Higher Education Policy

This came out of a discussion on plus about an article I shared, but Plus isn’t really a suitable venue for the long-form response. The basic premise of the article, like so many similar articles, is that we need to impose continuous evaluation, and tie incentives to the results. A great many well-qualified people (preferred example: Diane Ravitch) think that model is wrong, and has already done a great deal of damage, and I tend to agree with them. (also note, the choices of some points and examples here are oriented for people with known similar experiences). This is also the first time I have set up this whole argument at once, so I’m sure there are holes you could drive a truck through in at least some of my claims, but I’d like to try for discussion’s sake.

I tend to view the student loan problem as the leftovers of an underhanded way to use the greed-driven economic bubble to fund the kind of research that the very same greed made us socially unwilling to fund for the last 40 years. The problem is it didn’t clamp down when the host source of money dried up. Basically, that argument is that the huge number of useless college students funnels money into the university system, and they don’t take a lot of resources once there because the ones that don’t have it in them will drop out during the giant intro classes part of the curriculum.

Just to take care of it up front, one extremely wrong thing I often see proposed is to incentivize colleges to improve graduation rates, which is NOT an acceptable solution. Such a system would punish the people who genuinely just want to be in college, and dilute standards to increase graduation numbers, just like we are seeing in the primary/secondary education system (parallel argument)… which is itself a primary cause of dropouts. The amount of excess credit I hold is sort of ludicrous, and I have far less than some other people I know – I don’t view that as a bad thing, people with the will and means to get educated should be allowed to get educated. As an anecdotal related point, based on students I have had in classes I taught, the fresh out of high school this-is-what-I’m-supposed-to-do students run the whole quality gamut, but the ones who have spent some time in unskilled/skilled but not educated positions and personally decided they want to do college are uniformly good students.

I’d also like to stress, upfront, that I don’t believe higher education should be regarded as a chiefly vocational program. There is a great deal of social value in having the humanities be well developed, and people who can make that work for them have every right to do so. For most of the liberal arts, the argument is ancient ground truth, for the sciences most students put up with it until they bail out into industry, but we hear a lot of whining in engineering that we “aren’t preparing students for real world problems” — which is to say we aren’t teaching them the tools currently in vogue. Watching this in computing is especially pathetic, because the tools currently in vogue will be reviled by the time students graduate, so the only useful thing we can do is teach students how to think like an engineer, and various fundamental skills. If you want a vocational program, go to a trade school, and leave the programs intended for intellectual development alone. I’m on-board with the idea that we need better trade programs, but it isn’t the universities’ function.

My list of things that would contribute to fixing the situation, most of which can be worked on at the ~5-10 year timescale, and would also help with other serious problems.

  1. Clamp down on the issuance of new student loans when the economy can’t sustain them. Same problem as all the other continuous-expansion based investments that went south with the end of the last economic bubble. This is distasteful, but largely means controlling the student loan system to disincentiveize individuals taking on excessive amounts of student debt, and (probably more effectively) reduce the profit motive for the lending entities to overextend credit. The current bunch of bad loans are so far into “someone is going to get fucked” territory that there probably isn’t anything to be done retroactively – maybe selectively vanishing some of the existing debt is tenable as mitigation, but I don’t have the economics background to make that call.
  2. Encourage people to do other things unless and until they are prepared for college. This is a social problem, but this sort of thing shouldn’t actually be that hard to manipulate. I have a great deal of respect for the machinist/lineman/mechanic type skilled but not educated positions, and think that that we need to reinstall both a social regard for those careers, and ready ways to enter that kind of career out of high school (Fucking vocational programs, how do they work?). Unfortunately, it has been socially ingrained that a great many unqualified people need to go to college (Information economy! That’ll work forever!), and it’s going to take a lot of social/economic back and forth to get that back under control – expand vocational programs, validate skilled labor, allow for nontraditional students. Setting up socially and economically viable avenues for those who shouldn’t be college bound will also solve the preparedness problem, by allowing secondary schools to genuinely separate curriculum tracks, instead of intermingling and diluting for statistical reasons. I didn’t appreciate until much later just how much isolation from systematic educational failure the Gifted and Talented program I did in high school bought me, and the most straightforward way to fix that class of problems is to allow self-selection into suitable programs.
  3. Admit that we need some long-term research investment, so it doesn’t have to be done in underhanded ways. The old telcom monopoly was generally terrible, but we need Bell Labs type functionality, be it from a public or private entity. Some means for that are feeding the NSF/NIH/(D)ARPA entities, NASA/National Lab entities, and perhaps going back to pushing large companies to spend more on basic research projects, like we used to do with clauses in defense spending [I hear old engineering faculty refer to this often, but can’t find a citation]. I tend to prefer the public option, but there is room for argument there.
    I’m not entirely sure how this fits in, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that the shortsighted “Startup culture” is absolute fucking poison – we need well thought out long term investment in technological progress, not “18 months before we go bankrupt, we can do it right later.” I don’t know what we do about this problem, but I think it is intrinsically related.
  4. Fix the “It’s all about the school” mindset, which is a twofold problem. Universities (the legitimate ones, not Joebob’s for-profit diploma mill) are pretty much interchangeable for most undergraduate degrees, and the main factor in student success is if the student is prepared to put in the necessary effort. The former stupidity is encouraging people to go to overspend for the same education, the latter is making people forget that it isn’t the school’s job to drag students through, just to give them the opportunity to drag themselves through. I will admit that situations like Harvard’s CS50 class having roughly as much instructional resources as UK’s entire CS department makes a good counterexample for the first half of this argument, but the resource problem is self-perpetuating as soon as it becomes perceived.

There are a couple base assumptions here, which are hard to source:

  1. Technological progress is predicated on the quality and stability of research programs, not the quantity of scientists and engineers floating around in your society.
  2. Over the past 20-40 years, increase in admission >> increase in graduation (especially for declared major).
  3. Over the past 20-40 years, increase in admission > increase in population.

The first is an involved historical argument, the latter two are basically a matter of correctly filtering existing data… but I can’t find a quality breakouts, and don’t want to spend two days paying statistician to rigorously match the datasets – I’m pretty sure they hold from a lazy match. this dataset in particular and these souces would make good starting points… but a lot of it will actually be digging around the poorly organized datasets from census.gov.

Or, we could try the Scandanavian “you are entitled to a government supported education” system, but I don’t see that floating in the U.S.
*Edited shortly after posting to fix a broken link that ate the last few lines*

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