Academically Adrift in the Free Market

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William Pannapacker writes a two-part article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Part 1 Part 2) in response to the recent book Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. According to Pannapacker, Arum and Roska find that “at least 45 percent of undergraduates demonstrated ‘no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills in the first two years of college, and 36 percent showed no progress in four years.’ And that’s just the beginning of the bad news.”

The first half of Pannapacker’s response focuses on locating reasons that support Arum and Roska’s thesis. Among these, Pannapacker lists grade inflation, relaxation of expectations and the shift to adjunct faculty. Pannapacker wonders if the system isn’t so much broken as “actually [is] working the way it is supposed to, according to the dictates of the market. The patterns of selection and resource allocation—and the rising costs of college education—are not driven by educational needs so much as they are the result of competition for the most enjoyable and least difficult four-year experience, culminating in a credential that is mostly a signifier of existing class positions.”

He transitions into the second half of his argument by focusing on “this system from the perspective of students and their parents. What could they possibly be thinking? What kind of interlocking system of perverse incentives is motivating them to make such choices?” The answers Pannapacker provides to these questions include the shift in perspective from student to consumer, students’ lack of engagement and shifts in literacy standards due to the internet. Throughout the second half, Pannapacker acknowledges economic pressures on students and their parents as well as the change in the function education serves in our society.

The conclusion Pannapacker drives toward is that “One hopes for an emerging consensus—another Sputnik moment—that will affirm Arum and Roksa’s position that we need to make ‘rigorous and high-quality educational experiences a moral imperative.’” Setting aside the issue that this conclusion is so far-fetched, Pannapacker must distance himself from it by couching it in “one” rather than “I”, why appeal to a moral order that Pannapacker has clearly enumerated the absence of?

Education is another consumer good. Students pay for a credential in the hope that they will earn more money in the future than their non-credentialed cohorts. The likelier truth of the matter, that the system is providing exactly the results the free market demands, is too deep of an abyss for academics to contemplate. It means that your tiny paycheck and the student evaluations that tell you the discipline you’ve devoted your life to is “boring” and “pointless” are right. You really aren’t there to teach, you’re there to stamp paying customers with the middle-class seal of approval.

There is no moral order higher than the free market.  

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24 Responses to Academically Adrift in the Free Market

  1. lemmycaution says:

    “Students pay for a credential in the hope that they will earn more money in the future than their non-credentialed cohorts.”

    This is true. Since people need a college education to get a good job, people who don’t really care about academics go to college. This isn’t a tragedy.

    The college population is a lot bigger as a percentage of the total population than in 1900. The marginal students are not going to be scholars. “rigorous and high-quality educational experiences” are just going to cause these students to fail or quit.

    Ideally, you would have paths to being a productive citizen that did not require a college education or even being a high school graduate.

    • max says:

      Agreed. Remember the 1980s when all highschool classes became “college prep” and they replaced shop with art?

      • foxfire says:

        Or as my mother(who worked as a junior teacher for 30 years) would say. Sorry, but not everyone is cut out for college. Unfortunately, trade skills seem to be the road less traveled these days. It is go to college or bust.

  2. stellachiara says:

    It could also be that the philosophies those academics have been teaching all this time have created young people who think that good things are owed to them just for existing, that having to work for them or earn them is classist and racist, and that The Evil Rich have the secret key to getting something for nothing and are keeping it from them. And they believe, rightfully, that they deserve to have that key, which they are being told is a university degree. The evidence of this is that after they receive their degree, they expect to waltz into a high-paying job and basically be set for life. Starting at the bottom and working their way up is beneath them. If The Man got his without having to do anything, why should they have to do anything? Just line up and hold out your hand. After all, you deserve it – you’re a special and unique individual, and that’s all it takes.

    What is truly shocking is that these people make zero connection between the passive victimology they teach and the behavior they see in their students.

