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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Saturday, March 23, 2019
As it enters week 3, the promising new series Operation Varsity Blues is running out of gas. The story of wealthy white folks bribing their kids’ way into college debuted to huge numbers. But the writers are losing the story line, so it might help to make at least two root causes explicit.

The series has been a blast – it offered the pleasure of seeing rich crooks getting caught looking stupid, in this case by bribing their privileged kids into privileged colleges with dumbbell plans. $50,000 bought strategy like the fake water polo star above. Scam maestro William Singer went with this strategy more than once: “I’ll photoshop his face on a kicker,” he said to William McGlashan, the impact fund manager, Friend of Bono, and backer of gig-economy paragons Uber and Spotify, while wired by the FBI, referring to the face of McGlashan's son, suggesting that such a picture would convince the USC football empire that the son played football. That pious bully, the College Board, turned out to have proctors on the take. Early reviews called the FBI’s 200 page script a probing look into the way we live now, one worthy if not of Dickens then Tom Wolfe or the David E. Kelley of Big Little Lies.

There was also widespread rage at American plutocracy. Most people are pissed at institutions that were to make society fairer and now do the opposite. Universities are on that list. 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, racial inequality is pervasive and deep, and all levels of schooling reflect this through resegregation and racially disparate outcomes at all levels. Neoliberal economic policy, a duet sung by both major parties, has reversed the limited economic equality that emerged from the Cold War project of showing off a large, white middle class. For forty years, the country’s big national project has been to strengthen business by weakening the public systems that, though flawed, are to allocate roughly similar resources to everyone. Equality stopped being a goal, and a pathetic symptom is the assumption that getting into UCLA will protect your life while going to UC Irvine will not. The previous theory was that there should be no quality cliff as you moved from district or campus to another, and the population could stop spending every day jockeying for position, since most of the positions would be good.

Meritocracy not only didn’t keep plutocracy from happening: it collaborated with it. It was supposed to signal reward for effort and accomplishment (more than for innate “ability”). But it became another system to be gamed. Proof of its decline in public opinion is that every commentator in scandal week 1 claimed that admissions scams were not the exception but the rule. The instant New York Times editorial was sarcastically entitled, “Turns Out There’s a Proper Way to Buy Your Kid a College Slot.” In other words, “until yesterday, we thought there were no limits to the power of money over universities.” It wasn’t only that Singer’s scams proved again that the needs and insecurities of rich people define American culture and society today. Even elite outlets agreed that private wealth doesn’t violate meritocracy because meritocracy is structured to serve private wealth.

As Operation Varsity Blues made white privilege index a rotten democracy, the governor of California was asked on a Sunday talk show about the admissions bribery changes "What about the legal bribery that exists in higher education?" he replied. “What about the folks writing the $20-million dollar check, putting their name on that building? Connect the dots to the folks they quietly called for admission, or wrote a letter of recommendation.”

What about the legal bribery? I’m glad Newsom mentioned it, since that gets to the first root cause—long-term shortages of non-private ed money that have restructured public universities. Since he has long sat on the Board of Regents of the University of California, he knows perfectly well that “legal bribery” is “philanthropy,” and philanthropy is a cornerstone of the strategy of "multiple revenue streams," and that in turn is a response to repeated public funding cuts (which used to be eased by eager tuition increases, but never mind that for the moment). UC started obsessing about fundraising in the wake of the 1992-95 state cuts, and began to show the Board of Regents fundraising growth charts in the mid-1990s. Every campus has its own large development operation and some kind of endowment campaign. Fundraising duties have been pushed down to deans and department chairs and even individual faculty. Fundraising has also changed the culture of public universities, shifting affective relations toward research while empowering departments and people with market and donor potential over basic research or teaching people and departments. Fundraising has strengthened the pecuniary dimensions of higher ed overall, which distorts public understanding of its total effects. Fundraising's virtues are articles of faith—no one can rise in academic administration without pledging tacit allegiance to continuous fundraising. One need not be a philanthropy abolitionist to marvel at the lack of public discussion of philanthropy's effects, which was nonexistent until a hedge fund titan gave $400 million to Harvard in 2015. OVB is another milestone, but it remains to be seen whether colleges will examine philanthropy's vices, which include increasing exactly the inequality within and between universities that the OVB outrage denounced (an example). There is certainly research that could be pondered: mine has focused on fundraising's leveraging of public resources and its insufficiency at a public scale; Anand Giridharadas's widely noted work, in Winners Take All and elsewhere, describes it as a straightforward tool of tax avoidance and political control. These problems are easily described, and yet university leaders still feel they have no choice—they must show unflinching loyalty to the practice if only because, in public universities, they are constantly, permanently short of money.

