Despite the praise heaped on California Senate Bill 520 by Phil Hill and Dean Florez in a recent panegyric published in Inside Higher Ed, the bill was not the right answer for California’s higher education access woes, and it is a poor model for other states to emulate.
A bill that would open the door to for-profit companies -- including unaccredited “fly-by-night” ones -- to offer courses in the name of a state’s colleges and universities is fraught with danger. A bill that would require a state’s colleges and universities to outsource their core educational function is truly misguided, however well-intentioned the idea may have been.
That’s the real reason for the huge uproar and the rare universal opposition to California’s SB 520 from those close to higher education -- both faculty groups and the universities themselves.
Let’s be clear about one thing that’s not acknowledged in Hill and Florez’s piece: colleges and universities around the country already allow transfer credit from other universities as long as those courses meet the quality control standards of the home institution.
That tradition has been in place for a long time precisely to balance the needs of students who often take courses at more than one institution with the needs of the public to ensure quality control and the integrity of degrees from its taxpayer-funded institutions. The people of California (including employers) need to know that a degree from the University of California, the California State University, or a state community college is just that -- and not something offered by an unknown entity.
By mandating that state public colleges and universities begin a process of outsourcing its courses, SB 520 would have seriously weakened transparency and accountability in its institutions of higher learning. That’s one reason why the provosts of major universities in the Midwest have argued against similar schemes in their institutions. Alumni and trustees at Thunderbird Business School have also expressed serious concerns about how such a proposed relationship would threaten the reputation of that school and the value of its degrees for all students.
There is good reason for such concern, for cautionary tales about relying on for-profit companies to offer a college’s courses are unfolding right now around the country. In a December 2012 court settlement, for instance, the New York Institute of Technology was found legally and financially liable for actions of its for-profit partner. More recently, Tiffin University has seen its accreditation threatened because of over-reliance on unaccredited for-profit companies to offer its courses.
If SB 520 had passed, it would not have expanded meaningful access to quality higher education in the state. But it would have thrown open the door to massive profits for edu-businesses, who are accountable not to the people of California, but to investors and stockholders. No wonder so many CEOs were there to praise SB 520.
Florez and Hill labor mightily to make SB 520 sound bold and innovative, an effort to “wake up [California’s] higher education community,” they say. What everyone, including the state’s elected leaders, really need to wake up to are the fundamental facts about higher education funding in California.
According to a report published in February 2013 by Postsecondary Opportunity: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and titled “State Disinvestment in Higher Education FY1961 to FY2013,” California’s state fiscal support for higher education as a percentage of state personal income dropped by 58.2 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 1980 and 2013. The trajectory is clear: if the current long-term trend continues, California will reach zero in state funding for higher education in the year 2054.
Unfortunately, as Postsecondary Opportunity’s research demonstrates, many other states are also in a “Race to Zero.”
SB 520 was no “wake-up call” for anyone. It was, in fact, a dangerous diversion from the reality that there is simply no substitute for public investment in higher education, and there is no single cheaper teaching modality or low-cost “magic bullet” that will meet our need for qualified college graduates.
With all that is at stake for the futures of millions of students and for our country, we need to take a harder look at so-called “innovative” solutions that make the old promise of “something for nothing.”
The atmosphere at the university workshop on online learning was becoming a little edgy, with questions in the air like “What does flipping a classroom really mean?” And, more dauntingly, “Do MOOCs threaten our liberal arts model of education?” A high point occurred when one participant, addressing a panel of faculty and administrators, asked, “What is our solution to these changes?” with the not-so-gentle observation, “Because if we don’t have one, we are road kill.”
The response from the panel was slow in coming -- no big surprise. Fact is, there is no easy answer. That’s because the question of how not to become road kill presumes that we understand why we should not become road kill. It is only through a clear, here-and-now answer to the second question that we are likely to devise a credible response to the first.
