Comfort and Joy in the College World

Crabby wonders whether college will end with a bang or a whimper…

Two recent books lie at opposite ends of the spectrum regarding college attendance. One, Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be:An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, attempts to soothe the agitations of those who worry about getting their kids into college-prep kindergarten by reinforcing the idea that you can go to “lesser” colleges than Harvard and still end up successful. The other, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere by Kevin Carey, gleefully predicts the demise of the “hybrid university” as the Internet becomes the magical force educating all of us everywhere, for free, to do whatever we set out to do.

Both books are equally well-meaning and equally not-quite-there in their outlooks and assumptions, which rely on either comfortable observations or fantastic fanboy predictions about the betterness of everything on the Internet. Bruni, a columnist for the New York Times, tries to show his readers that it’s OK if their kids don’t go to an Ivy League college; they’ll be successful eventually. Carey, in contrast, gives a big middle finger to what he calls the “cathedrals of learning”

An actual cathedral

An actual cathedral

As he outlines the ways MOOCs and companies like edX are going to cause the whole edifice to come tumbling down, gargoyles and all. Conceivably, Carey’s solution is the real “antidote” that Bruni contemplates, but I don’t think that’s what he intended.

If you’ve been a college counselor or admission officer for more than ten minutes, you don’t have to read beyond the title to know where Bruni’s going. There’s frenzy, stress, mania, obsession, and all the rest of the buzzy headache-inducing terminology that surrounds getting into college for the privileged and aspirational few who set their sights on colleges that reject more than 90% of their applicants. Although the great majority of American colleges and universities accept over 50% of their applicants, most media focus on those that don’t, and that includes the New York Times, which knows its audience very well.

Bruni’s book is a collection of stories and examples that do little to provide an actual “antidote” to “the College Admission Mania.” He provides examples of people who went to non-top-tier schools like Arizona State or Duquesne (horrors!), and eventually made good (often by attending Harvard or Yale for graduate school). He writes about Condoleezza Rice, now teaching at Stanford. (“‘I think Stanford is unbelievable,’ she said, her voice brimming with an enthusiasm that seemed genuine.’) The kicker? She went to–gasp–the University of Denver!

There’s quite a lot of this tracing of career arcs in the book, from humble colleges to mighty universities or companies. And there are the requisite attacks on rankings and ratings of colleges that presumably drive families mad with desire. Some of the book reads like Loren Pope’s excellent Colleges That Change Lives (to which Bruni sometimes refers), focusing on offbeat schools that presumably can provide some kind of education: “Did you know that there’s a New York school with a dormitory of yurts? Yes, yurts, those cylindrical Mongolian tents. The school is St. Lawrence University.” Even more amazingly, “There’s a lake and a thick canopy of pine trees, but no wireless. No Chipotle.” [My emphasis.] And students actually go there! Imagine that, people! And they survive!

Luxury yurt

Luxury yurt.

Yurt.

Yurt.

Bruni’s idea of “Who You’ll Be” seems to be primarily about What you’ll be in the working world. He doesn’t address the wider areas that almost any decent college can introduce a student to: questioning the status quo, imagining alternative ways to live, strengthening ideas of justice, citizenship, and so on. He’s more interested in assuring readers that their offspring will still make good, even if they live, however temporarily, in an alternative-housing complex.

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Ultimately, though, how any of this provides an antidote to “the College Admission Mania” is beyond me. First of all, I don’t get the “the” before “college admission mania.” It’s as if Bruni thinks he’s isolated a virus (which explains the “antidote” metaphor–not original to him in any case). In fact, though, so many social, cultural, personal, class, racial, and economic factors surround college in the United States that simply asking a certain group of people to calm down and try so-called second-tier schools (maybe as a favor to the unwashed?) is no kind of cure for anything.

The panicked, aspirational, selfish, and well-heeled audience to which Bruni’s book is addressed has no need for and will most assuredly ignore any antidote because they don’t even believe they have a virus. They are infected, no doubt; the question is how to convince them of that in order to search for a real cure to the zombie-like scramble for brains at one-percent colleges.

What might really help would be greater emphasis on achieving social justice, educational opportunity for all, proper funding of public universities, enough financial aid to enable all students who desire it to attend college, proper education of all children from pre-school through 12th grade, and more attention to the causes of poverty and disadvantage that limit college success in the first place. Bruni, however, limits himself to encouraging everyone to think more deeply about the reasons for attending college, the various unexpected paths that can take people to good futures, and the ways people can think themselves out of their obsessions. It’s a good book, but I don’t think it’s enough to stem the tide.

Panic...

Kevin Carey’s antidote to “the college admission mania” is to gleefully predict the destruction of the university as we know it and replace it with what he calls “the University of Everywhere.” Through the glories and power of the Internet, “educational resources that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free. Anything that can be digitized–books, lecture videos, images, sounds, and increasingly powerful digital learning environments–will be available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.” Golly!

Why, he postulates, does education have to be confined to specific places that are expensive, cost-ineffective, and restricted to a tiny fraction of the people who might benefit from it? Point taken. Through MOOCs and the increasing participation of respected institutions like MIT, Stanford, and so on, courses can be developed and distributed all over the world for free and with as much effectiveness as if you were actually sitting in the room with your professor:

These students will be educated in digital learning environments of unprecedented sophistication. The University of Everywhere will solve the basic problem that has bedeviled universities since they were first invented over a millennium ago: how to provide a personalized, individual education to large numbers of people at a reasonable price. The intense tutorial education that has been historically been the province of kings and princes will be available to anyone in the world.

