Intergenerational social mobility

A crucial part of social cohesion is the prospect of social mobility across generations. A social order in which individuals are stuck in their social position as a result of the lack of social assets of their parents is one which lacks legitimacy for an important part of its population. (Here are a few earlier posts on social mobility in the United States; link, link.) This observation raises several crucial questions. How do we measure social mobility? What obstacles stand in the way of social mobility for some segments of a given population? And what mechanisms exist to increase the pace of social mobility for a given society?

Raj Chetty and his colleagues have profoundly changed the terrain for social scientists interested in these questions through a striking new approach. Their work is presented on the Equality of Mobility website (link). The map above shows that there are very sizable regional differences in social mobility rates, from the deep south to the plains states and upper midwest.

Of particular interest is the light their research sheds on the role that post-secondary education plays in social mobility. A summary of their findings is presented in an NBER research paper, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility” (link). Here is a statement of their approach:

We take a step toward answering these questions by using administrative data covering all college students from 1999-2013 to construct publicly available mobility report cards – statistics on students’ earnings outcomes and their parents’ incomes – for each college in America.1 We use de-identified data from federal income tax returns and the Department of Education to obtain information on college attendance, students’ earnings in their early thirties, and their parents’ household incomes.2 In our baseline analysis, we focus on children born between 1980 and 1982 – the oldest children whom we can reliably link to parents – and assign children to colleges based on the college they attend most between the ages of 19 and 22. We then show that our results are robust to a range of alternative specifications, such as measuring children’s incomes at the household instead of individual level, using alternative definitions of college attendance, and adjusting for differences in local costs of living.

Their research involves linking federal tax returns for two generations of individuals in order to establish the relationship between the parents’ income group and the child’s income group after college. (The tax data are de-identified so that the privacy of the individuals is protected.) The Equality of Mobility website includes downloadable datasets for the report cards for several thousand post-secondary institutions.

A highlight of this analysis is the very substantial impact on social mobility created by regional public universities.

The colleges that have the highest bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rates – i.e., those that offer both high success rates and low-income access – are typically mid-tier public institutions. For instance, many campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY), certain California State colleges, and several campuses in the University of Texas system have mobility rates above 6%. Certain community colleges, such as Glendale Community College in Los Angeles, also have very high mobility rates; however, a number of other community colleges have very low mobility rates because they have low success rates. Elite private (Ivy-Plus) colleges have an average mobility rate of 2.2%, slightly above the national median: these colleges have the best outcomes but, as discussed above, also have very few students from low-income families. Flagship public institutions have fairly low mobility rates on average (1.7%), as many of them have relatively low rates of access. Mobility rates are not strongly correlated with differences in the distribution of college majors, endowments, instructional expenditures, or other institutional characteristics. This is because the characteristics that correlate positively with children’s earnings outcomes (e.g., selectivity or expenditures) correlate negatively with access, leading to little or no correlation with mobility rates. The lack of observable predictors of mobility rates underscores the value of directly examining students’ earnings outcomes by college as we do here, but leaves the question of understanding the production and selection technologies used by high-mobility-rate colleges open for future work. (3-4)

These are by and large the institutions that constitute the membership of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (link). AASCU institutions are distinguished by the commitment that they commonly share to enhancing access for under-serviced members of society, and to contributing to social mobility in the regions and states that they serve. These values are expressed in the American Democracy Project (link). The evidence of the Chetty project appears to validate the achievement of that mission.

There are additional questions that one would like to be able to answer using the kinds of data that Chetty and his colleagues have considered. Central among these have to do with other measures of social mobility. The definition of social mobility in use here is transition from the bottom quintile of income to the top quintile of income in one generation. But it would be illuminating to consider less dramatic social movement as well — for example, from the bottom quintile to the middle quintile.

This research underlines the critical importance of public higher education in the United States. We need to do a better job of supporting public universities so that the cost of higher education is not so heavily skewed towards tuition revenues. The benefits of public universities are certainly of value to the individual graduates and their families. But the increased social mobility enabled by many public universities also enhances democratic legitimacy at a time when many institutions are under attack.


There are a variety of ways of valorizing individuals and institutions in our society. We can value contribution and productivity; effectiveness; talent and merit; honesty and integrity; and “elite status”. Just watch the credits for Masterpiece Theater, including the promotions for a luxury cruise line and a luxury fashion house, and you will get a pretty good feel for the final category of value mentioned here, elite status. These promotions are clearly aimed at selling the product by selling the marks of elite standing with which they associate themselves. “If you too want to count yourselves among the elite, buy our clothes and travel on our cruise ships.”

Many individuals seem to be motivated by the desire to be perceived as being exceptional, high-status, and, well, elite. This has a connotation of wealth and power, but it also connotes other forms of access and privilege in society — able to gain the ear of elected officials, able to get a corner table at Elaine’s, able to gain membership in exclusive clubs and organizations. So what is “elite”?