    • philtrum says:

      How do you figure? The people who most effectively absorb the ideology of the professors are presumably doing the assigned reading, or at least listening to the lectures. The ones who are tuning out and focusing on next week’s kegger (or whatever) are most likely apathetic.

      Furthermore, the students who are most likely to come out of school expecting to make big bucks right away are coming from classes where they’re unlikely to be exposed to left-wing ideology — like business schools. Very few people, even in their early twenties, are deluded enough to believe a B.A. in English is a ticket to wealth.

      Pannapacker is generalizing, as these articles justifiably do. The average college student is not a Frankenstein’s monster created out of every disagreeable trait you’ve ever heard about in college students.

    • Jerboa says:

      Hi there. I teach biology to college students, and I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about. I personally make a point of not saying anything about politics in my classes at all, since it’s irrelevant to the subject, and because students who are busy being pissed off about my political views are less able to focus on the material. The closest I could ever see myself coming to a political topic would be discussing Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia.

      • syntaxfree says:

        20th-century biology is riddled with politics. Lysenko can be treated as just a fraud enabled by a totalitarian regime, but Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin are _very_ leftist in the very structure of their work, while James Maynard Smith and, to a lesser extent, Richard Dawkins dial all the way to the right. This is built into their approaches, and as much as they may work within the Popperian ideal sphere of falsifiable hypotheses, they’re still working from theoretical structures far from neutrality.

        And if you don’t realize this, you’re a bad researcher.

        • Jerboa says:

          I’m sure I’m quite terrible. Keep in mind I’m not saying that political assumptions don’t affect the questions people ask about the universe. I completely agree with you that they do. I just think it’s not that important compared to the structure of the cell wall. Maybe it would be worth spending half a lecture on in a philosophy of science class, but I couldn’t see bringing it up in your standard undergraduate biology class.

          Also, what magical scale are you using that puts Richard Dawkins on the right?

          • ThomasR says:

            “Also, what magical scale are you using that puts Richard Dawkins on the right?”

            This is my favorite comment produced by Partial Objects yet.

        • octo says:

          And if you don’t realize this, you’re a bad researcher.

          1) all the biologists you mentioned are evolutionary biologists who also do popular writing. No wonder it’s political.

          2) As a biologist, I will tell you that very few researchers care (including the evolutionary biologists).

  3. stellachiara says:

    And yes, as Lemmy Caution points out, blue collar jobs have been denigrated as dead-end or not worthy of MY child — we should all be highly educated, critically-thinking mind-workers, or somehow we’ve failed. The government supports this by offering loans and support for university degrees but not for apprenticeships, and our current President is telling everyone they have to get a college degree if they want to be successful. Well, when everyone has a college degree, what do you think happens to the value of that degree? How much of a help will it be in finding success? (See previous entry on inflation). EVERYONE is not meant to or suited for the university, but if EVERYONE goes, out of necessity you get inflation. It’s not the free market, it’s the distortion of the free market.

    • octo says:

      I think arguments such as this, which I sympathize with, would be received much better if “Obama is ruining our country” wasn’t thrown in.

    • philtrum says:

      blue collar jobs have been denigrated as dead-end or not worthy of MY child

      Or insecure, because of the steep decline in the manufacturing sector. The fear (sometimes justified, sometimes not) is that technological progress will continue to put blue-collar workers out of work.

      It makes no sense to put down today’s students and graduates without considering that the American economy has changed dramatically in the past forty years.

  4. edumds says:

    …so there’s a free market for education now? like the mortgage market, you mean? the one fueled by government backed loans? …no moral order higher than the free market, except..

    “Also, if a student defaults on a loan backed by the government, which is by far the most common kind of loan, the lender does not bear the loss, the government does. This obviously encourages the lenders to lend more freely than they otherwise would. Enormous losses have been socialized. There is currently $730 billion of outstanding student-loan debt, and the overwhelming majority of losses will be borne by the government if it is not repaid. Only 40 percent of all student debt is being actively repaid.” (http://mises.org/daily/5045/The-Education-Bubble-Is-Fuel-for-Revolt)

    i wonder what a socialist-fascist-statist-nonfree-market (mercantilist?) looks like, if only we could get one of those!