Now that he is governor, Newsom could in fact downsize legal bribery, precisely by rebuilding public funding. It would take a few annual state funding increases of 15-20 percent. How serious is he about shrinking fundraising until he can drown it in the bathtub? He was upset, but that will pass. Proposals need to come from universities.

Ironically, private colleges have seen their financial models weakened by the philanthropy they depend on. OVB broke in the wake of the biggest previous national higher ed story, which was the mindboggling news that the governing board and president of renowned Hampshire College were trying to put the college up for sale. The most likely source of their panic was that an anniversary capital campaign hadn’t been going well. Why would that lead to bankruptcy? Because like all private college boards, Hampshire’s could not see a solvency strategy that didn’t involve philanthropy.

This is why Macalester College president Brian C. Rosenberg wrote, “The Only Surprising Thing in the Admissions Scandal is that Anyone is Surprised."

I see nothing wrong with soliciting wealthy parents after their children have been fairly admitted. I do it with some regularity and with no sense of guilt. Most colleges, moreover, are "need aware" in admissions, making it more likely that an applicant coming from wealth will gain admission to more colleges than one without means.
What is maddening, though, is that the colleges most likely to be given large gifts in return for an offer of admission are the ones that are most prestigious, selective, and wealthy — in other words, the ones that need the money least. I would actually be pretty sympathetic if a struggling college were tempted by such an offer, but those offers tend not to be forthcoming.
Tuition has hit a ceiling for all but the superbrands, so if fundraising isn’t working, the model says sell off, shut down. And they are: at least 22 liberal arts college have closed since 2016.

The second root cause of OVB is that college admissions is a conceptual mess. It has two separate projects—supporting racial and economic democracy on the one hand, and forming a master class on the other. The latter, since Jefferson, Adams, and Emerson, has meant finding a “natural aristocracy.” For all our discussion of diversity, we're only slightly less essentialist about ability than our ancient forebears. To identify the greatest talents, we are supposed to use standardized tests and grades. Ross Douthat’s recent attempt to question meritocracy still equates test scores with academic merit. The SAT and ACT have been repeatedly debunked as a racial and political project of highly restricted validity and that has traditionally sought to measure a probably nonexistent entity (general aptitude and/or context-free achievement) (Lemann, Kohn, Guinier, Douglass, etc.). And yet standardized tests are still widely treated as though they captured natural ability. All attacks on race-based affirmative action invoke standardized tests as the gold standard of measurable achievement. And as Jerome Karabel and others have shown, holistic admissions has a history of reflecting the university's anti-semitic and racist biases, against which test scores seemed the main countermeasure.

Admissions continues to use exams that people don’t trust but are intimidated by, and at the same time, acknowledges their badness with incompatible gold standard #2 - this same holistic admissions.

In the 1978 Bakke case, involving a white plaintiff who sued UC Davis's medical school on the grounds that race-based affirmative action had wrongly trumped his color-blind merit, Justice Lewis Powell saved a reduced version of affirmative action by invoking Harvard's "holistic" admissions practices. These used race only as a “plus factor” –not as a claim to compensation for past or present discrimination—and threw in a bunch of other stuff, including sports and family ties to the college. It seems very nuanced and humanistic, since it cares about the whole person and not mainly test results. It always looks better than the test-score absolutists. That’s before you look at it too closely.

We did get a closer look at Harvard’s practice last fall, when a suit brought by anti-affirmative action zealot Edward Blum against Harvard went to trial. His group, Students for Fair Admissions, argued that Asian Americans were being rejected in favor of preferred minorities by being given a lower “personal rating” than are other groups. I have always been a strong supporter of affirmative action and think that Blum’s position is racist (all hardships can be introduced in admissions except race-based ones) and irresponsible (“He said he couldn’t comment on exactly what barring admissions officials from considering race would mean for applicants — that is, whether it would bar them from mentioning their race in applications”). But Harvard’s admissions people had a hard time explaining how they defined the factors they used on top of academic achievement—athletics, extracurricular, personal, overall—or how they interacted. The attitude about their careful sifting of a “wealth of information” was weakened by reports that application files at elite colleges may not get more than eight minutes of a reader’s time, and by the basic fact that a committee of 40 people is reading 40,000 applications (p 3, p 7). Harvard's witnesses didn’t really explain why Asian Americans do get lower personality scores, or the problems flagged by their own previous investigation (plaintiff’s analysis pp 11-20).