To start, “elite” is a social characteristic of meaning attributed to individuals by other individuals. And pretty clearly, it is a socially engineered characteristic. It is the product of specific social actions and institutional arrangements. The fact of a group of families possessing concentrated wealth and power doesn’t automatically create an “elite” in society; rather, features of these individuals and families need to be marketed to the public in ways that lead others to recognize, admire, and respect them. Hierarchy needs to be cultivated.

But “elite” also applies to institutions and practices. Institutions can be perceived as being elite in and of themselves; and they can be perceived as the kinds of places where wannabes can gain the marks of the style and membership that will permit them too to be classified as “elite”. Private schools in New York and Philadelphia compete for both forms of elite status. The New York Yacht Club is elite; the Brooklyn Bowling League is non-elite. Princeton University is elite; LaGuardia Community College is non-elite. Medical school is elite; cosmetology school is non-elite. And, like the cruise line and the fashion house mentioned above, the elite status of the institutions is something that is deliberately cultivated and marketed. Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley are all very concerned about maintaining their elite status and reputation.

Status and privilege are social products; so it is an important task for sociology to decode their workings in contemporary society.

Pierre Bourdieu’s theorizing of various forms of social and cultural capital is directly relevant here. Bourdieu is particularly astute in tracing the markings and features of various kinds of privilege in French society, and the workings of the institutions that reproduce those features. Having elite status is a very tangible form of power and influence, independent from the personal qualities of talent, education, and experience that the individual may possess. Bourdieu traces how this mechanism works in France in The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. The markers of elite status — school, manners, dress, clubs, friendship circles — are forms of social capital that greatly contribute to the influence and power of the young people who are introduced into these practices. Here is a brief statement of Bourdieu’s approach:

One cannot get an accurate picture of the educational institution without completely transforming the image it manages to project of itself through the logic of its operation or, more precisely, through the symbolic violence it commits insofar as it is able to impose the misrecognition of its true logic upon all those who participate in it. Where we are used to seeing a rational educational enterprise, sanctioning the acquisition of multiple specialized competences through certificates of technical qualification, we must also read between the lines to see an authority of consecration that, through the reproduction of the technical competences required by the technical division of labor, plays an ever-increasing role in the reproduction of social competences, that is to say, legally recognized capacities for exercising power, which are absolutely essential if the social division of labor is to endure. (116)

Bourdieu uses the language of “consecration” — the quasi-religious anointment of young men and women into the ranks of the elite holders of power in twentieth-century France.

The processes of social separation that Bourdieu describes for France seem to have close counterparts in North America as well. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality and Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School offer sociological studies of how very different educational institutions work to create the distinction between elite and non-elite. Armstrong and Hamilton study a mid-rank Midwestern research university, and Khan studies the St. Paul’s School, an ultra-elite boarding school in New England. Armstrong and Hamilton’s central finding is that the institution they study embodies institutional arrangements and practices that “track” students into outcomes that are closely correlated with the socioeconomic status of their families. Students from affluent families have a high likelihood of attaining degrees and future opportunities that support their own affluent careers upon graduation, whereas students from mid- and low-socioeconomic status families are led into educational pathways that result in lower rates of completion, less marketable degrees, and less career success. Here is the diagram they provide describing the flow of their argument:

What they mean by “class projects” is a bundle of activities and educational goals that characterize different groups of students. They find three large class projects at work among the women students whom they study: reproduction via social closure; mobility; and reproduction via achievement (table I.1). And they find that the institutional arrangements of the university and the organizational imperatives that embody these arrangements work fairly well to convey different socioeconomic groups onto different outcomes. The pathways that correspond to these projects include the party pathway, the mobility pathway, and the professional pathway; and they find that the class resources and assumptions of the young women they study have a powerful impact on the choices they make across these various pathways.

Khan’s reading of St. Paul’s School emphasizes a different set of processes, at a more elevated level of the American upper crust. And he uncovers an important feature of the past fifty years: the elitist institutions have become simultaneously more diverse and more inegalitarian. It is what he calls a democratic conundrum:

All of this is to say that the ‘new’ inequality is the democratization of inequality. We might call it democratic inequality. The aristocratic marks of class, exclusion, and inheritance have been rejected; the democratic embrace of individuals having their own fair shake is nearly complete. (conclusion)

The fundamental impact of this institution, Khan believes, is to increase the concentration of wealth and power in America, even as a certain number of non-traditional candidates are incorporated.

