A Curricular Conundrum

The co-requisite curricular model in community colleges has been gaining greater momentum thanks to positive reports out of recent pilot projects in flagship states such as Texas and California. The success reinforces the insolvency of traditional remediation, with several college systems nationwide having previously reformed their developmental education prior to the report, whose ink has had barely enough time to set before the document’s most ardent supporters have demanded its passage into policy.

But despite some genuinely significant improvements in remedial students’ learning, such sweeping reform ought to wait. (The exclusion of state funding for this curricular model represents additional difficulty.)

Data from existing studies center predominantly on students’ success in mathematics, leaving conspicuously absent sufficient analysis of writing and reading outcomes in a co-requisite curriculum. (Descriptions of how writing and reading instruction make for a natural pairing do not qualify.) Data beyond this should be approached cautiously. Accomplishing functional literacy after a lifetime of poor nurturing and inadequate instruction has routinely proven difficult. And there lacks a convincing rationale as to how reading and writing curricula fit soundly into this model.

Currently, neither can.

If remediation were a simple matter of review, courses could be fast-tracked to be completed within weeks (presently available), offer customized instruction based on student performance (also presently available), and provide instant feedback to provide maximum efficiency (also presently available). Remedial education would cease being an onerous issue, assuming students enrolled in all studies accurately represent those common to college remediation.

But they do not. Most remedial students exhibit deficiencies far more pronounced than those enrolled in study programs; actual classrooms represent not a tight range of borderline cases but an array of misplaced intellectuals and borderline illiterates that often share a similar disdain for their required enrollment.

Enrollments, however, appear to be receding and attrition rates improving, particularly for those in pathways-based curricula, but the number of incoming college students needing remediation, including those only months removed from high school graduation, remain high. And many cannot avoid succumbing to the dreadfully low rates of degree advancement for those requiring remediation, despite promising additional reforms.

Artificial intelligence, such as that found in interactive software found in remedial curricula, provides promise but often students in remediation have historically lacked the access to, familiarity with, and discipline to navigate such resources. Many students demand human interaction. A co-requisite education, if suitably outfitted with a truly interdisciplinary curriculum, might provide this.

But, currently, it does not and cannot.

Modernize the Undergraduate Curriculum

Long considered a guarantor of economic prosperity, American higher education in the 21st-century has attracted more scrutiny and ridicule for its continued surfeit of underqualified graduates that become sinking costs upon hire. The remainder will largely fight succumbing to the growing imbalance between workforce-ready graduates and a workforce that cannot readily use them.

Charles W. Eliot confronted a similar dilemma saddled between Industrial Revolutions over a century prior, when labor demanded discipline and therefore effective management, leadership, insight. But mostly management; efficiency mattered above all else. This inspired Eliot to develop a distributive framework of courses that mimicked Frederick Winslow Taylor’s taxonomy of distributive labor (whose economic benefits proved largely illusory, leading several industries to discard “Taylorism” as fraudulent.)

But a distributive curriculum that had at one time satisfied a post-mercantile, pre-industrial economy has become untenable in today’s post-industrial, mixed market specializing in knowledge and services unfathomable even to the most discerning minds several generations’ prior. As bold as Mr. Eliot’s approach to higher education proved to be, the creative destruction that had revolutionized his era would neither diminish in speed nor scope in those thereafter, soon antiquating Eliot’s “most […] useful piece of work” that widely persists today. And at prohibitive costs.

But adaptability has rarely been the raison d’etre of an unreactive higher education system, whose cumbersome and costly cafeteria-style approach to undergraduate education slips further real-life economics, spurring some to shun college for more immediate living-wage careers. Others have bypassed the traditional curriculum in favor of online platforms such as Coursera to enhance their marketability in a fraction of the time and cost. High schools have even begun streamlining entry-level pathways that permit teenagers to possibly circumvent the post-secondary market altogether, avoiding exorbitant costs in return for lackluster employment. And a mound of research and anecdotal testimonies exposes the current undergraduate curriculum as little more than an unwieldy gauntlet of hodgepodge courses—some required, many not—for students to endure for a four-year minimum sentence before graduating into uncertainty and debt.