  5. George says:

    “It means that your tiny paycheck and the student evaluations that tell you the discipline you’ve devoted your life to is “boring” and “pointless” are right. You really aren’t there to teach, you’re there to stamp paying customers with the middle-class seal of approval.

    There is no moral order higher than the free market.”

    The real story you missed here is that higher education is a bubble. Just like the housing market.

  6. octo says:

    The likelier truth of the matter, that the system is providing exactly the results the free market demands, is too deep of an abyss for academics to contemplate. It means that your tiny paycheck and the student evaluations that tell you the discipline you’ve devoted your life to is “boring” and “pointless” are right. You really aren’t there to teach, you’re there to stamp paying customers with the middle-class seal of approval.

    (emphasis mine).

    Most researchers know this, many don’t care. If they have get to spend less work teaching, so be it. Usually they find their subject more engaging than teaching a dumbed-down version of it, and would rather be in the lab or reading or writing instead. That’s one reason why universities require most professors to teach, and exempt only the brightest graduate students from TAing.

  7. octo says:

    Your piece was thoughtful, and I agree with your point that many students are paying for a credential (so does Pannapacker). But the consumer (student) isn’t paying. By and large they are funded federally, even (and especially at elite) private universities, where professor’s salaries are paid via the “overhead” portion of grants, not tuition fees. These grants are largely federally funded. So when students don’t learn, it’s too bad for them, yeah, but it’s too bad for the population at large paying for them to learn.

    NB: I am not saying these grants should not be funded/our current president is destroying the nation/academics are only elitists.

    • vprime says:

      I hadn’t thought of it this way. My assertion is that the system of higher education turning out graduates who haven’t really learned anything isn’t a sign that the system is broken, it’s a sign that the system is doing exactly what the market demands now. I’ve seen this conversation take place over and over, always with the hand-wringing assumption that we need to return higher education to “what it used to be.” That’s not going to happen. The purpose of an education isn’t to learn anything, it’s to get a certificate that says you’re okay to do most stultifying knowledge work. Higher Ed is a big business and will squeeze the most profit out of the market regardless of who pays.

      • octo says:

        But this changes your ultimate conclusion significantly, because the students aren’t the real market, the public is. The investors (the public) pay to (presumably) get a more qualified workforce – they want to consume a better economy, replete with higher tax revenue and lower crime. Instead, they get unqualified workers, who just want the credential.

        But the fact that the payers aren’t getting what they paid for is a sign that the system is broken – market or no, it’s a shitty one.

        • vprime says:

          I think there are two ways of looking at this:
          1. The payers haven’t noticed that their investment produces these results.
          2. The payers have noticed and don’t care.
          I would love to see the general populace concerned about what passes for a college education these days, but I find that concern over this topic seems limited to people who work in academia.

        • philtrum says:

          The investors (the public) pay to (presumably) get a more qualified workforce

          That’s one possibility. Another is that they are paying to keep a lot of young workers out of the labour market, or to employ the large numbers of people who work for universities in some capacity, or to socialize young people to deal with bureaucracy, or something else I haven’t thought of off the top of my head.

          In other words, that actual learning isn’t the point from anyone’s perspective except the profs’.

          • octo says:

            It’s not really the point from the profs either.

            I disagree with the total cynicism though. Paying to keep young bucks out of competition for 4 years isn’t realistic. If people were that cynical, they would rather have more people stop attending college. There are jobs at universities, it’s true, but I’ve very rarely seen this invoked as a reason to continue funding higher education. As for training young people to deal with bureaucracy, maybe that’s just “good training” in general? After all, bureaucratic bs is a huge part of most jobs.

    • change says:

      The consumer (student) does pay in the end. They have to pay back their loans, right?

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