Ending College Supremacy

The divide between those with and without degrees hurts higher education and the country. Ryan Craig says colleges and universities must work to close that gap.

October 23, 2020
 
 

The first time I fell in love with a college was via a promotional video. Yale was one of a handful of U.S. schools to send an admissions representative to my Toronto high school. As I recall, she spoke for about a minute before plugging “A Time for Learning” into the VCR. First an introductory montage of the gothic parkland campus, then a student saying “no way you could be bored here,” then smash cut to a hundred different activities. This bored Canadian kid was hooked.

In retrospect, many scenes in the video were obviously staged. Like the female student hanging out with her friends who turns to the camera to address a major student complaint at the time: “Don’t believe the hype. Everybody complains about the food. But at the end of every semester, everyone is 10 lbs. heavier and heading for the gym. Doesn’t seem like the food was that bad after all, now does it?” Or a student voiceover addressing another objection: Yale’s location in a city with a reputation for a tad too much gun violence. “The best thing about New Haven is it really teaches you to have the qualities of citizenship, which I think are important. But you can't just sit in your room and expect it to all come to you.” Rewatching the video with roommates a few years later, the same thing crossed our minds: thank goodness it hadn’t come to us.

Perhaps the most puzzling segment was a male student in an ugly sweater sitting among friends, speaking to the camera in a confessional tone: “It's a myth that Midwesterners get worse treatment, 'cause I'm from Milwaukee, and I'm practically a celebrity here,” followed by five seconds of forced laughter.

Having never been to Connecticut, Milwaukee or the Midwest, I didn’t understand why he would say it, or why it was funny. But I think I understand it now. In Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, whenever it comes up that I’m from Canada, someone pipes up to the effect of “You’re so lucky. You have an insurance policy.” And while insurance isn't quite the same as celebrity, it's the kind of excitement that sets Canadian hearts racing.

How did we get to a place where, if one side wins the election, half the country wants to leave for Canada, and if the other side wins, the other half … Well, we’ll find out in 11 days, but my guess is the other half is more like 30 percent. And they really don’t have anywhere to go. So it’s more like hunkering down, with guns. Let’s call it gunkering down.

Whatever the outcome on Nov. 3, one thing is certain: 30 to 50 percent of the country will feel aggrieved, which will frustrate the major changes necessary to get us out of the mess we're in. Political polarization is beyond the pale (or pole). Much of this can be laid at the feet of demagogues on the right and their preferred popular media outlets, Fox News and talk radio. What enthralls their audience is resentment of elites and the associated aggressive impulse to fight back and “own the libs.” Rumors are circulating on social media that a secret network of elites plans to destroy ballots for President Trump, and that an elite cabal will block Trump voters from accessing polls. Thirty-nine percent of Fox News viewers say QAnon -- a conspiracy theory that liberal elites are kidnapping children and keeping them in hidden prisons in order to extract a life-extending substance from their blood -- is good for the country. It goes without saying that this audience is increasingly disregarding its economic interest in order to vote against perceived elitism and elites and the institutions they “control”: government, media and higher education.

America is divided by race, gender and geography. None of that is new. What’s new is division by education: a college divide. In the 2016 election, white voters without a college degree voted Republican by a margin of 66 percent to 29 percent -- a yawning 37 percent gap that opened after the Great Recession. In 2012, white men in Wisconsin without college degrees were just 5 percent more likely to be Republicans than Democrats. Today it's 23 percent. The college divide is so pronounced that failure to weight state polls by education is the reason pundits failed to predict Trump’s victory in 2016.

One element of the college divide is hostility to higher education itself; the percentage of self-identified Republicans who say higher education has a negative effect on the country went from 37 percent in 2015 to 59 percent in 2019. This has less to do with what’s happening on campus (or rather, what conservative media outlets enjoy reporting on, i.e., affirmative action, free speech, trigger warnings) than the nature of college today.