And so my optimism is heavily tempered. If our economic trends continue, if the spoils produced by the many are increasingly claimed by the few, then the transformations among the elite may be durable. That is, we may have a diverse elite class. And this I imagine will no doubt be trotted out by the elite to suggest that ours is an open society where one can get a fair shake. But diversity does not mean mobility and it certainly does not mean equality. Ours is a more diverse elite within a more unequal world. The result of our democratic inequality is that the production of privilege will continue to reproduce inequality while implying that ours is a just world; the weapons of the weak are removed, and the blame for inequality is placed on the shoulders of those whom our democratic promise has failed. (Conclusion)

These are important features of the contemporary social world. But they raise an important parochial question as well: can public universities truly serve the democratizing role that is so deeply important in our highly unequal world today? Or is there a creeping elitism across many top public universities that undercuts the democratizing effects they ought to have for people on the bottom three or four quintiles of the population?

A more inclusive university

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive university is a difficult one. Inclusiveness is more than diversity. It is an institution and culture in which people from all social groups — race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity — are fully embraced and respected. It is an environment in which every individual is afforded the opportunity and space to do his or her best work, unimpeded by stereotype or discriminatory arrangements. But achieving this harmonious and democratic outcome is challenging, for a variety of reasons. Most important among these is the difficulty of overcoming limitations of perspective from the various groups, including especially the majority group. Practices that seem innocuous and neutral to majority group members are often experienced as demeaning and limiting by non-majority group members — what some students now refer to as “micro-aggressions”.

The inter-university consortium know as the Future of Minority Studies continues to do good work in attempting to make progress on improving the inclusiveness of universities, and the most recent contribution to its publication series is particularly salient. This is The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues in American Higher Education, a collection of essays by highly talented young faculty of color who write honestly about their experiences at a range of universities around the United States. Edited by Stephanie Fryberg and Ernesto Javier Martinez, the volume goes beyond the rhetoric of diversity that is present at most American universities to probe honestly the challenges that exist for faculty of color. The volume contains primary articles from talented younger scholars like Victoria Plaut, Denise Sekaquaptewa, and Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, as well as comments by more senior scholars such as Chandra Mohanty, Nancy Cantor, and Michael Hames-Garcia.

A central challenge for the goal of a truly inclusive and democratic university is the patterns of race and privilege that are built into our institutions through their history. Most universities in the United States are overwhelmingly “white” – their faculty and their cultures have been constructed through a history that made it difficult to impossible to genuinely incorporate racial diversity. And this appears to be more true the further one ascends into the ranks of the elite research universities. These observations are less true of several segments of American higher education: the historically black universities and colleges, the non-flagship public universities, and the community colleges in many parts of the country. But for the elite colleges and universities in the US, the demography, history, and culture all tip sharply towards what Phillip Goff calls “Whiteness” in his contribution to the volume. (One could say much the same about the gender composition and culture of many universities and departments.)

This fact presents a major challenge to people who want to see universities change fundamentally with regard to race and culture. We want the twenty-first century university to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. We want these “multi’s” because our country itself is multicultural, and because we have a national history that has not done a good job of creating an environment of equality and democracy across racial and cultural lines. And we want the universities to change, because they are key locations where the values and skills of our future leaders will be formed. So if universities do not succeed in transforming themselves around the realities of race and difference, we cannot expect the larger society to succeed in this difficult challenge either.

This means that university faculty and administrators need a much better understanding of the scope of the problem. Why is it that the current American university is often such a negative environment for many faculty of color – especially junior faculty? What concrete and practical steps can we take to get from where we are to where we want to be – from an environment defined by majority values, culture, and power, to one that is genuinely and democratically framed by the multi-cultural reality of our society? How can we make the transition that is required that will lead us to the university of the future, in which our department meetings, our tenure processes, and our university-wide intellectual communities are genuinely respectful of racial, ethnic, and gender differences?

The essays in this volume are a valuable contribution to making the university better. One thing that we have learned through a body of multicultural research over the past several decades, is how important it is to get past “perspective blindness.” When majority faculty members or administrators think about race in the university, they generally have only a very limited understanding of the concrete situations that faculty and students of color face. So the concrete specificity of the articles in this volume provides a valuable learning opportunity for the majority members of any university. There is valuable pedagogical work going on in many universities that is designed to make more apparent the hidden biases and practices that are still too common. For example, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has developed many tools for highlighting the situations of race and gender that can arise in the classroom that majority faculty members are simply unlikely to see without some help (link). This volume is enormously valuable in this respect as well. Reading the collection helps department chairs, deans, and presidents have a better idea, in concrete terms, of what it means to recognize that faculty of color face an environment that imposes greater burdens and greater stresses, and that these burdens and stresses make their research and teaching agendas all the more difficult to achieve. So the university needs to arrive at concrete strategies for counteracting these negative effects.

(FYI — some of this post is adapted from my own short contribution to the volume in my comments on Phillip Goff’s excellent piece.)

