Academia is being shaken to its foundations. There’s the funding crisis: College costs have outpaced inflation for a generation now, and the states and the feds are beginning to grumble. Right next door is the debt crisis: students are graduating (well, some of them are graduating) with mountains of debt and little hope of being able to pay that debt in the near term. There’s grade inflation and the fear that for all their education students aren’t learning much of anything.Two proposed solutions, some would call them “game changers,” are Rick Perry’s $10,000 degree and the rise of the MOOCs.
As one who is eternally curious, I love the mass of material freely available online. I drive an hour each way to work, so I have lots of listening and learning time. My Socratic impulse is to freely offer my knowledge even as I imbibe freely from others. The MOOCs combine the technology of this easy availability with improving technology for structuring, delivering and securing course offerings. For motivated, self-directed, hard-working students MOOCs are an awesome opportunity.
MOOCs can also contribute to Gov. Perry’s desire for schools to offer a bachelor’s degree for only $10,000. Students will load up on AP & Dual Credit while in high school, maybe take summer school and additional early courses at a local community college, then do much of the rest through MOOCs and online courses. There goes the need for expensive campuses with their physical plants and programs to maintain.
From what I see, a $10,000 degree will work great for some people – but those will be few. In my experience only a small segment of the current student population is driven and able enough to pull off the work required without the face to face contact and encouragement of meeting with live faculty.
Some have observed that MOOCs will work best with only a certain range of subjects. I imagine that is likely true, though that is not my concern here. What concerns me is that the MOOCs treat higher education as solely about inculcating information and skills. These are surely good things. Gaining knowledge and developing skills are key parts of education. But if we reduce education to these things, to the things MOOCs might be good at, large segments of the population will be pushed farther behind.
Beyond acquiring skills needed for acquiring and holding down a job, higher education serves other functions. Famously, the college years are a time for finding oneself. These years are for many young people the first time they are away from home. They begin to define themselves apart from the definitions imposed on them by their families and communities of origin. They find they can be whoever and whatever they want.
Remember the funding crisis? Governments that are currently funding higher education are more interested in providing education find it easy to reduce this aspect of education to the party life (which is only one of its expressions, and not the most important). As stewards of the public treasury, they reckon that students ought to be doing those kinds of things on their own dime. Government will pay for the acquisition of skills and knowledge, but students will have to find the fun and identity on their own.
I have sympathy with these cost-cutting attitudes, at least insofar as they have the party life as the target. Even with that over-simplification, however, there is another essential dimension of higher education in America that is missed by both of these categories. In addition to the learning and identity-forming components, higher education has also historically served to connect people to opportunities. Another way to put this, is that higher education builds social capital. For many, the learning, training, and identity formation that happens in college is far less important than the connections made with others.
One can get a great education – when “education” is taken to refer to the acquisition of knowledge and skills – almost anywhere. One can do so even as an autodidact. What the top schools in our country offer that is entirely irreplaceable, something they can never package in a MOOC, however awesome their elite faculty are, is connections with centers of power in government, the professions, and other institutions. Colleges have, especially in the past couple of generations, become a place where people can enter with very little social capital, and exit with a rich network of connections that will help students advance.
I know, we’re past all that. Relationships, we’re told, don’t matter any more in our meritocratic bureaucracy. We’re into the objective criteria conferred by credentials. If you have the right credentials, you’ll get ahead. Yeah right. Consider the diversity of law schools represented in our current Supreme Court. Five from Harvard, 3 from Yale, and one from Columbia. But they earned it!
If we make the shift to building education for the masses on the foundation of MOOCs, we will save piles of money, but the loss in potential social capital will be catastrophic, especially for those who lack the network of relationships offered by membership in already-connected families. It looks like a sure-fire recipe for the rich to get richer.
But maybe I’m just a worry-wart. Perhaps some other institution will arise that allows for wide production and distribution of social capital. Any ideas?