In my reading, Harvard won the narrow question: they are compliant with Grutter and related decisions by staying “flexible enough to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application” (p 24). But Harvard ignored the broader question, which is precisely whether all this flexibility in choosing is legitimate in the first place. Hostility to race as a criterion is the venerable right-wing issue, and 4/5ths of whites continue to oppose it. The related issue under plutocracy, for a broad slice of the public, is whether elite preferences are really better than invalid standardized tests. During their trial, Harvard made holistic admissions look like a secret formula that elites use to come up with whatever kind of class they want—which is always the class that will keep Harvard on top.

Neither test-based nor holistic admissions is convincing. Each needs the other—many people pointed out that test scores helped Jews overcome earlier admissions bias, as they help Chinese Americans now. And yet their mash up is internally contradictory, has confused everybody for decades, and aggravated white racial backlash. The results also aren’t great: elective admissions has had 50 years to fix racial disparities and it has not. With a more diverse student body than ever, selectivity has only managed to increase rates of rejection at the most selective schools while increasing inequality in the overall system.

What are we supposed to do about OVB’s root causes? Nicholas Lemann is right that the solution is not reforming admissions, and so is Ian Bogost that it's "pathetic" to be reverting to the admissions status quo. It's crucial not to let the superbrands orbit their own planet while controlling the definitions of intelligence (test scores), merit (you’re one of us), and the value of college (pecuniary gain, social mobility) on ours.

 Lemann writes, “a recent Pew survey showed that the only admissions criterion that gets majority support from the public is grades, and there are far more students with perfect transcripts than there are places in the most selective colleges, so that won’t work.”

Here I don't agree. What will work is growing the system so there are enough really good seats for all the perfect transcripts, and the other transcripts as well. The point would be to replace selectivity with scale, and today's highly unequal with generally equivalent quality.

To do that, the white middle and upper classes will need to reverse their entire Reagan-era private welfare strategy—tax cuts, public cuts, austerity, private school, restricted public quality, selectivity, fixation on monetary outcomes, and dependence on prestige. Undoing this culture will mean moving a lot of private money back into the public realm. And it would make America smart again.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Monday, March 11, 2019
The season's higher ed masterplot is easy to state: liberal arts education is a financial failure; financial success requires mega-universities.

Whatever the partial truths contained in these claims, nothing this winter provided actual evidence for them.  They also conceal the real factor that's undermining private as much as public higher ed-: the unnecessary obsession with its private funding.

Alleged proof of the liberal arts's fiscal demise is coming in the form of closed or closing liberal arts colleges.  These arrived on the heels of the closure of liberal arts programs last year (like Wisconsin's Stevens Point that we covered in two parts).  Stephens Point now appears to be the tip of the iceberg: In January, CHE announced a forthcoming Modern Languages Association finding that 651 language programs have closed in the last 3 years, without academia really noticing.  Meanwhile, with only local fanfare, 17 liberal arts colleges have closed in the last five years in Massachusetts alone. Moody's claims that 1 in 5 small liberal arts colleges are under stress.

The best known case is Hampshire College.  Forever young and poor, it epitomized the creativity ideals of the whole liberal arts college genre, tied to customized majors and the small, intense classes that underwrite the "active learning" we are all supposed to have.  But Hampshire's enrollments fell 17 percent between 2010 and 2017.  Most universities survive on enrollments, and Hampshire's small endowment meant it had to find new revenues. (How much money they had and what they borrowed is in dispute.)

But Hampshire didn't become a poster child for liberal arts failure until the president's bizarre January 15th announcement that Hampshire was "carefully considering whether to enroll an incoming class this fall." This was followed by a February 1 Board of Trustees decision not to admit a full freshman class--which, as sociology professor Margaret Cerullo noted in her excellent Nation piece, was an attack on their own revenue base.

