Expect No Help from the Ivory Tower

ivory_towerby James A. Bacon

In yesterday’s post, I expressed skepticism that Virginia’s system of education and job training (like that of the nation as a whole) is equipped to provide Virginia’s workforce with the skills required for employment today. Skills, I conjectured, are obsolescing faster than educators and job trainers can keep up. One reason for that, I suggested, is that funding streams are dominated either by fractured and overlapping government-funded job training programs, which by their nature are unresponsive to the marketplace, or by colleges and universities with their own institutional imperatives.

What did I mean by “institutional imperatives”? An article in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress yesterday sheds some light in a discussion of two of Virginia’s elite educational institutions, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary.

As described by reporter Derek Quizon, the great challenge of UVa and W&M is balancing increasing costs, decreased state funding and a push to retain top faculty. Those are essentially the same priorities, I might add, of every university, public or private, although less renowned institutions may lack the resources to recruit star faculty.

Judging from the reporting in Quizon’s article, cutting costs does not appear to be a major preoccupation of either UVa or W&M. The focus is how to increase tuition revenue while meeting the goal of making college affordable to everyone, including lower-income students. The solution: Jack up tuition, siphon a fraction of the revenue into student aid, and squeeze harder those students whose families can afford to pay.

In institutions whose bottom line is prestige, not profits, no one is talking about dialing back the recruitment of star faculty. No one is talking about rolling back administrative overhead. No one is talking about disrupting the educational marketplace through online learning. Strategic plans are forged in response to the demands of internal constituencies, not to the demands of the labor market.

What’s true of major universities is not necessarily true of all colleges within those universities — engineering and business schools, I suspect, stay in close touch with businesses that hire their grads — and probably not true at all of community colleges, which remain focused on equipping their students with specific skills needed in the workplace.

But for the most part colleges and universities seem to be floating in a bubble high above the grubby concerns of the business world that that pays the taxes and creates the wealth in our society. If we’re looking for structural change in how citizens acquire the skills that make them employable, don’t look for that change to be led by our elite educational institutions. The change we need will have to come from somewhere else.


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14 responses to “Expect No Help from the Ivory Tower”

  1. Challenges are coming. Moody’s and SP are poised to down grade more than 100 public institutions.
    In the past half decade full time faculty at institutions have stayed constant while the number of administrators has jumped 28%.
    And MOOCs are falling by the wayside.
    Hundreds of billions of dollars have been borrowed to build recreation facilitiies, hotels, etc., etc. and someone has to pay the piper.
    But I have a lot more confidence in UVa and Harvard than most other institutions. Just a thought or two.

  2. Ghost of Ted Dalton Avatar
    Ghost of Ted Dalton

    I agree that MOOCs are probably going to be forgotten in 10 years. I recently read a study about the Kahn series. When combined with actual classroom instruction, it is extremely effective. Whereas, as a standalone product, it is not nearly as effective. And Kahn is, by far, the best of the online tools. Bacon’s continued fetishization of online learning is amusing. U. of Phoenix is about to lose access to student loans from the feds. More and more employers are refusing to recognize Phoenix and Devry and the whole gaggle of scandalmongers masquerading as “online universities.” Can a MOOC be effective? Perhaps if it is supplemented by additional individual attention by a teacher/professor. But will they cut costs? No. Watching lectures online is not very effective as a pedagogical tool for any discipline.

    I think community colleges are probably the most effective means to get to what Bacon wants….serious collaboration with local private industry to develop relevant skill curriculums. Make community college a universal public good free-of-charge for all adults. Cut off state support to everyone but U.Va. (flagship), VT (research school), GMU (NoVa), William and Mary (Tidewater), and VCU (Richmond). Use those savings for the enhanced community college system. De-emphasize the bachelor’s degree. God knows, a good 2 year skills program at the enhanced community college would probably do better for 85% of the population than a bachelor’s in English from Longwood.

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      MOOCs are really good – and work well – for skills training for highly motivated adult students. You can pick up all sorts of valuable skills from them.