Higher education’s continued clumsiness is a result of numerous factors, including inescapable cost-disease, but not least of all its continued refusal to tailor student enrollments to job market forecasts, its fetish with niche courses that are questionably relevant and certainly overpriced, and its ironclad mismanagement of two distinctive systems:  the four-year’s siloed system trafficking in more theory than utility while overseeing the bachelor’s degree continued decline in value; and the two year’s helter-skelter approach increased remediation, lower retention rates, and declining enrollments.

And one needn’t be a seasoned educator to understand as much. Peter Berkowitz, from the now-defunct The Weekly Standard, appropriately criticizes the disjointedness of the traditional undergraduate curriculum that bewilders students with a “mishmash of unconnected courses” devoid of a core philosophy. Forbes’ George Leef insists that the “lip service” administrators pay defending this system mocks the cohesion and consistency essential to its efficacy. But the most incisive criticism comes directly from students, both current and former, many of whom consider their post-secondary experiences as an onerous mastery of “The Art of College Management”—a punchline that has lost much its former glibness.

Yet an expansive curricular overhaul is required, already having begun with various post-secondary institutions adopting a more efficient and effective pathways approaches to career success. But operating costs of even these reforms will eventually require private business and industry investments and governance, determining both the content and the delivery methods best suited to economic success. What Georgetown and other notable universities and colleges have implemented provides the philosophical basis; more critical, however, is the establishment of an integrative curriculum that will bring to fruition a nobler, more career-oriented vision that most academic institutions squandered in the wake of the 2007-08 economic crisis, when their leaders could have realigned their curricula more purely to industry trends and standards. Instead, most sat on their hands while the federal government cornered the student loan market, resulting in a 40 percent debt increase among borrowers and whose daily high-water marks inch closer to $2 trillion. Meanwhile, influential industries as technology, health services, and finance continue to starve for suitable talent.

Higher education governances need to acknowledge that their institutions serve wholly for career preparation—the development and mastery of skill-sets imperative to any industry’s success and to any individual’s self-fulfillment. The value of an education ought to reflect its economic utility; the “well-rounded” rationale of students requiring multiple semesters of largely unproductive elective courses has lost its allure, and the continued falsehood that career preparation is somehow incompatible with a liberal education—and therefore inferior to it—deserves censure in any serious conversation.

Any career, trades included, can outfit its academic programs with general education courses tailored to the industry or sector into which graduates enter. Such integration will save students and professionals substantial amounts of time and resources while organically streamlining the learning process to forge a stronger correlation between efficiency and efficacy—hallmarks of a sustainable enterprise. And such integration reframes the well-rounded angle: students can still address peripheral issues germane to their field but that go beyond the physical workplace. Beyond naysayers’ myopia, too. Workers’ rights, technological impacts on human labor, corporate accountability, professional development, and engineering ethics represent just a handful of universal applications, not to mention those applicable to specific industries. Action-based learning would flourish on account that instruction would come directly from industry, not an academic intermediary with no stake in and little knowledge of business, economics, and innovation.

This more integrative curriculum would be consummately transactional:  as a successful business employs the ideas of its workers, so too could this new approach patent the ideas of its future professionals now prone to participate in an education centered more on relevancy than loyalty.

While numerous academic institutions have partnered with certain brokers to outfit students with relevant skills in more expedient fashion, American higher education should not have to piecemeal what should be naturally housed entirely under its purview. Doing so makes more economical sense, certainly far more than the existing conditions have proven otherwise. Third-party firms responsible for educative functions count as part of the resulting bloat of administrative functions outsourced beyond its location but somehow not counting in the bottom line.

If educators continue as gatekeepers to industries and businesses about which so many know so little, and yet decry so much; and if administrations continue to defend an undergraduate system proven largely to be defunct, then higher education will continue hemorrhaging credibility. And by folding higher education into American industry, the onerous Department of Education can finally dissolve into oblivion, with the retentive Higher Learning Commission in tow. Industries can then slip into being the accrediting bodies that common-sense commands.

Administrations and educators must concede to the economic realities from which too many have apparently worked to insulate themselves, and hand industry the reigns to steer a lost system on to a more dignified path. Doing so would not signal defeat; it would ensure sustainability that is critical to higher education and to the market justifying its existence.

The Cost Disease of College

Baumol’s cost-disease captures the economic certainty of productivity costs that innovation cannot modify, reduce, or outright eliminate will rise over time. Human labor proves the most incurable. As it is always necessary, it is eternally inflationary. Its indispensability makes it resistant to algorithms and silicon. Human labor, once the hallmark of economic progress and individual prosperity, has turned into a toxic expenditure for industries requiring more of it.