And yet Hampshire's trouble doesn't prove anything about the innate unsustainability of the liberal arts if it is self-inflicted.  That is clearly the situation.  President Miriam Nelson's initial statement didn't really make sense, as she combined her declaration of emergency with the comment that, "at Hampshire our budget is balanced, our $52 million endowment has performed well, and the success of our educational model is confirmed by an array of stellar data. We continue to be among the top three percent of institutions whose students go on to earn a research doctorate." 

Instead, Nelson and the Board seem to have artificially induced Hampshire's crisis to court potential suitors, most likely to UMass-Amherst, which had just taken over failing Mt Ida College in Newton.

Instead of praise for making the tough call, Nelson and the Hampshire Board of Trustees got the harshest appraisals I've seen dished out to college management.  In her overview in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen wrote, "Secrecy and confusion remain the defining characteristics of the Hampshire crisis."  Since its founding, Hampshire College has raised the question of whether students and faculty could manage themselves without top-down administration.  The question is being raised again, this time by its managers' incompetence.

The college leadership has wrought disaster.  Gessen writes,
Nelson is expected to announce a second wave of layoffs, in April. She told me that the scale of the layoffs would match the loss of revenue resulting from admitting a much smaller freshman class—that is, around a quarter of the college’s operating budget. Hampshire faculty members, in keeping with the school’s education philosophy, are not protected by tenure—back in the sixties, the idea was that tenure encouraged passivity in academics, and its absence would motivate them to continue to grow and develop. Word among Hampshire faculty members is that half of them are likely to lose their jobs. According to Barskova, because Hampshire has traditionally fostered co-teaching, the looming layoffs will kill the academic program.
Nelson and her board may turn out to have destroyed the college rather than sold it, and for no good reason.

Other criticism came from Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a specialist in higher education leadership.  He was writing in Fortune, which you'd expect to support this apparent example of disruptive innovation, except that just about everybody is sick of it and its regular failure to make things better.  Sonnenfeld noted a total failure of the Board to make use of the college's assets:
the college board’s executive committee framed this [matriculation] challenge as an existential crisis . . . and their actions have since created chaos. And rather than locate better ways to mobilize their own many assets—Hampshire’s distinctive mission, the Five College Consortium community, a strong alumni network, and a largely successful existence as an innovative education model—to a recovery, Hampshire’s leadership appears to have panicked.
Interestingly, Sonnenfeld tied this gross underestimation of the college's value to a failure of management to work with its wider community.
Over the course of the fall, Nelson never consulted her five living predecessors, faculty leaders, or other campus constituencies. Nor did she appeal to alumni about her dire assessment of Hampshire’s financial situation, a list which includes Stonyfield Farms chairman Gary Hirshberg, former CEO of Seventh Generation Jeffrey Hollender, renowned documentarian Ken Burns, and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes. Gregory Prince, who was president of Hampshire College 16 years, envisioned tapping such alumni for a recovery plan involving various interconnected institutes. But in the panic, consultation—a cultural necessity in a liberal arts college founded on participation and engagement—simply did not occur and this important resource was overlooked.
Collaboration is in fact the foundation of intelligence in pretty much everything, but education managers only sometimes sees this.  Cerullo chronicles Nelson's failures on this front. Sonnenfeld cited former Hampshire president Prince calling for restored campus partnerships in Hampshire policy-making.  In spite of the insight of various individuals, higher ed admin culture has shifted in recent decades toward autocracy.  That has justified many a mediocre decision, including this one.

The inevitable New York Times mediation on the demise of communitarian ideals misses the point that Hampshire may close not because of liberal arts economics but because of the autocratic replacement of shared governance.

The liberal arts are often scapegoated for economic problems that come from the spread of the market model in higher ed.  Many, many people who can and should benefit from higher education cannot pay market price for it.  Markets fails to allocate higher ed efficiently--they give too much to the rich and too little to the poor.  Markets hand education out according to ability to pay, as they are supposed to do. But that isn't how societies allocate true public goods like quality healthcare, high school diplomas, and now bachelor's degrees.  Societies need relatively equal distribution of public goods that meet the same quality standard in all cases.  Such a distribution is always subsidized--where "subsidy" means society pays collectively for a just distribution through the tax system.  In other terms, capitalist societies are always partly socialist or they function very badly.  The key feature of neoliberalism--privatization of all interests and allocations--actually degrades the capitalism it seeks to expand.