      Studies show, the people who get the most benefit from MOOCs are highly educated, highly motivated people, who are usually working in the field they’re taking the class in.

      Disadvantaged students and students from non-traditional backgrounds do the worst in MOOCs.

      They are not a good fit, at all, if you’re trying to use them as a substitute for underserved populations.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    “The solution: Jack up tuition, siphon a fraction of the revenue into student aid, and squeeze harder those students whose families can afford to pay.”

    Nothing better than watching socialism at work. Middle class families should be “taxed” by unelected managers of a university to provide a free education to a kid who will grow up to make a small fortune with his or her UVA or W&M degree.

    Typical extremism from the left – reverse Robin Hood.

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      UVA isn’t exactly left, and neither Jim’s nor your description accurately reflects what UVA is doing.

      The increases in tuition are to pay expenses, not for financial aid.

      UVA has a donor-funded program to fill the gap between what families can afford and what tuition costs. Essentially, people like John Griffin, who donated 4 million, are voluntarily helping pay the tuition gap. Which reminds me, I have not sent them my more modest check, and I should get that done.

      THAT’s what’s being referenced in the Daily Progress article, when they talk about helping students with the higher tuition.

      If you want to Google the program, it’s called AccessUVA. And if you want to donate, it’s a very good cause.

  4. virginiagal2 Avatar

    Are we talking about college education or work training? Those are not at all the same thing, and it doesn’t make sense to mix them.

    A good college education is helpful in getting a job and helpful throughout life, but it isn’t geared towards immediate rewards. For most people, workforce skills are typically picked up through task-specific training.

    Education doesn’t obsolete easily. Skills obsolete reasonably quickly, although nothing like as fast as people appear to want to claim. If you want to put effort in, they can be acquired reasonably quickly and inexpensively.

    The benefit of attending UVA is getting a UVA education. That isn’t cheap. It has huge value. I don’t want UVA scaling back on its star faculty. UVA has been pushing, hard, to get additional financial aid from donations, not from tuition. I know, I get the letters.

    UVA is currently actively participating in online learning, as a supplement to a college education. Online is not a substitute for a UVA education. That is not in response to the “demands of internal constituencies” – that is the reality of getting a good education. I got one – I don’t want it to be unavailable to those who follow me. Turning UVA into a place where you get a poor quality, but cheap, education would be a huge loss.

  5. wesghent Avatar

    Several points are well taken in these comments. I am almost 80 yrs old, comfortable but not wealthy in retirement, and thankful to UVA for the two degrees I earned there. I see Pres. Sullivan and her team working daily to expand financial aid and make a UVA education available to more people. They are succeeding, despite the Fifth Column like negativity of Dragas and Goodwin, inhouse BOV egotists. Those two have no idea what it means to sing, “we come from old Virginia, where it’s not just about the pay …,” it’s about a solid liberal arts education and a commitment to giving back to support the programs and people who come after us. It’s also a plus in Virginia to have worthy rivals, such as W&M and Va Tech, because one size doesn’t fit all. In sum, when you work hard in a place and you end up with a good education and a pretty happy life, it’s best to be thankful to those who helped you — such as parents, teachers, and educational institutions (of various kinds). I don’t see Virginia’s colleges as being ivory towers — I see them as being involved in the lives and fortunes of their graduates. Compared to our state legislature, our “educated citizenry” is the best hope we have. To paraphrase Emerson, “scholars are people thinking.” We need those thoughts and some action, too.

