I had begun to read Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U for another project when I started to notice #DiYUread tags in my Twitter stream. It turns out that a spontaneous “book club like”  reading was happening online.  I have finally gotten going, spurred on by the need to to fall too far behind D’Arcy Norman. (and no, I haven’t read the post I just linked to yet. I’ll wait until I get my own reflections into the ether) I had originally thought to do a quick once through and then close read chapter by chapter, and I may still, but if I take that approach now, the whole collective project may be done by the time I finish the book.

I think the most important thing I noticed ,and I’m sure this will come back later, is Kamenetz’s willingness to measure the value of education in dollars.  You get something like College value= (difference in lifetime earnings degreed v. non degreed) – (cost of college) .  Almost none of the educators I know are educators because they want to increase student’s lifetime earnings.  If that’s really how you are going to measure the value of education, the current way of doing higher ed is inevitably going to be found wanting.

Yesterday George Siemens said something to the effect that the role of the university had changed from producing educated citizens to producing economic value (Sorry for the lack of an exact quote, George).  The more cynical might modify that statement to “…changed from producing educated citizens to producing skilled workers.” Dismantling the present system is likely if you measure against a standard (teaching employable skills at the lowest cost) that it wasn’t designed to meet.

I hadn’t really thought about the correlation between age and prestige.  When you mentally stack institutions into tiers, almost inevitably the oldest institutions (Ivys) are at the top and the newest (community colleges) are at the bottom.  Kamenetz reminds us that an Ivy League education has not always met modern standards of excellence, so one can’t say that the reputation of the Ivys is deserved because they have always been excellent.

Now for an important disclaimer.  Although I did not attend one, I have spend almost all my working career in community colleges.  Kamentz writes, “The biggest knock on community colleges has historically been that they offer low quality, low standards, education” (14) but a page later, she says “The best proxies for prestige are spending per student and selectivity,…” (15).  Community colleges are , by design, non selective and inexpensive.  When college ranking entities like U. S. News  employ a formula that applies 45% of an institution’s score to selectivity and resources (plus another 25% for reputation) , it creates a powerful incentive to evaluate all institutions based on these criteria, even though US News doesn’t rank two year colleges.

Kamenetz mentions the GI Bill as a sea change in higher education history in the US.  It strikes me how much, despite all the good things that came of it, the GI Bill perhaps wasn’t about education.  After all, the US economy didn’t change overnight.  The skills that would have made WWII veterans employable in 1940 were enough to make them employable (in the sense of having appropriate workplace skills) in 1946.  I wonder to what extent the entire enterprise was an effort to keep returning veterans out of the workforce until the economy had reconverted sufficiently to absorb them and thus prevent an unemployment bubble. Roosevelt’s 1939 statement “Just because a boy wants to go to college is no reason we should finance it” (13) lends some credence in my mind to this view. Sending all those veterans to college meant you would need more educators, but the lecture model is very scalable. You can assign one instructor to a class of 200 as easily as you can to a class of 20.

Now I’ll go read D’Arcy and realize the shallowness of my thoughts 🙂

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