Change in higher education


There are a couple of former university presidents whose opinions seem particularly insightful on the subject of the strengths and weaknesses of universities today. One is Michael McPherson, formerly president of Macalester College and author (with Morton Schapiro) of The Student Aid Game. Another is Bill Bowen, formerly president of Princeton and author of Higher Education in the Digital Age. And a third is Derek Bok, twice president of Harvard and author of Higher Education in America. Each of these thinkers and leaders has given serious, reflective, empirical study to the complex of institutions that make up American higher education. And each has had the concrete and challenging experience of leading a college or university through important changes. Given that being able to maintain superlative university education for the broadest spectrum of our young people is critical for our economic and global future, it is worth thinking hard about their assessments. (Another voice I’ve admired on these topics for many years is that of Martha Nussbaum, whose Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities and Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education shed welcome light on the curricular side of the issue.)

Derek Bok’s Higher Education in America appeared a few months ago, and presents over 400 pages of description, analysis, and temperate criticism of American colleges and universities today. (It would have been useful if he had provided a short policy companion, pulling out central concerns and key recommendations for reform, keyed to the full text.) The book includes treatments of research universities, community colleges, public comprehensive universities, private liberal arts colleges, for-profit schools, and professional schools (medicine, law, business).

One point that Bok understands very well is that each college or university is an institution in the technical sense — a set of governance rules, power blocs, constituencies, leaders, and missions and goals. The overall effectiveness of the college or university is the net product of the workings of these various factors, and it is valuable to try to uncover some of their system properties. Do systems of published student evaluations of teaching push faculty towards grade inflation? Do formal rules of faculty governance obstruct needed processes of internal reform? Do presidents and senior administrative officers have built-in incentives to create administrative bloat and mission creep? Do faculty prefer lecturing because it is a time-saver?

Here I referred to “overall effectiveness” as if we knew what that was for a university. But because universities serve a plurality of goals, it is difficult to define “overall effectiveness”. Universities want to support strong and well funded research, provide effective undergraduate and graduate education, play a positive role in regional or national economic development, satisfy elected officials, and raise funds. Are there unavoidable tradeoffs among these goals? If so, how do we make good decisions about how to balance efforts across the various goals? Or is it better to compartmentalize goals by units of effort, asking a dean to optimize undergraduate education in her college and asking the vice president for research to optimize research activities? Or perhaps even worse — should we allow certain goals to coast on auto-pilot while actively striving across units to improve performance on another goal? (Some universities give the impression that they’ve made that choice when it comes to the goals of improving undergraduate education and furthering the research activities of the university.)

This is where the expertise and experience of people like Michael McPherson, Bill Bowen, and Derek Bok come into particular importance. They have been at the center of these kinds of institutional ensembles and have gained important practical insights into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leading a process of change in a university. And they each take the approach that this is a complex empirical process and must be studied using appropriate tools of empirical investigation.

One theme that I found particularly useful in Higher Education in Americais Bok’s treatment of undergraduate education and curriculum. Bok underlines the value of a broad university education at every level — for the individual, for the business who hires him or her, and for the society.

According to employment experts Anthony Carnevale and Donna Desrochers, companies find that graduates who have completed a broader, more traditional program tend to adapt more easily to changes in the nature and skill requirements of their jobs and to be more “trainable” for evolving occupational demands than those who have received a narrower vocational training. (169)

So the idea that an undergraduate education should have breadth across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities finds support in some of the empirical research that Bok cites. And Bok finds broad consensus among university faculties about the most general intellectual skills that need to be cultivated by a university education: critical thinking, capacity for self-directed learning, mastering knowledge in a discipline, and developing ability to write and communicate clearly (167). Along with these skills there is broad consensus as well about fostering tolerance, developing creative abilities, improving racial understanding, and developing moral character.

So how well does the typical university curriculum do in fostering these skills? Bok finds that there is empirical research on this topic, and it supports the conclusion that students typically make measurable progress with regard to core learning goals through their undergraduate years. Here is a summary table from Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research: 2 (Bok, 179).

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This table (measured in terms of standard deviations in achievement exam scores) indicates progress. But as Bok points out, it is reasonable to hope that we might do a lot better than this. Take critical thinking — the data indicate a half of a standard deviation improvement in this skill from freshman to senior. This means that the individual who scored at the 50th percentile as a freshman would score at the 67th percentile if he/she took the same test in the field of similar freshman students. (Other areas show more progress, it should be noted.) It is Bok’s view that this is a relatively modest improvement, and this seems right. (Of course it must be noted that these results are aggregated over many institutions, with students of varying levels of proficiency and ability at the freshman level. So it is possible that the same measurement performed at, say, Berkeley, would lead to stronger results and performed at XYZ university would lead to worse results.)

