Mass vs. Elite, Encore

International educators at a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development put a new twist on an old debate, prodded by New York University's provocative president.

September 18, 2012

PARIS -- Massification. It's a not-so-pleasant word, with seemingly embedded implications of a lowering of standards, especially when contrasted, as it sometimes is, with the sort of "elite" and "world-class" higher education that countries or states or other entities are often portrayed as having to choose between.

Much of the first day of the biennial higher education conference of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development here explored the tension unfolding in many nations and regions over their relative emphasis on providing high-quality research and training aimed at their would-be future leaders and idea creators vs. continuing to expand a meaningful post-high school education to the much larger numbers of citizens who may populate the work force, fill the voting booths, and parent the children.

This is anything but a new issue (it emerges virtually any time that university officials, policy makers and others gather in global settings), but like so many questions, this one has taken on larger significance and renewed intensity at a time of economic distress. That's because, as noted by José Mariano Gago, a professor and former minister of science and technology, information society and higher education in Portugal, it is possible for institutions and countries to find a balance between access and equity and elite-level excellence -- "if resources are available," which he didn't need to tell the audience is not the case in many places right now.

If anyone doubts whether higher education must expand its reach to accommodate the throngs who increasingly yearn for it -- who quite rationally "aspire to upward social mobility," Gago said -- he cited OECD data showing a 77 percent increase over a decade ago in the number of people worldwide in tertiary education.

The answer, he and others noted, is "institutional segmentation," in which colleges and universities within a country or state (ideally decided by campus leaders themselves, though in many cases they need a push from governments or other funders) choose to focus in certain areas, so that the collection of institutions together offer elite education and research for those who qualify, vocationally oriented training for those who need it, and broad-access education for the rest. That's diversification, or differentiation. (He and others cited the reality, though, that rankings and other institutional incentives draw many colleges and universities to aim for more exclusivity than they might otherwise.)

And yet. As inevitable as the calls for expanding access to higher education in these gatherings is the warning -- this time from John Sexton, president of New York University (not just in New York, these days, but also in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai), who quite openly took for himself "the role of Cassandra" in Monday's discussion.

Sexton's worry, which given the frequency with which college leaders express the sentiment was perhaps most noteworthy for its delivery at OECD (more on that later), is that while it is possible to respond to the pressure for broad-access offerings with diversification, as Gago suggested, the other option that tends to be proffered is standardization -- and there are "strong pressures and strong interests, some of them highly monied, that are pushing us in the direction of standardization."

Usually when people mention such interests, they refer to the testing companies and leading foundations who advocate for standardized assessment of student learning outcomes (which Sexton said was appropriate as "one element of evidence-based assessment"). Monday Sexton had in mind as well his host, as the OECD itself is promoting a test aimed at measuring (and ultimately comparing, as OECD is wont to do) student learning worldwide. The idea has received an ambivalent reception from the U.S. and some other countries, and Sexton noted Monday that academics from several countries had strongly criticized OECD's approach at a meeting of college presidents in Salzburg, Germany, this summer.

The danger of standardization, Sexton argued, is that it leads to the other "ion" -- stratification, as institutions that do well on the simplistic measures that any standardized (and, Sexton suggested, presumably job-related) approach is likely to capture "will receive praise," and the students who flock to those institutions will "miss the ineffable heart and soul of the magic of what goes on in a classroom," he said.

"We will use the great tool of upward mobility, higher education, to create a caste system that is stronger than any caste system that has ever been created in the world," Sexton warned, in full Cassandra mode.

Sexton was presumably invited to talk to this gathering of leaders from dozens of countries because of NYU's grand ambitions outside the United States, and he acknowledged that what the university was doing with its campuses around the world -- essentially developing a metaphor for the experience, he said, that Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance figures had moving among the great cities of Italy -- could not and should not be the right sort of higher education for everyone.

But that does not mean, he said, that other, more accessible forms of higher education should necessarily be thrust on everyone, and here he did name names, or at least came close. He made it clear that his elation in 2009 when President Obama called for increasing the higher education attainment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds quickly turned to something less, when he realized that "the way that would be accomplished would be to hollow out the meaning of a college education."

His suspicions gained credence, Sexton seemed to suggest, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan (whom he identified only by title) told an interviewer last fall that he believed online providers like Western Governors University are the exception today but "should be the norm." 

That "much-touted online university, where a student can get a degree without ever encountering another student except online, is fine within the portfolio of higher education," Sexton said. But for it to be "the norm," he said, would be "disgraceful."

Sexton said he recognized that the "diversification" model he favors (in which students and families of all backgrounds would be free to choose among different types of institutions, as opposed to pushed to more vocationally oriented institutions that would be favored in the assessment-dominated world he fears) "puts a lot of faith in the ability of students and families to find a fit with the right educational context for that individual."

Such a system is only workable with some "prerequisites" -- "transparent information about institutions," which some critics would argue does not always exist with regard to such matters as average student debt and job outcomes, as well as the student learning measures that Sexton disdains, and good advice for students from their counselors and other advisers, which he conceded too few students have. "In the United States we have Teach for America," he said. "I have advocated for Guidance Counselors for America."

The other necessary (and increasingly missing) element, he acknowledged, is money, with too many governments  walking away from their support for students; he praised officials from some of the countries in attendance here, such as Australia and New Zealand, for their strong income-contingent repayment plans for student loans, in which the United States has just begun dabbling.

"If you can arm students with good information, good guidance, and financing," Sexton said, a diverse higher education system filled with choices works. "If you don't do that, you will end up with the elites, oligarchs and plutocrats going to the institutions that they know and we know will provide the best education," and everyone else going to lesser institutions. And that will result, he said, in a "huge loss of talent" that countries need.



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