"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The College Caste System

For the past few years, there has been a bigger and bigger squeeze on state colleges to hold down costs. Conservative think tanks point out that state university tuition costs have increased faster than family incomes. What these pols don't mention, of course, is that they are shipping away American jobs while American family incomes have actually gone down in recent years. The state-run colleges, nonetheless, become a new source for the old reliable political strategy of ignoring the real problem and blaming someone else for a problem they did not create.

The resulting political pressure to trim state college costs and costs in tuition-driven private colleges has added to the impetus for solidifying a streamlined college caste system, one that offers a marginal education to the middling and poor folk, and a top notch education for the ruling 10-20 percent who can still afford the best. Whereas the latter will have the best professors, luxurious campuses, and the best libraries, the former will look more like isolating online or "hybrid" degree factories for those determined to make the most of their bronze futures.

Here is a clip from the NY Times today on the brave new world of college for the poor in their pjs (if they can afford them):

. . . .Welcome to the brave burgeoning world of online education. It’s a world most of us, whether we like it or not, will have to grapple with, as students, tuition-paying parents or employees. Nearly 3.5 million college or graduate students, one of every five, took at least one online course last fall, double the figures of five years earlier, according to a survey of 2,500 campuses published last week in a collaboration among the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the College Board and a Babson College research group.

Taken at face value, the study was chilling. This writer’s first impulse was to recall a college course taught by Irving Howe, who read Robert Frost’s poems with tenderness and an edge of menace that conveyed the poet’s respect for the sinister beauty of nature. Those poems would not be as richly appreciated online.

Yet for now such fears would be misplaced. The study’s fine print makes clear that growth is not across the board. Selective private four-year colleges that are the subject of so much angst this season are barely dipping their toes, typically providing online courses for students studying abroad or slackers who needed that 8 a.m. math course to graduate. Some, though, have taken note; for example, Columbia for several years has offered online master’s degrees in some engineering fields.

Still, the surge is mostly among community colleges, professional programs like business and education, specialized online schools like the University of Phoenix, and public universities like Penn State and Illinois that feel obligated to accommodate far-flung residents. And the numbers are expected to grow partly because Congress last year dropped a requirement that colleges deliver half their courses on actual campuses in order to qualify for federal aid, a move critics saw as an enticement for diploma mills. Just as newspaper and television professionals are fumbling to figure out how to survive in an Internet world they did not grow up in, professors and students are realizing that they will have to learn, as one wag once said, to play the violin while performing at Carnegie Hall. QUESTIONS persist. What kind of content works best online, and what gets lost in translation? Which instructors and students function best in the virtual classroom? What happens to all those brick-and-mortar dormitories? How do you calculate the price of tuition?

Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers wonders what will happen, should campuses go exuberantly online, to the intangibles — the late-night bull sessions, the serendipitous strolls with professors, the chance to feel one’s oats in student government? And what will one more switch to electronic conversation do to our need for intimate human connections, he asks? . . . .

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