What this suggests is that university faculty and administrators — deans, provosts, directors — should be paying a lot of attention to the best available ways of measuring progress in key intellectual skills, and equally they should be paying attention to curricular and pedagogical innovations that can improve attainment. If lecturing about the fundamentals of organic chemistry can be shown to be less effective than small-group interactive discussion, reading, and experimenting, then surely faculty and administrators need to find ways of modifying the classroom experience so that the more effective approach is taken. Put it another way: the learning and teaching experience in a university is a complex amalgam of faculty, students, curriculum, prevailing pedagogical approaches, and assessment tools. We should be working intelligently to understand each component of this system with an eye to improving the overall results.

Here is an interesting example in physics teaching that Bok cites:

Two professors of physics, Ibrahim Halloun and David Hestenes, gave a striking illustration of the drawbacks of lecturing after they began to suspect that students in their introductory course did not really understand the basic principles of physics covered in class. Instead of putting their suspicions aside — as professors often do when temporarily assailed by dark thoughts about their teaching — they devised a test consisting of problems students could easily solve if they truly understood the basic concepts. They then gave the test to students prior to the first class. Since the course had not yet begun, the results were naturally abysmal. At the end of the course, however, when students should have mastered the basic concepts, the instructors gave the same test again. The results showed virtually no improvement. The students could recite the concepts, but they did not understand them well enough to apply them even to simple problems that differed from those taken up in class. (188)

Bok then describes the changes that these physics professors introduced into their teaching to improve their students’ basic understanding of the physical principles. One such change aligns with the idea of “engaged learners”: “Rather than lecture extensively, they should spend much of the time in class having students grapple with problems raised by their readings. In many subjects, students will gain more from such exercises if they work in groups where those having trouble grasping a concept or solving a problem can get help from fellow students” (189). This in turn dovetails with the idea that is emerging in the digital learning context of the “flipped” classroom: lectures and demonstrations are relegated to multimedia materials on the web that students are required to study, and the classroom is reserved for discussion, problem solving, and active engagement with the principles involved in the online materials.

There is a great deal more of interest in Higher Education in America — on medical education, on business curricula, on faculty governance, on presidential leadership, and on the challenges and necessity of change within universities in the current environment. The book is worth reading carefully by faculty leaders and university administrators as they make their best efforts to enhance the educational effectiveness of their programs.


Are there online solutions to rising college costs?

There are many, many voices offering observations and criticisms of universities in face of rising costs and tuitions. But none is more qualified than Bill Bowen to address these issues. He is the preeminent economist and analyst of the institutions of American universities, and he was a long-serving president of Princeton University. So it is a treat to read his recent set of Tanner lectures on this topic, Higher Education in the Digital Age. (The Kindle edition became available today; link.)

On the cost side, Bowen has a very clear and reasonable understanding of why university costs tend to rise more rapidly than inflation. Universities are very labor-intensive organizations, and the largest component of their workforce are highly skilled and nationally competitive faculty. But highly skilled professionals on university faculties are linked to employment markets outside of academia, and salaries in those external markets continue to rise healthily. To maintain excellence in research and teaching, universities need to increase compensation annually, and often at rates that are moderately higher than inflation. There are other cost drivers that Bowen doesn’t discussed — i.e. rising healthcare costs — but competition for the best faculty is key. (It is unfortunate that he uses the phrase “cost disease,” which implies that the rising cost structure in higher education is somehow a chronic failure within the sector, rather than an inherent feature of the nature of the work.)

Moreover, Bowen correctly notes that processes leading to productivity gain in other parts of the economy have not been possible in the teaching and research environment. Teaching undergraduates is a time-consuming activity for skilled professors, and reducing the time per student means lowering the quality of learning that occurs.

The basic idea is simple: in labor-intensive industries such as the performing arts and education, there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor. (3)

Bowen quotes Robert Frank who observed that “it still takes four musicians nine minutes to perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, just as it did in the nineteenth century” (4).

To be sure, universities need to continue to improve productivity in the routine business and management of the institution, and most universities have become very adept at this effort. But the compensation costs of maintaining a nationally competitive faculty generally outweigh these savings, so the cost of instruction per student continues to rise slightly ahead of inflation. (Bowen and others estimate this premium at about one percent; 4.)

Bowen also spends some effort on analyzing “productivity” in the context of universities. Some aspects of university outcomes are easily quantified — degrees awarded, time to degree, performance on standardized tests. But Bowen makes a key point when he observes that perhaps the most important outcome — educational quality — is not measurable; and yet leaders, faculty, and managers of universities must remain committed to maintaining and enhancing the quality of the education they provide. And quality has a cost. Bowen makes interesting use of a New England Journal of Medicine article on IT innovations and productivity; link.  Here is a relevant publication from the National Academy Press authored by Teresa Sullivan and others, Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education (link).