So here is a here-and-now context for why. Truly harrowing challenges are upon us: climate change, with its companions, the sixth mass extinction, and ecological overreach, are all bearing down on us potential road-pizzas like a convoy of 18-wheelers.
By the time this year’s graduates are ready to send their children to college, the planet’s CO2 concentration will have reached 450 parts per million, summertime Arctic sea ice will be a thing of memory, and humanity will have committed a dozen future human generations to a minimum 2°C temperature rise. These are the terrifying facts of our current reality, and without proper leadership, our likely fate.
To meet these challenges, people -- our future leaders -- need the best possible technological expertise. More than that, they need to be able to think across multiple time horizons. If only liberal arts colleges provided that kind of relevance.
Well, maybe we do.
My daughter just got home from her first year at college — a liberal arts college. Had she experienced anything, I asked, that spoke to dangers that are so slow that they span generations, but are no less deadly for being slow? She looked at me as if to say, do you really know what you’re getting yourself into? Because that was the whole point of her paper about Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid.
This was her experience: She had cried when Aeneas killed Turnus. But more than that, she was outraged. For the sake of a moment of vengeful glory, Aeneas had lost his way from the past to the future.
And that related to my question … how?
Try a little empathy, she suggested.
I eventually got it. This, the early part of the 21st century, is our moment. Our willingness to make painful sacrifices for the latter part of the century depends on our ability to empathize with people we have never met — our future grandchildren. Experience in empathizing across a broad expanse of time is one kind of relevance liberal arts institutions have a lot of experience providing.
A second kind of relevance to those harrowing challenges is directly related to the Internet itself. Few would contest that the Internet is an indispensable asset in describing the complex environmental and societal processes that collectively make up what is referred to as climate change. Put another way, no college graduate today should be ignorant of the potential for Internet-based computational power and knowledge to model and predict future climate.
This potential is, of course, much more general. Broadly speaking, the Internet and liberal arts share something very important. They are both about the creation and use of knowledge through collaborative work. How were Unix, Git, and LaTex created? All were the result of a very liberal-artsy vision for online collaboration.
Can liberal arts colleges provide that kind of relevance, too?
As educators, preparing future leaders to exploit the resources of the internet will require that we move into that space ourselves. We have to learn to recognize the opportunities for new paradigms for learning that the internet has created. One major shift already under way is a reorientation toward student-centered classrooms.
Flipping a class -- so that online lectures are viewed at home and class time is spent in active discussion -- is an example. Flipping isn’t new, but digital technology makes flipping easy, and that is new. It works because it lets humans and computers each do what they do best.
Beyond that are new digital tools that we are just figuring out how to use. Examples are discipline-specific software products like Spartan. Spartan produces molecular electronic structures, in three dimensions, on the computer screen. It lets students see and manipulate these structures by solving the most basic equations known to science. Maybe I’m not making that sound as cool as it is, so let me try again. If you think chemistry is an impossibly difficult, jargon-ridden, mysterious science, you are right. Spartan changes that by making every sit-down experience with it a unique, original investigation into the nature of chemical behavior. This is digital-based pedagogy with methodological muscle, formerly a graduate school tool, now accessible to freshmen. You just have to find a way to make it happen in your classroom.
It is through the combination of these two kinds of relevance -- Aeneas and Unix -- that students at undergraduate institutions, our future leaders, get wired for sound, classical judgment informed by the tools of modern life. And if individual liberal arts colleges can deliver these skills better than most, leveraging the advantages of small classes and inspired mentoring, then we are an important part of the response to that convoy rumbling our way.
These kinds of tools are not online grading, and not MOOCs either. They represent a new kind of information literacy. True, we are not there yet; it will take effort, and a bit of daring, to figure out how to teach tools like these. But as we grow into them, we will discover previously unimagined new paradigms for learning.
Rather exciting, actually, considering the stakes. And not at all like road kill.
Steven Neshyba is a professor of chemistry at the University of Puget Sound.