American higher education currently operates as an unsustainable expanse human labor stationed in 2- to 4-year academies, many of which exhibit congenital defects including inequitable enrollment practices, insufficient advisers and counselors, inadequate financial aid support, or curricular irrelevancy. All have garnered more national exposure, yet their endemic cost-disease and the cumulative effects warrant greater coverage.

Most attention over the past decade has gravitated toward affordability issues for students, and understandably so, but rarely considered are the productivity costs incurred by the institutions being blamed for those issues. This neither exonerates nor diminishes institutional liability. Nor does this perspective at all dilute the take that cost-disease has been overestimated when explaining excessive tuition rates. Its impact on the two-year college, however, does prove concerning.

Two-year colleges often accommodate deficits of their underserved populations beyond the academic: some sites have opted to provide daycare services to accommodate parents, other locations make food pantries available for malnourished students, while other campuses offer onsite health care services for uninsured students, including a rise in mental health services. And these populations—the parents, the low-income, the first-generation, the racially diverse, the non-English speaking, the functionally illiterate, the undecided, the uninterested, the all the above—will comprise a larger share of declining enrollments and demand more assistance programs, greater comprehensive counseling, and more expansive academic supports, all human-driven. Students who have had sparse access to learning technologies and few opportunities to practice self-sufficiency, pushing many to become more fully dependent on human-based services. This shift will subsequently require from educators a more expansive, perhaps more explicit, hidden curriculum—in loco parentis—for students whose upbringing had survived without one, but whose immediate future demands it.

These trends and roles make teaching and learning—that which we call education—a supremely human act, a dynamic that artificial intelligence can neither replicate nor replace. Although software can cultivate students’ online navigation and recall abilities, a digital environment cannot outclass what flesh and blood has long refined. Genuine interaction will remain human:  nuanced, contradictory, and temperamental—qualities that software can at best mimic.

But this human triumph pays an unavoidable cost:  provided appropriately to scale as it ought to be, higher education’s operating costs would prove prohibitive, requiring an impossibly expansive labor-force that would never be able to meet demand. Capacity drops. Quality declines. Downtrends continue. Rinse. Repeat.

Even if artificial intelligence prevails in higher education within another generation, a sustainable market for it might not. State funding will never rebound; unsustainable health care and pension costs will make sure of that. Referendums will eventually run dry of support from a disillusioned public, whose purchasing loyalties have begun prioritizing relevancy over an obscure allegiance to a brand name. Productivity costs will continue their rise, thus limiting the scale of commodification required to meet demand. Online learning serves as a reliable proxy, as its revolutionary role after 30 years has settled more naturally into a learning platform, storage unit, and conduit for faster, more novel communication. Online education’s expedition not only to improve human learning but also to replace human educators likely capsized during the high-seas reign of fraudulent for-profits.

Artificial intelligence has not failed on account of too few attempts, a lack of ingenuity, or diminished capability. Online delivery has become a curricular staple, required of many faculty programs, but it was no more a threat yesterday as current AI software will be tomorrow. The tried and true Socratic method persists, as it always should.

The most pertinent question is at what continuing costs?

The Whine of the Disgruntled Academic

A mere once-over of Herb Childress’s screed in the most recent The Chronicle Review reveals him to be little more than another jaded professional, still muttering over his unrequited dreams of academic tenure in a now-villainous American college system.

The whole piece is rather unflattering and self-serving. It reads as one more Marxist screenplay starring the Kafkaesque suffering of yet another paper victim, as evidenced by Mr. Childress’s decision to assume a series of non-teaching careers in academia simply to remain alongside the faculty “who had somehow passed through the gates that had closed in the face of [his] pleas” and into “heaven” to which the author so desperately had “ached” for “membership.” Upon highlighting his wife’s prolific resume, herself former college faculty who, too, experienced hardships, Mr. Childress mourns more the “collegiality [she] offered to deaf ears and turned shoulders” than he celebrates her “outstanding course evaluations and devoted students.” And his self-described nervous breakdown in his 40s had apparently stemmed from his admitted “grief of not finding a home in higher ed,” despite his doing just that for a brief period as post-doctorate instructor. He even goes so far as to self-identify as a refugee “from a nation that would not have” him upon his exiting the academic stage.