In order to fundamentally change the cost structure of a university education, it would be necessary to do one of two possible things: either significantly increase the number of students for whom a single faculty member is responsible (greatly increasing the student-faculty ratio), or increase the number of lower-paid instructors whose job responsibilities are more limited than the current system (full responsibility of all details of a single course, research activity, participation in departmental affairs, …). Both of these pathways seem like significant steps away from the learning intimacy that Bowen extolls in the experience of a residential college. “Flipping the classroom” and maintaining or increasing the amount of faculty contact with students sounds like a great learning solution — but it doesn’t reduce costs.

What is most interesting about the book is the second lecture, “Prospects for an Online Fix.” Since many breathless voices have started to argue that online education and MOOCs are a breakthrough technology for universities and colleges that will render the traditional classroom obsolete, Bowen’s take on this question is an important one. His overall assessment is a measured one. He thinks that there is some reason to expect that blended pedagogy and curriculum may in fact be possible in ways that enhance learning and reduce the cost curve. But he also points out that there are only a limited number of rigorous studies of learning outcomes for online and face-to-face instruction, and these studies do not support a clear advantage for either modality. Essentially the most common findings are that learning outcomes are roughly similar in online and face-to-face classes. More importantly, though, he finds that there is very little rigorous research available to evaluate the possibility of cost savings through online instruction. And without significant (and growing) cost savings, the technology shift does not affect the cost curve.

So where does Bowen’s current cautious optimism about online and blended instruction come from? Several things seem to have influenced him since his Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 2000, which was significantly more dubious about the prospects for cost-reducing, effective online university instruction. One is the cluster of innovations in software-based quizzing, coaching, and tutoring that have occurred in the past ten years. Another is the finding of some studies that faculty and online course designers are beginning to get the hang of how to use the online medium to greater pedagogical effect than simply placing a traditional course online with existing materials and techniques. And a third, on the learning-outcomes side, is the educational payoff that may result from “flipping the classroom” — relieving the faculty member from lectures and using face-to-face time for discussion, coaching, and probing of learning quality.

The kinds of courses that are most frequently studied in research about online education are generally on the technical side of the curriculum: statistics, accounting, and calculus have been studied for learning outcomes by both approaches. We might imagine that entry-level courses in the sciences, engineering, and business might fall in the same general scope. But what about courses in humanities, human resources, marketing, ethnography, history, or sociology? Are there online pedagogies that would offer an effective base for learning in these fields? How can we be assured that the abstract cognitive and analytical skills associated with art history, philosophy, or computer design are actually being developed in the students who take these kinds of courses online?

Here is the vision that Bowen ultimately offers of the “university in the digital world”:

Can we imagine a university in which —

  • Faculty collaborate more on teaching (with technology serving as the forcing function)?
  • Faculty devote more of their time to promoting “active learning” by their students and are freed from much of the tedium of grading and even giving essentially the same lecture countless times?
  • Students receive more, and more timely, individualized feedback on assignments?
  • Instruction is guided by evidence drawn from massive amounts of data on how students learn, what mistakes students commonly make, and how misunderstandings underlying those mistakes can be corrected (“adaptive learning”)?
  • Technology is used to bring the perspectives of a more diverse student body onto its campus through its capacity to engage students from around the world?
  • Technology extends the educational process throughout one’s life through the educational equivalent of booster shots? And ideally:
  • A university in which institutional costs and tuition charges rise at a slower rate? (44)
And Bowen now seems to think that this favorable outcome is possible, using new tools available to faculty and academic leaders:

I am today a convert. I have come to believe that now is the time. Far greater access to the Internet, improvements in Internet speed, reductions in storage costs, the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated mobile devices, and other advances have combined with changing mindsets to suggest that online learning, in many of its manifestations, can lead to at least comparable learning outcomes relative to face-to-face instruction at lower-cost. (45)

What is surprising to me about Bowen’s current optimism is that it seems premature, given Bowen’s own commitment to rigorous measures of quality and costs. As he points out repeatedly in the lecture, the high-quality studies of educational effectiveness are not yet available in sufficient volume to permit confident conclusions; and studies of the cost structure of online and blended instruction are even less detailed.

But more concerning is the issue of defining more adequately the kinds of intellectual and social maturation we most want to stimulate with an undergraduate education, and whether the pedagogies that emerge in online education are effective in creating those forms of development. It is one thing to help a student learn the central doctrines of Descartes, Hume, and Kant as a list of propositions; it is quite another to help him or her to think critically, creatively, empathetically, and innovatively about the philosophical developments and social context that stimulated these ideas about rationalism and empiricism.

