In a recent talk at UC-Irvine I mentioned that MOOC purveyors had learned lessons from the trajectory of for-profit higher education. I made a passing mention to 2tor CEO saying they would not have to build prestige; they’d borrow it instead. I thought this quote also sums up that point nicely:
“We’re not Phoenix,” insists 2tor CEO Chip Paucek, dissing the massive for-profit online education player. “Online education has been dominated by the for-profits, but nothing is even close to this in terms of quality. We’re doing this at the highest possible level.”
“We’re not Phoenix” is a not so subtle move to distinguish itself not from the mode of delivery or even the organizational motive (profit) but from the lack of prestige of for-profits. I’ve talked here about the prestige hierarchy that orders higher education from high to low. I’ve also talked about how much resentment exists among venture capital and the private sector over the stranglehold that public and not-for-profit institutions have over that prestige (i.e. the prestige cartel). I suspect the private sector thinks it smells blood in the water. The public commons has been transformed into exclusively bureaucratic arrangements and financial transactions in almost every field except education. I read a lot of the literature on the private and non-profit public hospital debate that raged about 15 years ago. One of the questions I ask is if education could go the way of that debate, which has largely been won by privates and barely registers in the public imagination as a thing about which they should know much less care.
It could be that there is something unique about education. It’s relationship to the market is certainly unique. There’s also a different kind of social rightness about education. One need not ever go to a hospital to be a good person but not going to school can make a criminal of a student and a parent and an amoral slacker of a young adult.
Both of uniqueness of that relationship and its inherent challenges is evident in a story this week from The Washington Post about the proliferation of masters degrees. Bless our hearts. We do seem to think that producing more degrees will save us. It’s something I spend a lot of time on with my students. I give a lecture called “Mo Degrees, Mo Problems” about five times a year at Emory, Spelman, and Georgia State.
The tight coupling between higher education and the market is on full display here. The line is that jobs are more complex. I continue to look for some good recent empirical evidence of that claim, by the way. Regardless, the belief is that jobs are more complex and not that they are more scarce, even though we certainly have empirical evidence of the latter. In response, institutions are leveraging their relationship with the market to produce more masters degrees as a way for individuals to navigate greater economic insecurity.
That’s a fine enough plan…except for a few things.
More masters degrees doesn’t produce more jobs that require masters degrees. We are still stuck in the same job structure. Right now that job structure is characterized by depressed wages, low corporate responsibility to individuals, and fewer “white collar” jobs. This credentialism becomes a way to negotiate with beurocratic market mechanisms through a transactional relationship with prestige. I’m buying a prestige credit to put in the HR slot.
That is maybe inevitable but it is not a structural solution to a very real structural problem.
I fear the same is true of high prestige MOOCs. They are fine individual mechanisms but not very useful for groups or collectives.
And therein lies what i suspect is the theoretical rub. If we are all engaged in the status competition process of purchasing prestige and transacting for security we may be too busy to notice that all concepts of the social are being renegotiated around us.
There is a lot to be said for the possibility of a more democratic University, more accessible education, less inequality, and more flexibility.
But the one thing universities still are is a social, a collective, an institution.
I understand the pressures to make us all rational individual actors in accordance with the demands of the market, but there is a lot of evidence that the more we try to make people widgets the more they crave a collective. It’s one of those great sociological paradoxes, kinda like how more educational access perversely creates more stratification.
Some true innovation may come along that gets at that paradox. I suspect it will be complicated and cost a lot of money. Oddly enough it will probably require the investment and support of a social institution as it is too large to be grasped by a person, no matter how wealthy or brilliant. I have a few ideas about how we could experiment with a social solution to a social problem and, yeah, it involves prestige and bureaucracies (necessary evils) but it also has something MOOCs and education disruptors have yet to offer: a collective imagination.