David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Delicate Thing: The College Mixtape

January 28, 2015

The Atlantic published an opinion piece this week entitled “Higher Education is Not a Mixtape,” and I immediately felt the need to defend the honor of something near and dear to my heart, the very essence of what defines us as human beings -- the mixtape, not higher education.  (Yes, call me Rob Fleming, the main character’s name in High Fidelity, the book, not the movie.)

Higher Education is a Mixtape.  Sorry, Derek Newton.  Allow me to play you the tape:

1)      Right and Wrong – Joe Jackson

I will concede Mr. Newton’s basic point, that technology and Massive Online Courses will not be the MP3 revolution of higher education, allowing people to accumulate credit from super professors around the world, regardless of institution.  However, where he is wrong is the idea that higher education can safely exist as university or college brands, stamps of “approval” that say students have graduated with an unimpeachable credential. 

The rest of the songs on this tape will attempt to prove this basic point.

2)      The Have-Nots – X.

The kind of university brands that Newton references in the article represent the Top 50 institutions in the country. In fact, he specifically refers to the specious U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of colleges in citing that the top 25 (Harvard, Stanford, MIT and so forth) attract 36,500 applicants on average, while the next 25 on the list attract an average applicant pool of 16,000.  Let's assume, just to create the biggest possible pool, that all of these applicants are distinct (in other words, each applicant is someone who has not applied to the other Top 50 institutions), then that’s about 1.3 million students applying to go to those schools; however, the National Center of Education Statistics determined that in 2013 about 17.5 million students were enrolled at all colleges and universities.

So, about 13% of this country’s college students applied to the Top 50 schools; a much smaller percentage got into those schools; and a % of them probably failed or dropped out.  Many of those two populations ended up at a non-Top 50 college or university.  It’s probably safe to say that 90% of college students in this country are not going to those schools.  Lop off the next Top 150 schools from U.S. News and World Report and one can probably safely say that close to 50% of college students in this country are going to a college or university that does not fit the brand that Newton emphasizes in his article.  These are the “have-nots,” both the students and the institutions.

Which leads to our next track:

3)      Not Where It’s At – Del Amitri.

The one picture that accompanies the article is of a gorgeous library (I am assuming) in a building that looks like a Cathedral apse.  Gold chandeliers hang from the ceilings.  Beautiful wood tables are occupied by a handful of students.  Large multi-story windows provide lots of natural light and gothic-style archways surround the room’s entrances.

That may be the environment for that Top 10% (probably even less) of college students, but for the other 90%, they are not given nearly as impressive study areas or classrooms. In my time at Detroit College of Business, I have even taught a college class in a grade school conference room, showing slides of, interestingly enough, Gothic cathedrals for a Humanities’ class on a wall that badly needed painting.  Some students are taking classes in shop fronts in strip malls, in converted airport hangers, or even in converted storage closets . . ., even, God forbid, probably at many of the institutions in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, higher education reform isn’t going to happen until we stop idealizing the national experience as one that occurs at Princeton, Virginia, or Columbia.  Given that “the visible brand” is less welcoming at so many institutions, many students have started to sing a new tune, our next song on the mixtape.

4)      Here, There and Everywhere – The Beatles.

At least as of September, 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Ed was citing the National Clearinghouse finding that 1/3 of all college graduates transferred from at least one (often more) institution to another (this is the dreaded “swirling” effect I have referenced before in this blog).  As the article points out, these students often have transferred from a 4-year institution to a 2-year institution, in theory from the more prestigious brand to the more accessible, flexible brand.  Their academic records are already their own mixed tape: some cool jazz from a state university perhaps, some country & western from the private institution, and some rap from the local community college.  In the end, their transcript verifies that they are a graduate.  Acceptance of credit between institutions continues to be essential for students to graduate.  At the moment, these students usually face “residency” requirements, which stipulate that so many of the final credits must be earned at the degree-granting institution, but as more swirling inevitably occurs (financial issues exerting as much pressure as academic issues), I suspect residency requirements will be identified as illegal.

Which leads to our next track:

5)      You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby – The Smiths.

Somehow a large majority of our students are graduating with a paucity of the skills and talents that we should expect of them.  We have been hearing anecdotally for years that students graduate from college with discipline-centered skills, but not with the kinds of soft skills that make them great employees and better citizens.  In 2013, Inside Higher Education reported on a study that indicates both graduates and employers believe that the students are “not equipped to function in the workplace.”  The product is losing value, and that appears true even to the Top 50 U.S. News and World Report institutions. Don’t forget that it was Harvard that has had to deal with grade inflation and a major cheating scandal over the last few years.  The whole educational landscape is changing, and at some point we are all going to be really challenged on what the “it” is that students earn through their education.

Which is why our mixed tape finishes with a trio of songs:

6)      Pressure – Billy Joel.

7)      Pressure – The Kinks.

8)      Under Pressure – Queen and David Bowie.

The pressures for accountability continue to mount.  As usual, when the government is involved, there is a lot of grandstanding, misinformation, and dangerous interjection of government idealism into systems it can’t possibly understand.  I have said it here before. I will be saying it again in the future. Something has to give.  The Top 50 or 100 or 200 institutions, as identified by a flawed methodology (I have ranted before about this) by a popular journal, can’t continue to be the epitome of a body of institutions numbering over four thousand.

I have feared for several years that the only future for higher education will be a two-tier system, one where the top schools, however identified, have different rules, financial aid regulations, expectations, metrics, while everyone else plays under more stringent rules, regulations, expectations and metrics.  Then, I realize I am just being silly. That could never happen, right?  Oh, that’s right, this is basically the same idealized industry that gave about 60 college football programs the right to do whatever they want.

We are doomed.

9)      The End – The Doors.

A Post-Script: The first time I ever heard "The End" was in my "Introduction to Popular Culture" class at West Virginia University.  My instructor at the time thought Jim Morrison was the "greatest 20th century poet."  I have no idea if my memory of this, probably the only specific thing I remember from that class, is pertinent or not.