A related concern is the problem of generating student engagement in learning. The best classes I have had in my career as a philosophy professor have been those in which students gained an excitement and engagement with the issues which led them to want to learn more about the subject. They wanted to discuss ideas in the class and outside the class; they were happy to be steered towards additional readings; they took on the subject matter as their own. How does this form of intellectual engagement emerge from an online class? How does the learning become personal? How does the student acquire a stake in the learning and an intellectual passion for taking it further? Bowen recognizes the importance of direct contact with professors in generating this kind of engagement (67-68); but he suggests, somehow, that this personal contact will be increasingly the province of the richer institutions. “The mix will vary by institutional type, and relatively wealthy liberal arts colleges and selective universities can be expected to offer more in-person teaching than can many less privileged institutions” (68). But what if the in-person contact is actually the secret sauce — the ingredient that makes the recipe work?

I still remember taking the GRE in philosophy as a senior philosophy student at the University of Illinois in 1971. It struck me as being no more than a scholastic joke, probing for the student’s knowledge about names and key doctrines in the history of philosophy without any real ability to assess philosophical cognitive skills. This standardized exam had nothing whatsoever to do with real philosophical thinking, or the skills of reasoning and questioning that begin to contribute to one’s being a capable philosopher. I fear that online education in philosophy and other areas of the humanities would be vulnerable to exactly this fatal weakness: emphasizing facts and formal structures of doctrines, but giving short shrift to development of the critical skills that are needed to make sense of the issues in the field. Could we imagine Wittgenstein without Frege and Russell?

(Here is an excellent survey of current research on online education by Bowen and Kelly Lack; link.)

Veblen on universities

In 1918 Thorstein Veblen wrote a surprising short book about the administration and governance of American universities, The Higher Learning In America.  What is most surprising about the book is its date of publication. The critique he offers might have seemed familiar in 1968, whereas it seems precocious in 1918.

A key element of Veblen’s diagnosis is his view that universities in the United States have been (in 1918!) overwhelmed by the values and accounting mentality of “business”. 

These others [other national university systems] have also not escaped the touch of the angel of decay, but the visible corruption of spiritual and intellectual values does not go the same length among them. Nor have these others suffered so heavy a toll on their prospective scholarly man power. (KL 1375)

Members of the governing boards are selected for their stature as successful businessmen; chief executives (presidents) are selected for their business-like qualities; and faculty are managed according to the principles of the consumer-driven market place. (He has a particularly low opinion of presidents of universities.) This is all catastrophic, according to Veblen, because business values and “accountability” are inimical to academic values.

As bearing on the case of the American universities, it should be called to mind that the businessmen of this country, as a class, are of a notably conservative habit of mind. In a degree scarcely equalled in any community that can lay claim to a modicum of intelligence and enterprise, the spirit of American business is a spirit of quietism, caution, compromise, collusion, and chicane. (KL 1831)

The idea of managing faculty effort and time in a bureaucratic way is particularly offensive and counterproductive to Veblen:

For this reason, and also because of the difficulty of controlling a large volume of perfunctory labour, such as is involved in undergraduate instruction, the instruction offered must be reduced to standard units of time, grade and volume. (KL 2738) 

The need of a well-devised bureaucratic system is greater the more centralized and coercive the control to which the academic work is to be subject; and the degree of control to be exercised will be greater the more urgent the felt need of a strict and large accountancy may be. (KL 2616)

Veblen has his own view of what the fundamental purpose of the university is: to provide a context for unconstrained and impractical pursuit of knowledge.  For both faculty and students alike, the university should be a place of untrammeled exploration, curiosity, creativity, and discovery. 

Typically, normally, in point of popular theory, the university is moved by no consideration other than “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” This is so because this profiles quest of knowledge has come to be the highest and ulterior aim of modern culture. (KL 1623)

And business values have no place in this system:

There is no similar bond of consanguinity between the business occupations and the scientific spirit; except so far as regards those clerical and subaltern employments that lie wholly within the mechanical routine of business traffic.  (KL 1989)

So the idea of “disciplining” the university by market principles — ensuring faculty productivity, competing for students, marketing one’s academic programs — is antithetical to the central values of the university.

Such a system of accountancy acts to break the continuity and consistency of the work of instruction and to divert the interest of the students from the work at hand to the making of a passable record in terms of the academic “miner’s inch.” Typically, this miner’s inch is measured in terms of standard text per time unit, and the immediate objective of teacher and student so becomes the compassing of a given volume of prescribed text, in print or lecture form, — leading up to the broad principle: “Nichts als was im Buche steht” [“nothing but what is in the book”].  Which puts a premium on mediocrity and perfunctory work, and brings academic life to revolve about the office of the Keeper of the Tape and Sealing Wax. (KL 2785)

And Veblen is highly indignant at the idea of “student life” — or the extra-curricular activities the university is obliged to provide for the entertainment of undergraduate students:

