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Stop Blaming Colleges for Society's Problems

The value of an elite education remains unparalleled

Darren McCollester/Hulton Archive

As the storm around William Deresiewicz’s recent New Republic cover story illustrates, American higher education is currently coming in for more fierce discussion and criticism than at any time since the 1960’s. Is it a breeding ground for “excellent sheep,” as Deresiewicz would have it? A set of rigid and antiquated structures unsuited for the digital age, as Mark Taylor has argued? An ivy-covered embodiment of growing economic inequality, as Andrew Rossi’s much-praised film “Ivory Tower” charges? Or perhaps, still others suggest, all these questions are moot, because the entire system is on the verge of collapse, thanks to the internet, and the spread of free, online courses. The frenzy around these courses, called MOOCs, has cooled somewhat over the past couple of years, but the question is still being asked: “Are universities going the way of record labels?”

In fact, the answer to this last question is clearly “no.” The profusion of online courses is already changing the way the universities operate. But it is not going to destroy them. And the reasons why it will not do so point to a basic fact about higher education that has too often been neglected in the current debates. Universities do not just function as providers of contents and services. They are not just a sector of the economy. They are social institutions in the fullest sense of the word, deeply embedded in the American social structure.

If we examine the record label analogy closely, it shows why universities, far from being on the brink of a radical transformation, will remain, for better and for worse, remarkably difficult to change. To start with, serious learning requires a great deal more effort than listening to music. If mastering complex and difficult subjects were simply a matter of access to “content,” as many of the universities’ doomsayers seem to assume, then it would not require universities at all, online or in person. Books would suffice. To be sure, online courses can mimic something of the structure and routine a physical course provides. But the very flexibility that online learning offers works against them in this respect. It is shocking, I know, but students who don’t have hard and fixed deadlines for assignments tend to procrastinate, often indefinitely. Studies have shown that completion rates for MOOCs can fall as low as 7 percent. A university with a 7 percent graduation rate wouldn’t stay in business for very long.

The same flexibility hurts online courses in another way. Yes, with a MOOC, you can watch a lecture, in your pajamas, at 2:30 in the morning. But what if you don’t understand one of the lecturer’s points? At 2:30 in the morning there is unlikely to be anyone around, even by chat, to answer your question. Defenders of brick-and-mortar campuses often tend to extol the ineffable value of free-floating seminar discussions. But just as important, in truth, is the simple ability to have an expert in the subject explain a difficult point at the moment confusion arises. Similarly, you may be able to listen to a chemistry or psychology lecture in your pajamas at 2:30 in the morning, but doing the accompanying lab will be a bit more difficult. Getting the pronunciation of a foreign language right is a lot trickier if no one hears the mistakes you are making, and corrects them in real time.

In my own experience, by far the most successful online courses are the ones that mimic as closely as possible the structure of an in-person course. They have fixed meeting times for questions and discussions, and fixed deadlines for assignments. Evaluation involves more than simply the computer grading of multiple-choice questions. But, not surprisingly, courses of this sort, which require making an instructor available at particular times to give personalized attention to students, end up costing an institution almost as much as an in-person course—and this in turn requires serious tuition payments. In short, even in an all-digital future, higher education would still require institutions recognizable as universities.

Online courses will indeed have a large and growing role in American higher education over the coming years. But this role will most likely supplement, rather than replace, the universities’ existing roles. To take one example, thanks to online courses, an English major may now find it easier, whether during or after university, to acquire a practical qualification: A teaching certificate, for instance, or basic programming or accounting skills. This additional qualification may ease the graduate’s transition into the workforce. Professionals already in the workforce can gain additional qualifications in the same manner. For years, universities like Johns Hopkins (where I used to be a dean) have seen explosive growth in part-time graduate programs to address precisely this need, and each year more and more of these programs migrate into the online environment. But few students would give up their original degree entirely in favor of the online qualifications, for very practical as well as more purely intellectual reasons.

Think for a moment about some of these other practical reasons. The rewards that a physical university community offers its members goes far beyond dining hall taco stations, climbing walls, and 4:00 a.m. discussions about Dostoyevsky and the meaning of life (not to knock the last of these, in particular, by any means). The personal relationships that develop between students on campus become the basis of professional networks later on. The personal relations that develop between professors and students, meanwhile, generate one of the most important lubricants of American professional advancement: Letters of recommendation. And along with the taco stations and climbing walls, universities also offer their students access to placement offices, which can arrange internships, interviews, and valuable alumni contacts.  Students compete so ferociously for admission to our elite universities precisely because of these intensely practical rewards, along with the intangible intellectual ones that defenders of the system tend to highlight. Finally, let’s not forget the benefit of the credential itself. And it is not just elite universities whose diplomas provide significant value. Everywhere in the country, particular communities place a premium value on diplomas received from respected local universities and colleges. No set of online courses can match this premium value, and the human ties that underlie it.

All of these practical rewards derive from the fact, again, that universities are not simply providers of content and skills, as the record-label analogy would have it. They have a hugely important, and very tangible social function, as (re-) producers of the American upper and middle classes. I don’t mean to defend this function. While it is possible to make a conservative argument for institutions that perpetuate social inequality, on the grounds that they also guard against social instability, I tend to tend to sympathize more with the egalitarian counter-argument. But everyone, regardless of their political position, needs to recognize the sheer strength of these functions, and the extent to which they are woven into America’s social structure. Modifying them is incredibly difficult. Society, as is its wont, will resist. Just consider the fact that despite elite universities’ well-deserved reputation as hotbeds of liberalism, they have not come close to eliminating one of their most blatantly inegalitarian practices: preferences for alumni children in admissions.

A few years ago, in a used bookstore, I stumbled across a fascinating volume: the twenty-fifth anniversary report of the Harvard College class of 1899. At first glance, it was the differences from present-day elite university classes that leapt out. Harvard ’99 was, needless to say, entirely male, almost entirely white, overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Yet reading through the entries, the class started to seem more and more like my own Harvard graduating class (1983). The same professions dominated—business, law, medicine, academia—and within them, many of the same elite institutions. Career paths sounded remarkably similar. And just as with my own graduating class, there was frequent, proud mention of children who had followed their parents to Cambridge. Higher education has, over the past century, adapted itself to the massive changes that have taken place in American society. Sometimes, it has even helped to lead these changes. But it has moved, and will continue to move, in tandem with society at large, whether we like it or not. The idea that it could ever function as a motor of truly radical reform is a fantasy, whether peddled by the hopeful left or the outraged right (which thinks, of course, that something of the sort has been happening for the past half-century).

This is why so much of the current discussion about higher education is simply beside the point. It tends to assume that universities are autonomous institutions that can be reconfigured, like complex tools, so as to act upon society and produce desired changes, and that can be easily discarded if a technologically superior replacement comes along. But things are not so simple, because in no way do universities stand outside of society. If a radical reconfiguration of higher education (for instance, to address the needs of the digital revolution) threatens its role as a (re-) producer of social elites, that radical reconfiguration, however desirable, is simply not going to happen. To be sure, the reform of higher education is possible. Universities can certainly be pushed to become more flexible in their structures, and more egalitarian in their recruitment. But such changes have taken place, and will continue to take place, within a broader social context. It is no coincidence that the most radical change in American universities in living memory took place at a time of radical social and political change in general, in the 1960s. So we need to keep a sense of what is possible, and we need to be careful about blaming universities for problems that, in truth, go far deeper. Are the elite graduates today really “excellent sheep”? I’m not so sure. But if they are, the fault lies not in our universities, but in ourselves.