Some thoughts on higher education

After healthcare, the biggest, growing expense that is dragging on every middle-class American’s well-being right now is probably the cost of higher education. Full tuition and expenses at top colleges in the U.S. is famously surpassing $60,000 a year. Newly-minted college graduates are taking five to six figures of debt into an economy with extremely high youth unemployment, in which a college degree is no longer a guarantee of a stable middle-class existence. New J.D.s are famously graduating from law school with six-figure debt loads and declining job prospects. American medicine is facing a shortage of general practitioners, at least partly because a lot of young M.D.s can’t bear the expense and work of medical school and internships if they’ll be condemned to a life making only (!) $300,000 a year, as non-specialists. These have a lot of serious, second-order, distributed costs that we don’t always think about: economically indebted young people are more risk-averse, less confident, more prone to depression and anxiety; the ever-growing costs of labor in services that employ credentialed professionals get passed on to all of us when we use their services; less savings ends up invested in other useful places in the economy; a kid whose parents grew up working class, but who are now middle-class and ineligible for financial aid, might choose to go to attend a state school instead of a prestigious Ivy League university, meaning that high college costs drag on social mobility even given generous financial-aid packages. But one cost that sticks out to me is that I think parents should be allowed to have a little fun and live large once their kids have graduated form high school. And many parents who fund their children’s educations are spending all of their savings — money which they could have put to a lot of other fun and worthy uses.

So it’s a big deal. What’s driving these rising costs? Economists who research this talk about a bunch of different things. First, since the 1970s, the “skills premium” in American wages has increased — that is, the differential between college-graduates’ and high-school graduates’ has grown. This, in turn, is explained by the fact that the U.S. has continued transitioning from a manufacturing-based economy to a services-based economy driven by information and knowledge. So as the financial returns to college education have increased, the purchase price that colleges can demand has naturally increased as well (particularly given that available spots at elite colleges have not kept pace with population growth). But colleges are non-profit — so where has all this extra money gone? One major rising cost is faculty salaries, and this has to do with a nifty economic concept called Baumol’s cost disease — since technology and globalization have increased the productivity of highly-educated professionals in other fields, such as law and finance, academe has had to raise its faculty salaries in order to compete with those industries for the highly educated, even though faculty productivity has not increased. Then, there are a lot of other assorted sources of growing costs: increases in administrative and non-faculty university staff (including yours truly!); all the indoor rock-climbing gyms and exorbitant athletic facilities and other frivolities designed to lure high-school seniors who do not know what money is.

These high costs and frivolities may be tolerable in a time of affluence. But since the recent recession, people have become increasingly upset. A spate of books have been written questioning whether college is still worth it. (For the record, in terms of financial returns, strictly, there’s no question that college is still ‘worth it’, in that the college wage-premium easily repays the cost of college, though there is a legitimate debate about the source of this advantage, i.e., whether it comes from real ‘value-add’ to graduates or mere signaling). In the startup community, it’s increasingly fashionable to advocate “hacking” your education, outside of prestigious brick-and-mortar universities.

Normatively, it’s very important to look for policies and innovations that can decrease the cost of providing higher education. Descriptively, colleges may face a much less compliant clientele unless they lower their prices (already, law-school applications have fallen of sharply). How could this happen? As in any other industry, decreases in costs will have to come from competition and technological advance. The major technological change that could impact higher education is the internet in general, especially Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), such as those being offered by edX and Coursera. The best argument for universities experimenting with employing MOOCs is that college costs are currently so unacceptably high that we should be open to almost any experiments to help control higher-education costs. But in the rest of this post, I want to consider MOOCs, and argue that they’re not just a valid experiment, but they’re likely to be a part of the right answer as well.


What is the value of higher education? It might be most helpful to partition higher education into two parts. Part 1 is higher education’s instrumental value — i.e., it’s practical, it’s skill-acquisition, it’s relevant to jobs, it’s giving people abilities that will match them up with what the market is demanding. Part 2 is about education’s intrinsic value — i.e., finding yourself, inhabiting unusual and novel perspectives on life, learning to better understand and empathize with others, asking question that are just worth asking for their own sake, etc.. We probably get more of Part 1 in STEM classes and lab work. We probably get more of Part 2 in English and philosophy classes and in the conversations we have with our fellow bright young collegians. Now, this taxonomy is imperfect. It’s likely that things like “communication skills” and “teamwork” and “leadership” — all skills that employers look for — are things that we develop in late-night conversations and philosophy papers and extracurriculars. It’s also the case that computer science, cognitive science, and physics all are intrinsically meaningful and beautiful as well, and can even expand our curiosity and empathy. But this imperfect schema might help our thinking a bit as we move forward.