    1. I tend to agree that one should not mess with the basics of U. Va or most Virginia 4 year colleges. Having attended Virginia Tech, Harvard and Oxford once upon a time I tend to like the U. VA model which is why I was confused by the recent turmoil there.
      Technology is not going to replace the basic learning structure in our colleges and the MOOC has seemingly run out of gas. This idea of teachers being replaced with technology has been around for a long time. In the 1950s for example, a few universities were offering courses via television and some thought that television would soon replace the regular classroom etc. In fact, in 1956, I took Trigonometry via television from NY University. My high school, Fries HS, did not offer trigonometry and I wanted to be an engineer and needed Trig to get into most engineering schools. So I took the course via television at 6 am in my parent’s living room in the hills near Fries watching television. I passed with an A but no engineering school would take the TV course via NY University but my high school did.
      My point is that there was wide spread belief that in the 1950s TV could replace regular instruction but it did not and lots of other ideas relating to using technology to replace teaching have also failed. (In one model faculty would stop teaching and just manage the technology based instructional system while recreational facilities and lots more middle managers would be needed to facilitate the non-classroom learning.
      The one thing our top public universities need to work on is research. In terms of securing competitive research grants and contracts the Virginia system of universities are significantly behind NC, Tennessee, Georgia and Maryland among others. And research is going to continue to be a driving force in economic development in the future.
      U.Va. had one president, Frank Hereford a physics professor, who had several great ideas to help his university advance and be more competitive in securing research grants and contracts. However, state politics struck down Hereford’s bold efforts.
      Two things would greatly improve Virginia’s higher education system and help the state economically. First, we should make community colleges free (no tuition) and tighten admissions standards at four year institutions which are coming in many states. And, second, dramatically increase the research capability of our research universities. We need to be more competitive because the days of dramatic growth in federal spending are effectively over and the chickens are coming home to roost.
      But these are just my ideas…just one engineer talking.

      1. Wade, when you say MOOCs have run out of gas, what precisely do you mean?

        Have MOOCs run out of gas at Liberty University… or just the elite institutions?

        Have MOOCs evolved — to hybrid learning, perhaps? Has hybrid learning run out of gas?

        Or are people declaring all forms of online learning in its many permutations to be dead?

        1. James, my thinking is that on line courses will continue to grow and develop but those who think they will essentially replace higher education are “whistling Dixie.”
          For example doubts are rising all over the academy. This is something I recently read “San Jose State University, one of the early adopters, recently announced it is putting the brakes on its partnership with MOOC-provider Udacity. According to the university’s Provost Ellen Junn, the decision was made due to “disappointing student performance”.”
          Sure I learned some of the basics when I took an on line trig course from NYU in 1956 but when I took trig at VT in 1958 under a professor we called “Ma Pletta” there was a world of difference and there always will be.
          And historically this has been the case when new innovations are revealed. For example, back in 1885 there was this idea.
          “In 1885, the founder and future president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, suggested that innovations in transportation and postal delivery meant that “the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that in the classrooms of our academies and colleges.””
          Correspondence courses did grow dramatically over the decades but never replaced traditional universities.
          And back in the 1980s Virginia spent a lot of money setting up and managing a system of television courses so that classes taught at UVa and VT could be televised to Northern Virginia and students could earn a master’s degree in engineering. That would mean that there was no purpose in GMU offering engineering degrees. But after hundreds of thousands of tax dollars invested that flopped quickly and today GMU has a large first rate engineering school.
          So every time a new innovation shows up people want to use it in different ways. But while on-line courses like correspondence courses has a lot of potential it is not reasonable to suggest that universities like Harvard and Stanford will become MOOC universities.
          More people will have the opportunity to learn facts and details but that will not replace a good education….
          Again just a former systems engineer thinking out loud…..

        2. virginiagal2 Avatar

          Jim, online learning and MOOCs are not synonymous.

          Liberty University is primarily online, not MOOC, although I believe it’s experimenting with the latter.

          Regular online courses have about 30 students, working remote, with an assigned professor. Assignments are graded like regular classes, and they tend to interact with the professor frequently – sometimes more frequently than in person courses. Courses typically cost a little less than face to face courses. Content is typically the same. Exams may be proctored at a learning center. The university controls these courses. Think UMUC or Liberty’s online offerings. They are often taught by PhD adjuncts working in the field they’re teaching.

          MOOCs have tens of thousands of students. Their assignments are graded automatically or crowd-sourced and graded by your fellow students. Students have very little contact with the professor, if any. Your essay is read by a machine, not a person. Think Coursera, Udacity, EdX. Universities partner with these 3 large firms to offer massive open online courses through their portals. Most courses are free.

