactly.

    6. "...can appear to be there yet not BE there, exactly."

      Sounds like Walker's brain, or my leathery President's principles.

      Speaking of Walker, isn't "not looking shifty" on the presidential candidate curriculum?

  7. Oliver Lee reminds me of being told as a kid, "Eat that, since there are starving children in poor countries who'd be glad to have it!" If he doesn't like being an academic, fine, no one is stopping him from walking away. A line of adjuncts who'll be glad (at first, anyway) to have that tenure-track job will quickly form: very sadly, a LONG line.

    (In the case of my Aunt Edla's pot roast, I was never sure about this anyway. Those kids might eat it, but they'd be glad to have it only if they were hungry enough to chow down on a steel-belted radial.)

    I do agree that too many people go to college. Just today, a student asked me where in Israel Mecca was. How this came up at the end of an astronomy class I'm still not sure.

  8. I read that he did not pass his third year review: not enough publications.

    Sour grapes?

    1. Assuming this is the same guy, (LinkedIn profile) the last sentence is ironic:

      What I can promise all potential employers is explosive creativity unfettered by disciplinary strictures or self-imposed limitations. Hire me to write your campaign speech and I'll win you the presidency. Ask me to market your company and I'll make you a millionaire. The only thing I can't do is stop.

      Not enough time for publications, but plenty of selfies online?
      Stommelesian approach to tenure....