In particular, I think there’s little controversy that MOOCs could be extremely useful in at least contributing to the provision of Part 1 of higher education. Indeed, MOOCs might be able to take over the majority of the work for many classes in this category. This past year, I took an introductory computer science course in my free time and never once attended the lecture in person. I sometimes watched a live feed of the lectures from my office — I usually watched them after the fact. But it wasn’t clear to me why the professor was still lecturing in person — few people attended class in person anyways, and  he’s been giving the same intro course for many years now. Tellingly, when a Monday class was cancelled due to the Boston marathon bombing, the professor simply had us watch his lecture from the previous year. In these courses, I also didn’t get much individual attention from my overworked, grad-student Teaching Assistants. I benefited more from online fora where I could exchange questions and tips with other students. And my problem sets probably could have been graded by a computer instead of these TAs — professors can easily write programs that, in a few seconds, throw thousands of different potential inputs into a program to make sure that the programs output the correct answer.

So I think it’s a no-brainer that universities should broadcast and offer credit for MOOC-based intro CS courses and other similar introductory STEM courses. For intro chem and bio classes, universities would likely employ mixed model, where students would watch lectures online, but attend lab in person. This would free professors up from intro teaching duties that they generally don’t enjoy. And by allowing students to choose from a variety of MOOC courses to use toward their college credit, students can be matched up with professors whose teaching styles fit them best, whatever university they’re situated at. This choice could also (once professors receive compensation for the MOOC use of their courses) bring competitive pressures to bear on professors’ teaching efforts.

For more advanced classes across the STEM category, I imagine mixed models would prevail. For a higher level course on, e.g., the theory of efficient algorithms, professors might want students to watch some lectures, write some programs, and master some content via MOOC-style recorded content, and automatically-graded problem sets, but the professor might want the students to then attend some seminar discussions on the much trickier theoretical stuff. Or a university might offer calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, real analysis, and mathematical logic, as MOOCs, while expecting math majors to attend seminars on the later, pure math theory courses in the curriculum, in person.

But the coolest thing about MOOCs is how they might provide more freedom and flexibility to people in seeking necessary job credentials. If you were, say, a successful engineer in Pakistan, but you moved your family to the U.S. (out of fear of religious persecution, or a desire to provide a brighter future for your grandkids), your lack of U.S.-based academic credentials might prevent you from landing a job in the U.S. that could fully employ your talents. Or if you’re a 25-year old mother stuck in a mid-level job, you might feel that your kids’ existence will preclude you from going back to school for a law degree or a CS masters degree. If these people could attend classes online at night, and get credit for their actual knowledge, however they attained it, and then get matched to jobs that are appropriate for their talent levels, that would our economy a lot more fair and efficient.


Can MOOCs also change the provision of Part 2 of higher education? I have a couple of thoughts about this. First,  “asking deep, meaningful, philosophical questions for their own sake” sounds really nice — and it’s something I sincerely believe in in the abstract — but it’s probably not of much interest to the vast majority of people and is probably, in fact, a luxury that disproportionately appeals to that class of people who write about ideas and run universities for a living. The idea that a good education should not concern itself with utility is a luxury of those who will never need to really worry about unemployment.

Second, it’s hard to say how MOOCs will contribute to Part 2 of higher education, because it’s really hard to define what exactly Part 2 is, and how we measure it in the first place. We say that the liberal arts should make us more empathetic people and open our minds. So what do we make of the value of the liberal arts education of a recent cultural studies BA who gives no money to charity, spends no time interacting with people who lack his cultural markers and affiliations, and is completely intellectually incurious about non-Marxist veins of economic thought and aggressive towards those who are? Did this person fail at his liberal-arts education in the same way that, say, a computer science major who couldn’t build an app did?

Third, every other Yale College graduate I talk to says the same thing, that the most meaningful aspect of their time at Yale was their constant conversations with each other — i.e., the philosophy and political theory that happened outside of the classroom. Right now, people tend to have these excellent transformative experiences at college. But in principle, it’s not clear why that has to be the case — and it’s also not clear how much of Yale’s $200,000 tuition expenses are necessary to facilitate those experiences.