          MOOCs or any online source of lectures can work well for flipped classrooms – but you don’t necessarily need MOOCs for this, Khan Academy or YouTube often have quality offerings that can be used to supplement in person exercises and individual teaching.

          Because of the lack of interaction or individual attention, students most at risk tend to do the worst in MOOC-only courses. Because of high motivation and interest in the course material, people with degrees already working in the field tend to best.

          Flipped classrooms work very well, but you don’t have the cost savings MOOCs claim.

          These distinctions are important. It’s like the difference between AccessUVA actually being paid for by voluntary donations, versus your assumption that the funds were coming out of tuition – these are small but crucial distinctions to understanding what the issues are.

          1. Virginiagal, I know the difference between MOOCs and online learning, although I’ll admit I was imprecise in my use of language in my comment to Wade. The larger point I’m driving at is that most of the innovation in higher education pedagogy is in the realm of MOOCs/online/hybrid/computer-assisted learning. You’re going to have a hard time persuading me that this cluster of technologies won’t have a tremendous impact on higher ed, and that those institutions that figure out how to use the technologies won’t drive down costs, improve outcomes, or both, for at least some types of classes.

            As for Access UVa, perhaps I was imprecise again in my language, but money is fungible in the higher ed setting. Maybe Access Virginia funded by voluntary donation. To a large degree, those are voluntary donations that aren’t being used for some other purpose.

          2. virginiagal2 Avatar

            Jim, UVA has been using computers for learning for decades, in quite a few innovative ways. Check out the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, the distance learning programs for Engineering, use of simulation and virtual reality in engineering and the sciences and history. None of these are new. UVA uses technology all over campus. And has been, for an awful lot of years.

            They are also using MOOCs in good ways – for example, online Darden short courses aimed at entrepreneurs and executives.

            The reason I keep pointing this out is that the advantages and disadvantages of regular online classes versus MOOCs are pretty different.

            The problem with MOOCs is that it is a lower quality of instruction. You can still learn, but it doesn’t do as good a job. Why I keep pushing back is, we have truly outstanding universities that are using technology in good ways. I see no sense whatsoever in making them poorer quality universities to chase a trend. This is literally a technology in search of a lucrative application.

            Re your other point, actually, money is not terribly fungible in the higher ed setting. Most donations to universities are restricted in use. If you have ever talked to a university fundraiser at length (I have, close friend), donors are not simply interested in giving – they tend to strongly and enthusiastically financially support PARTICULAR THINGS and have no interest at all in supporting other things. So the person who gladly gives a building is not, at all, likely to simply give an equivalent amount if you don’t want or need a building.

            That, BTW, is IMHO why schools like UVA have a golf course and a yoga center and an arena, but not a fully funded financial aid endowment. I asked – the money can’t simply be moved around the way someone might want to use it. And rich people with an interest in the university are not content to simply be milked for funds – they want to support something they care about.

            Less rich people tend to feel the same way. So no, these are not simply donations that would have been given anyway for something else. I even feel that way – I will gladly give to financial aid, but I’m not all that interested in just randomly giving money.

  6. wesghent Avatar

    Getting a job is so important, but liberal arts and hard science institutions like UVA, Va Tech and W&M must never yield to what was called “careerism” back in the 1970s. Doing so reduces the output of broadly educated people in all the professions–from teaching to technology, from medicine to law, from banking to securities. It could be argued right now that the Virginia General Assembly has too few liberal arts graduates: they show limited awareness of the teachings of Plato and Voltaire, let alone Locke or Jefferson or Franklin or any other humanist who would put the betterment of one’s fellow man ahead of personal gain. I don’t believe a person could earn a BA degree at W&M or UVA (both of which I attended) and still tolerate the narrow and inconsequential sessions of the G.A. in Richmond much longer. A “little revolution” is called for; let’s hope that our best and brightest will lead the way. If they don’t, these eight or ten colleges and grad schools we’ve been supporting will implode, and we’ll have to say, “Good riddance!”

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