Carey’s enthusiasm for the University of Everywhere is actually rather exhilarating. He so clearly sees this as a way to genuinely democratize learning and disseminate knowledge throughout the world, or at least to wherever there is Internet access. It will eradicate space and time: anywhere can be a classroom, and the artificial, arbitrary divisions of college life into semesters and four years of life become subject to students’ own pace. It all makes sense at a certain level.

Universities, according to Carey, simply assert what needs to be learned for a degree, and over what time period. Until now, that’s seemed reasonable, but why should they still have a monopoly on that when the Internet can do it just as well? Why go for a piece of paper, a “degree,” that doesn’t really say anything about what you actually learned in those hallowed halls? If you can take courses online that are challenging enough (with the help of algorithms, artificial intelligence that adapts to your learning style and speed, and rigorous checks on what you actually learn), why not collect “badges” as you go along that will demonstrate your competence in a subject?

iuIn this online educational world, “open badges” enable students to study and get credit for specific subjects relevant to their interests and goals. They are meant to be more immediately meaningful that a diploma that simply signifies your attendance at a Hybrid University for four years. Carey documents badges produced not only by institutions like Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, UC Davis, and others, but also by the likes of Disney, NASA, Pixar, the Smithsonian, and even the Girl Scouts. Subjects include everything from “Fundamentals of Atomic Force Microscopy” to “Agricultural Pests of California.”

These courses will be built around something called “immersive digital learning environments…created by teams of people specializing in different aspects of the learning experience.” Open badges will

gather what people have learned, replacing traditional letter grades and diplomas. Much of that information will be extracted from regular academic work. Because so much of the learning process will be digitally recorded, and because the new learning environments will incorporate badges and credentials to improve student motivation and metacognition, courses will rely less on high-stakes standardized tests to assess what people know.

The more you work, the more your course knows about you, just the way Netflix and Amazon learn your preferences and make suggestions based on what you view and how you rate items.

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Because all of this education will be infinitely available to all and virtually if not actually free (I’m still not clear how Carey determines that, but he does), “Parents of young children should keep in mind that their pride and joy will be competing and collaborating with other students around the world.” As a result, “These parents should start rearranging their thinking about college right away. It will be very important for their children to be able to thrive in the new digital learning environments.” Basically, lazy American kids will actually have to get busy, because instead of competing against just a few thousand others to get into Halcyon U. and relaxing their way through a communications major, they’ll now have an entire world of other students breathing down their necks. Will that lead to a decrease of fraternity parties and sleeping through class? Carey thinks so.

Carey believes that the University of Everywhere will right many wrongs:

Hybrid universities have been ripping off parents and students for decades by short-changing undergraduate learning. Students are being left to the whims of professors who haven’t been trained to teach and aren’t accountable for helping students learn, Colleges are not challenging students to work hard and think critically and creatively. All available evidence suggests undergraduates simply aren’t learning very much, even as they are being charged ever larger amounts of money and becoming increasingly burdened with debt.

There is much of interest in Carey’s book. After reading his description of an MIT course he took through the online company edX, I checked it out and was intrigued by the opportunities for learning that were available. There’s no question that online courses can help people unable or unwilling to enroll in traditional colleges learn what they need to help them advance in their lives, and undoubtedly the system will continue to get better and better.

But beware of breathless utopian fantasies:

The new digital learning environments will be designed by education engineers collaborating across organizations and cultures…

There will be no more ‘gentlemen’s Cs,’ no grade inflation, no more slacking through late adolescence in a haze, confident that social connections and inertia will see you through. Standards of excellence will rise to the highest common denominator of the most talented and motivated students in the world…

Traditional college credentials, based on arbitrary amounts of time spent in obsolete institutions, will fade into memory…

People will control their personal educational identities instead of leaving that crucial information in the hands of organizations acting from selfish interests…

Enrollment in the University of Everywhere will be lifelong, a fundamental aspect of modern living.

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Personally, I don’t like the sound of those “educational engineers;” it has a 1984-sh quality of total control over my field of vision. (Or if you prefer, the Monty Pythonish quality of “I don’t like the sound of these here boncentration bamps!”) These predictions remind me of how television was first conceived as an invention that would be a marvel of education, connecting people to the world, informing them of important events, and teaching them things that mattered. It would raise our intellects while feeding our hunger for knowledge. And we know how well that’s turned out, never mind what the most popular searches on the Internet currently are.

Well, you can’t blame Carey for trying, and in many ways, The End of College is more an antidote for college admission mania than Where You Go…. It at least posits a specific, if grandiose, alternative to what we’re doing now, and challenges us to imagine another way to “do” college, while Bruni merely tries to comfort the comfortable. In my dystopian mind, though, I can already see wealthy parents fighting the University of Everywhere because it would ruin the exclusivity of an Ivy degree as “the idea of ‘admission’ to college [becomes] an anachronism,” but that’s a fight for another day.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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2 Responses to Comfort and Joy in the College World

  1. Pingback: Comfort and Joy in the College World | CollegeDirection's Blog

  2. Fred Summers says:

    This is a very interesting post. I still question online courses and their usefulness. I think that traditional colleges should leverage their in person experiences with less books and classrooms and more training and practical teaching. That way both would offer something different that would draw those that need it.

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