So how will MOOCs transform Part 2 of education? The conventional wisdom is that they’ll only slightly change it, as part of a blended model — i.e., that  students may watch recorded lectures from great teachers, will still attending seminars in person and having their essays graded by people. But I think it would be interesting to see how far we could pushing using digital technologies for Part 2. Professor Gregory Nagy, a professor of Greek at Harvard, has made a compelling case that automated multiple-choice grading in Humanities courses can be useful, when well-designed:

A little later, Nagy read me some questions that the team had devised for CB22x’s first multiple-choice test: “ ‘What is the will of Zeus?’ It says, ‘a) To send the souls of heroes to Hades’ ”—Nagy rippled into laughter—“ ‘b) To cause the Iliad,’ and ‘c) To cause the Trojan War.’ I love this. The best answer is ‘b) To cause the Iliad’—Zeus’ will encompasses the whole of the poem through to its end, or telos.”

He went on, “And then—this is where people really read into the text!—‘Why will Achilles sit the war out in his shelter?’ Because ‘a) He has hurt feelings,’ ‘b) He is angry at Agamemnon,’ and ‘c) A goddess advised him to do so.’ No one will get this.”

The answer is c). In Nagy’s “brick-and-mortar” class, students write essays. But multiple-choice questions are almost as good as essays, Nagy said, because they spot-check participants’ deeper comprehension of the text. The online testing mechanism explains the right response when students miss an answer. And it lets them see the reasoning behind the correct choice when they’re right. “Even in a multiple-choice or a yes-and-no situation, you can actually induce learners to read out of the text, not into the text,” Nagy explained

But there’s another possibility. Everything I’ve discussed so far has centered on simply complementing or replacing some of the features of current universities, within the structure of universities as they exist today. But the most truly “disruptive” proposal for online education is currently coming from the Minerva Project. The Minerva Project intends to have a highly-selective admissions process (it aims to get ‘Ivy-League quality students’) and then house them at different dormitories, on a rotating basis, over the four years of their education. Meanwhile, they’ll watch recorded lectures from top scholars online (meaning–the top scholars only need to be involved in the production of course material once), while they’ll interact with, and be graded by, newly-minted PhDs who are currently out of jobs. Minerva claims that by cutting out the expenses of university infrastructure, athletic fields, etc., it will be able to charge half the tuition of most top-tier universities today. And by housing elite students together, they’ll maintain the benefits of late-night dorm-room conversations, etc.. By moving them around the world, from Paris to Sao Paulo, etc., every few months, they’ll make them more cosmopolitan citizens of the world.

Will it work? It’s not clear. But we need to try.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on higher education

  1. I can’t help but think that MOOC’s will turn education into a factory product … and haven’t we already tried the industrial model of education (cf: current standardized-testing debacle in K-12 realm).

    If “getting an education” means “you need to know this subset of knowledge,” then all of our improved information-transfer technology will make a huge difference. MOOCs and other online delivery systems can excel and bring this to the masses. Rock star lecturers can replace all the mediocre professors in classrooms across the world. I welcome that change.

    If “getting an education” means “learning particular, detailed skills,” then distance education is a bust. You learn skills best in mentoring or apprenticeship situations. I wish we had more of this in the American model. Even if people try to replace in-person teaching with videos etc, there’s a breakdown eventually. It’s so hard to set up the kind of real-world practice moments if you aren’t working with someone else who knows more than you do about the skill, and can offer on the spot correction.

    If “getting an education” means “learning to think and act in ways that humanize us,” as in the liberal arts education that’s been the backbone of the university experience since ancient times — as you mentioned in your Yale example (where the best conversations happened outside the classroom — then I think the best education will always be located in particular spaces. Perhaps those “spaces” can be online (Google hangouts, Skype sessions, phone calls, etc) but we humans seem to learn best in community, and community does seem richer when its allied to geographical closeness.

    I think innovation is necessary, and I want education to be available to many, not the few. But I’m afraid there will always be a qualitative gap between “education face to face” and what can be replicated in an online environment. If employers begin to honor that qualitative difference by punishing online degrees with lower salaries, this will get ugly.

  2. Pingback: Higher ed, availability, and purpose. | Just:Words

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