College graduates are being painted as elites principally because the vast majority of students who successfully complete four-plus years of college at the vast majority of institutions have the financial resources, family stability and support that are characteristic of top quartile (if not top decile) households. Make no mistake: every college and university in the country aims to serve students from lower quartiles and no institution intentionally promotes elitism. But only a precious few do a good job at graduating needy students into good jobs without debilitating student loan debt.

Sadly, some of the hostility is deserved. In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel (unfortunately for his argument, a professor at Harvard) points out that “those who landed on top came to believe that their success was their own doing, the measure of their merit -- and by implication that those left behind had no one to blame but themselves.” And the foundation of “meritocratic hubris” is degrees earned at colleges and universities and the “honor, recognition, and prestige” they signify. The result is college supremacy: “the last acceptable prejudice.”

Just as white-collar workers look down their noses at talk radio, college supremacists do the same to Americans without the right credential. Prejudice against non-college grads is omnipresent in our work lives, hiring patterns, promotion decisions and social interactions. Non-college grads experience this prejudice, and their legitimate grievances are amplified by conservative media.

Moving America forward after four years of conservative media’s monstrous creation will require a marked decline in polarization, which now means closing the education divide. With nearly 60 percent of conservatives holding the institution of college (in its current form) in low esteem -- and with free college proposals doing nothing to provide funds for living expenses, or to strengthen the family stability and support required to complete a challenging four-plus-year journey -- free college is as likely to increase polarization (another expensive liberal program) as mitigate it. So strange as it sounds, America’s colleges and universities must join the fight against college supremacy.

***

There’s no single path to ending college supremacy. But as higher education leaders and trustees survey the Divided States of America on Nov. 4, here’s a checklist of actions to combat elitism and political polarization and ensure their institutions are part of a solution, not part of the problem.

Admissions

Affordability

Programs

Employability

Institution

  • Unbundle your own programs into component parts before you’re unbundled by a competitor.
  • Selective institutions increase enrollment not by a few hundred, but by a factor of four.
  • Refuse to participate in rankings that reward selectivity and exclusivity.

Each and every one of the above nudges a binary model -- college degree versus no degree -- toward a spectrum. Students may or may not earn a degree, but they’ll complete their initial postsecondary education or training pathway with some credential of value, less debt and a higher probability of a positive employment outcome. It’s imperative that we establish a continuum of credentials not only so students in greatest need of the leg up promised by postsecondary education can move farther and faster, but also so Americans are no longer on one side of an education (and economic and political) divide or the other.

Faster and cheaper pathways to good first jobs are coming regardless, but colleges should help rather than stand athwart history yelling "stop." Higher education institutions that implement many of these changes may find top students opting for nondegree pathways due to superior value propositions and the prospect of a higher return on investment. Then we’ll have thousands of pathways to success, not just the one that has led to binary economic outcomes and political polarization.

In a time of plague, and with pending budget cuts, it’s fair to ask whether it’s a good time to make fundamental changes. But with so many norms already broken this year, it’s no longer business as usual; higher education is more primed for change than ever. In addition, scales have fallen from the eyes of current and prospective students as colleges and universities continue to charge full tuition and fees for a degree bundle that’s not a bundle at all, but rather a set of online courses.

The resulting chasm between price and value has already created an enrollment gap, with enrollment of first-time students down 16.1 percent this fall. With inequality at an all-time high, any number of these nudges could signal a commitment to socioeconomic mobility and equality to prospective students increasingly attuned to social justice, and help close the enrollment gap.

Colleges and universities have their work cut out in order to shift from macrocredentials (i.e., degrees) with high social signal strength and low skill signal strength to microcredentials (i.e., pathways) with low social signal strength and high skill signal strength. But if they do their part, educated will no longer signify elite. It will mean skilled, and everyone has skills.

By ending college supremacy and education prejudice, we can replace our current binary system of postsecondary education -- college/no-college, elite/nonelite -- with a spectrum or rainbow that is a much better reflection of our country’s diversity as we enter the Biden era.

Bio

Ryan Craig is author of College Disrupted (2015) and A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (2018) and managing director at University Ventures.

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