But it is Mr. Childress’s temerity to fault Americans en masse for his obsolescence that fully caricaturizes him as the local, yelling-at-the-nighttime-sky old-timer who seethes fire and brimstone to anyone within earshot or eyesight. This one-man production broods terribly from the onset, blaming Americans’ insatiable appetite for all things innovative for having somehow hastened his departure. Through a litany of criticisms masquerading as genuine inquiries, Mr. Childress dispenses serious timeworn contempt:

How did we discard the idea of college faculty? That is, how did we decide to systematically eliminate an entire class of professionals…? How did we come to decide that college teachers didn’t deserve job security, didn’t deserve health insurance, didn’t deserve to make more than convenience-store clerks?

He fumbles through various livelihoods that “we” Americans have collectively bled dry before discarding to the fringes of Mr. Childress’s bitter universe, where lay the masses of obsolete general practitioners, cab drivers, newspaper and magazine writers, auto mechanics, and bookkeepers, suspended in the heavy, dank air of conspiracy overhanging a swift but shallow undercurrent of anti-capitalism. “We” engineer innovation misanthropically—we intentionally induce economic hardship and psychic suffering in others to impose dominion over them, or so it is told by any one of the increasingly number of adults who confuse sanctimonious whining with legitimate activism.

If ever there were more like-minded persons seeking a mascot who could brilliantly amplify their misdirected resentment and toxic entitlement, Mr. Childress appears available.

Two Years Later yet Further from the Truth

“We should take exception, however, to the notion that students’ recent demands show they are cosseted, lacking resilience, or somehow seeking to infantilize themselves. On the contrary, these students are taking on deeply entrenched problems, such as institutional racism, and showing that they are determined to do something about it.”

In his 2016 article for The Advocate, National Education Association attorney Jason Walta vainly defends what has since become a caricature of student activism on American college campuses, replete now as then with the same disruptive and petty tactics of a youth different only in age but not in naivete, impervious to both fact and consensus.

And apparently also to jurisprudence, for Walta’s defense below that tactics such as shouting down speakers, disrupting official school business, and threatening to riot are within students’ right to freely express bring into sharp relief a degree of deceit that borders on malpractice:

“Universities are— and should remain—bastions of free inquiry for students and faculty alike. That means students are free to protest and to issue whatever demands they think will advance their cause. And, it means that teachers and administrators should tolerate and even invite forceful protest and debate.”

Students actually possess no right to “forceful[ly] protest,” despite what Walta—a credentialed attorney—claims, let alone an entitlement to commit violence that easily qualifies as “forceful protest.” In fact, interrupting and interfering with academic affairs, including school-sanctioned events, are not protected by any legal document, let alone the U.S. Constitution. Rightfully so, such unprotected tactics have increasingly received greater public scorn.

It is also unnecessary to insist universities and colleges remain epicenters of free inquiry of ideas. It is disingenuous, however, to proclaim such and then fail miserably at reconciling students’ moblike behavior and childish aggression when confronted with disagreeable ideas—words—that are themselves legitimately protected. It is more egregious to then tacitly support restricting language on the basis that words could cause a student to experience irreparable trauma for which the college could be held liable. (It could not be.)

And it certainly fares poorly that so many faculty support these illegitimate protests, including some whom have actively engaged in mob-rule actions worthy of a swift termination. It appears self-victimization is an honorable way to quench unrequited anger, misdirected that resulting demands reveal a frightening profile of persons who are anything other than tolerant or intuitive.

Such incoherence and subsequent extremism perfectly capture the infantilization Walta so earnestly disavows. This particularly large demographic of misplaced activism neither appropriately or effectively confronts systemic issues. The tactics used are as shameful as those carried out by the several Black Lives Matter activists whose recklessness effectively crippled a potentially revolutionary movement, had it not been sullied by the civically ignorant and emotionally unstable.

Likewise, students possessed “to do something” just as counterintuitive and reactionary will only risk ending in disgrace yet another profound undertaking, in whose diminished wake will leave nothing this time but shambles of a makeshift philosophy and its unintelligible drivel, spurred by the overzealous and attention-seeking behavior of youth desperate for acceptance and relevancy.

But most assuredly, the kicking and whining will continue unabated and unmoored from the more consequential reality that lay beyond the hysteria and nonsense of today’s modern college campus.