This contingent [of students], and the general body of students in so far as this contingent from the leisure class has leavened the lump, are not so seriously interested in their studies that they can in any degree be counted on to seek knowledge on their own initiative. At the same time they have other interests that must be taken care of by the school, on pain of losing their custom and their good will, to the detriment of the university’s standing in genteel circles and to the serious decline in enrollment which their withdrawal would occasion. Hence college sports come in for an ever increasing attention and taken an increasingly prominent and voluminous place in the university’s life; as do also other politely blameless ways and means of dissipation, such as fraternities, clubs, exhibitions, and the extensive range of extra-scholastic traffic known as “student activities”. (KL 2713)

So Veblen’s view is a sweeping one: the institutions of the American university have been corrupted by the values of the business community and the deference that the general public has to this elite group. And those values are antithetical and stifling to the true calling of the university’s intellectuals, its faculty and students.
Here is an interesting article by Thomas Sowell in 1969, “Veblen’s Higher Learning After Fifty Years” (link). Sowell closes with this interesting personal assessment of Veblen’s animus on this subject.

The Higher Learning in America takes on a special significance when viewed against the background of Veblen’s own checkered academic career, his own “domestic infelicities” which were so often “the subject of remark,” his early difficulties because he “did not sufficiently advertise the university,” his forced migrations from school to school, and his unpopular courses with low enrollments — from which came a remarkable number of well-known economists. Yet it would be too facile to view this work simply as an apology for his own lack of academic success. Even if such motivation could be established, it would be irrelevant to the larger question of the validity of his arguments. If anything, the fact that the academic system selected out Veblen as unfit to survive should raise further grave suspicions about that system.” (76)

One might say that Veblen offered cultural-institutional critique at its most incisive, and opened up lines of criticism of universities that have recurred ever since. What is most surprising is that these seams of failings in the university would have been visible to Veblen almost one hundred years ago.

Universities and the world

Many universities have significant international relationships with educational institutions in other countries. In some instances these are intended to support students who are interested in study abroad; in other instances they establish the foundation of faculty-to-faculty research collaboration; and in yet other cases they involve the coordination of specific academic programs for the benefit of students at both institutions.

Why do these relationships make sense from the point of view of the fundamental mission of an American university? How do international programs further the teaching and research goals of the domestic institution? What advantages do they create for students and faculty?

There are several factors that seem particularly convincing to me.

First, the exchange of students is undoubtedly of great value.  It is a commonplace that our students will face an increasingly global environment in their careers. Accountants will perhaps spend professional time in Malaysia or Mexico; engineers will work on projects in Nigeria or India; and when university students gain advanced degrees in law or medicine, they too are likely to find that they will need to be able to work productively in an international setting. So it is plainly a good thing for undergraduate students to gain familiarity with other cultures and confidence in their ability to navigate relationships outside the United States. Many of these advantages also accrue when foreign students come to study on the domestic campus.

Another important aspect of globalization is the fact that the extension of knowledge is occurring on every continent. Medical research, agricultural research, engineering research, and research in the social sciences and humanities are no longer wholly rooted in one’s own university or domestic consortium; instead, there are important developments taking place internationally which it is important for cutting-edge researchers in the United States to confront. So research collaborations are fruitful on both sides — both for the US-based academic researcher and the researcher in China, Brazil, or France. The transfer of knowledge and innovation is not one-directional; instead, scientific research in the United States can benefit from exposure to current research developments in universities throughout the world.

Another benefit of international collaborations among universities is more diffuse but not less important. This is the fact that country-to-country relations are likely to be improved when young leaders in those countries have had the opportunity to gain knowledge and affection for the traditions and strengths of the other country.  There are thousands of Saudi, Chinese, and African students currently studying in the United States, and it is undoubtable that they will take their positive experiences and their better understanding of the people of the United States home with them when they return.

The point is sometimes made that there are important forms of competition between countries which make the free exchange of advanced research findings problematic. This is plainly true in the area of military technology, and it is also true that it is difficult to draw the line between innovations that have military applications and those that don’t. But there is specific Federal legislation that prescribes limits on the export of specified technical knowledge.

Outside the military sphere critics of international collaboration sometimes make the point that scientific and technical expertise is a major factor in the economic competition that exists in the global marketplace. These critics make the argument that we give up our future economic edge by sharing scientific and technical research too fully. We don’t have to look only to the economic competition that exists between the US and China to make this case — there are many good examples of technologies that were developed in US universities but commercialized by European companies.

These concerns are not wildly wrong. But I continue to believe that the greatest benefits will flow from a relatively free system of international scientific and technical cooperation. The synergies resulting from cross-country collaboration around specific research projects in medicine, engineering, energy, and computer technology are likely to be large and a source of advantage for all nations.

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