• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Collision Mix

A hyper-individualized vision of higher ed, and a vision based on the public good.


October 6, 2015

Collision mix!

In my radio days, a “collision mix” happened when two songs played back to back that had no business playing back to back. Sometimes the mismatch was lyrical, sometimes musical, but the effect was jarring. (My fave was segueing “Baroque and Blue” into the opening seconds of John Zorn’s “film noir” album. Good times, good times…) DJ’s took pride in collision mixes that shouldn’t have worked, but somehow did.

Monday featured a collision mix of two very different visions for the future of higher ed. I’ll flaunt some erstwhile DJ pride and suggest that even though the mix shouldn’t work, it sort of does.

The first, by Terrell Halaska, is an argument for an Uber for higher education. The idea is that some sort of aggregator app would allow students to build custom degree programs from among the thousands of institutions that offer online courses. The article has a few unintended howlers -- for instance, it suggests that getting a cab while in bed is somehow new, apparently unaware that people have been able to call cabs for decades now. But beyond that, it’s a fairly standard “disaggregation” argument of the sort that was popular around 2012.

It bears the flaws of its genre. It’s based on a profound ignorance of, or indifference to, the functions of institutions. It never mentions accreditation, for example, or the economic underpinnings of the provision of those various course providers. Paying a la carte for classes sounds fine, until you realize that most students need financial aid, and “consortium” arrangements for financial aid are hard enough between two colleges.  Good luck navigating one with, say, a half dozen. It completely ignores the reputational payoff of degrees, the reality of “residency” requirements, or the likely unwillingness of donors to help fund disembodied course providers. (Philanthropy is becoming a more-important source of funding in every sector.) It also elides entirely what we know about student behavior in navigating institutions.  

Uber works because it relies on temp labor, and you don’t need to assemble a string of Uber rides into a coherent journey. Education requires far more than that. This model might work tolerably well for corporate training, but as a replacement for college, it’s a bust.  

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece in Dissent, by contrast, understands not only the real need for improved educational access, but the economic, political, and behavioral underpinnings of that need.  She argues in favor of free community college -- which she extends to free HBCU’s as well -- rather than in favor of free disembodied courses. Economists teach us that institutions exist to reduce transaction costs. When institutions are scattered to the winds, and people have to assemble programs a la carte, they have to bear those transaction costs themselves. Those costs are proportionately -- and sometimes absolutely -- higher for people without significant capital, whether monetary or social. Strengthening institutions means sparing the weak those costs.

Cottom is honest enough to note that any proposal for free college is imperfect. Not everyone wants to go, some folks would have gone anyway, and higher ed has shown itself eerily good at producing and reproducing status hierarchies even while speaking the language of access. But she -- and I -- can accept those costs in the name of restoring recognition of higher education as a public good. The point is to get away from the hyper-individualized vision of an Uber for higher ed, and to move towards a vision of higher ed as part of the fabric of a society that is concerned for everyone. In that light, her distinction between “one hundred new Universities of Phoenix” and public institutions makes sense.  Institutions matter, and their missions matter. Public institutions are meant to protect the weak against the strong. That’s why movements of the weak have always -- always -- clamored for institutions for support. And that’s why the powerful favor “privatization.” In the absence of institutions, the strong prey upon the weak.  Institutions have their flaws, heaven knows, but without them, it’s a feeding frenzy.

The world Cottom envisions isn’t perfect, but it’s built on an ethical foundation. The world Halaka offers may have a whiz-bang appeal, but it’s essentially predatory. Reading the two next to each other makes the contrast plain. I’ll side with an ethical future, thanks.


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