In higher ed wea have this jerry-rigged system called student financial aid that offers selective subsidies without having to own market failure.  A college like Hampshire, which is private, typically uses endowment returns, gifts, and the full tuition of affluent students to subsidize poorer students.  Public colleges do the same thing with state appropriations (including direct aid to students).  Whether the college is private or public, its finances are now constituted by market failure. It needs the subsidy work-around from somewhere.

Private colleges are facing an artificial crisis borne of the national--wholly political--demand that they cover their very high quality educational operations entirely with private revenues.  Their students can't actually come up with this money: colleges are now discounting tuition in many cases by 50 percent in order to fill their classes.  This has nothing to do with the quality of the students but reflects the normal smart person's very limited personal wealth.  (The actual economics of public goods suggests that colleges should be discounting tuition anyway, since at least half the total value of a college degree is non-private, students should never pay actual cost in the first place (Stage 1)).

To function, Hampshire has to get a tuition subsidy for many or most of its students; enrollments decline because of insufficient subsidies that declining enrollments make even more insuffiicent.  The doom loop I describe in The Great Mistake applies to private as well as public colleges.  If President Nelson did in fact want Hampshire to be taken over by UMass, she was acknowledging (in a destructive way) that her private subsidy stream wasn't big enough, and could be fixed only with a bigger public one.

Let's pause to note that the thirty years propaganda war on the liberal arts, first for PCness and now for non-vocationality, has successfully scared customers away. But the liberal arts aren't only the most powerful rival of literalist, dispensationalist Christianity on the one hand and business autocracy on the other, but are the exception to college's problem with "limited learning," all of which happens in vocational majors (Figure 6).  The irony is that liberal arts colleges aren't just the most vulnerable sector of higher ed, but also its best.  The constant attacks on them are lowering overall college quality.  The attacks are enabled by the failure to understand public-good economics.

I drafted a Twitter thread on this a couple of days ago.  Liberal arts college quality comes from a combination of intense workload for students and small classes for active engagement with the material.   To make a crude contrast: a typical public college student takes 48 quarter courses for a 4-year BA. Of those 48 courses, how many will have 15 students or fewer?  Probably no more than 1 or 2, and quite possibly zero.  In contrast, at my alma mater, Reed College, I had only two courses with more than 15 students. The engagement difference adds up.

It costs much more money to do high-quality active learning.  Instead of facing this fact, the US is letting cost end the policy discussion rather than start it. The policy questions are: does the United States want to limit Hampshire-style quality to a small elite that can pay? Does it want to limit it to a group that is economically more diverse but still small (the high-tuition/high-financial aid model)? Or does it seek mass quality and see the liberal arts as something to scale up?

Politicians have been stuck in an anti-ambition mode for thirty years, catering to the tax revolt which is in large part a symptom of structural racism, which leads them not to want to pool public resources across racial lines. Operationally, this is moronic and self-destructive. it has lowered the quality of the entire national infrastructure, from roads to schools to housing.  The same is true of liberal arts colleges, public and private. Since they are more or less the best we have, refusing to fund them is tantamount to lowering overall attainment.

Liberal arts college leadership has been on the defensive for years, and is completely intimidated by criticisms of price. But the solution is not to let these colleges die so an even smaller elite gets to have their quality.  One alternative, mega-universities, with their dependence on charging significant tuition for online enrollment, are a way of kidding ourselves about quality as we give it up.

The key issue is that the whole ecosystem of higher education has been destabilized by shifting to a private cost structure that doesn't work.  Seeing colleges as private goods insures that society under-invests in them. A confident society sets goals for things like education and then figures out how to pay for it.  It does not downsize the goal to fit benighted leaders' ideas about the budget. The US has to decide if it wants real learning for all college students or just for the traditional, limited group.

If we do decide we want mass learning or democratic education, we're going to have to fix the business model. That will mean reversing privatization at private colleges too. Society and business will have to increase subsidizes to colleges and universities, not demand that universities subsidize society and business--which happens when we make students pay the cost of educational benefits that are actually half public. 

This social support for private college students will take the form of public funding for places like Hampshire.  This is a good year to start thinking about how to do it.

Photo credit: Katherine Taylor, New York Times

UPDATE. Both Hampshire's president and Board chair have resigned.   President Miriam Nelson's resignation letter can be read here.  It acknowledges that the secrecy of admin's deliberations was a problem while also trying to justify it as part of Hampshire's original charter.

Students, staff, and faculty are proceeding with the Renvisioning Hamphsire project. It's Facebook site is here.