What is a good University?

Seth Godin wrote a devastating post on the future of higher education. Unlike Godin, I fail to see an imminent crash of high education. But then, I failed to predict the recent financial market crash. However, as someone who spent most of his adult life on a campus, I have an idea of what students can hope to get out of higher education :

  • Meet other smart people who come on campus to study or work (including professors). Emulation requires engaging relationships. Sometimes, you can get some of the same benefits by doing a job, but not always. Interestingly, online education almost entirely fails in this respect. However, you can reproduce some of this effect online, on your own.
  • Degrees that are key to job-related certifications. Want to be come a (medical) doctor, a lawyer or an engineer? Universities hold the keys. Interestingly, though, all these valuable certifications are supported by legal means and non-academic organizations (such as the bar or an engineering corporation).
  • University-bound financial support. Where are you going to get a (small) salary to work on proving a tough theorem, if not on a campus? Governments and donors are fond of funding universities.

Working from these benefits, how do you imagine higher education failing?

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Martin Lessard for pointing out Godin’s post to me.

Daniel Lemire, "What is a good University?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 30, 2010.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

15 thoughts on “What is a good University?”

  1. I think that some of the points raised by Godin are significant. For example, “access to information” is no longer a good reason to go on campus.

    Also, in my opinion, the market value of a degree has gone down in the last 40 years. A degree used to buy you a good job for life. These days, some A students have a hard time finding any kind of job at all when they graduate.

    But the lack of competitive, state-supported, alternatives makes universities very strong still.

  2. Is it really too old-fashioned to think that what most students hope to get out of higher education is learning something new? Accumulating knowledge and learning how to learn no longer has value? Love of learning is dead?

  3. That is true, Daniel, and I don’t mean to sound overly idealistic. While I think that there are side benefits to higher education beyond increase in salary — for example, more interesting work, easier movement between jobs — I think we agree that it needs to be financially worthwhile to be attractive to most people.

    I think what this comes down to is an argument for keeping public university tuition low. Private universities have always been unaffordable to many, but the shameful rise in tuition at public universities threatens to make that too unaffordable to the middle class. That is not in the long-term interest of society.

    I am surprised that Godin did not address the rise in public education tuition specifically. I see losing the option of an inexpensive education at public university as the true threat, and it does appear we are walking down that road.

  4. @Paul

    Food for thoughts:

    Our results suggest that in terms of college quality, there is not only no direct effect on mid- and late-career attainment, but no significant effect at all. Brand and Halaby, 2006.

    Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges
    Dale and Krueger, 1999.

  5. I graduated from the flagship state university in Massachusetts, and strictly anecdotally, applications are way up in the last couple years. I don’t forsee any general higher-ed crash: a degree is still too important in our society, but I can see 45k/yr schools as being in danger. There are plenty of benefits to college, the question is what makes some universities worth 2-3x the price?

    I don’t see any of the three benefits you lay out being that much stronger in a private setting. I met a lot of students who were at school just to leave with a degree: they didn’t care what school’s name was on it. I met students who were at a state school because they knew they were headed for grad programs after and wanted to save money know to go to a pricier school for graduate studies. So much of an education is what you put into it, and that’s essentially a constant between all the schools.

    Crash may be a strong word, but I could certainly see a strong shift in where students go and what they pay. Especially since there’s a feedback mechanism: as demand for cheaper state schools rise they can select better students which raises the university prestige and draws in more interest from students.

  6. If Godin makes any good points, it’s purely by dumb luck, because he clearly doesn’t seem to understand what a university is, let alone the value of a university education. The fact he mentions places (like Full Sail) primarily designed to separate rubes from their money while promising them what is essentially vocational training that will lose most of its value within a few years shows this. This is an educational critique by a marketing person, and paying undue attention to marketing people (rather than a school’s core “business”: looking after the lifelong learning welfare of students) is generally a recipe for disaster. (One could extend that observation to other areas of the economy; if it weren’t true, “Dilbert” wouldn’t exist). Moreover, Godin has a completely America-centric point of view, and thus he misses what will soon be just about the greatest influence on US universities (and, of course, he renders what he has to say irrelevant outside the US).

    Increasing college costs: I see two things going on here: an arms race and (for US public institutions) the de-funding of public education in America. The former is a result of the fact that pretty much everyone needs to get a college education these days (I’ll address the value issue of a college degree momentarily), and probably some additional stuff that I’m ignorant of. The latter is symptomatic of the great extent to which ideas like the “common good”, personal obligation to society, etc. has been eliminated from the American mind. In both cases, however, I do not see a collapse but a saturation, for example as government subsidy reaches a small percentage of universities’ budgets and compensatory tuition increase therefore abate. The arms race driver will abate as schools either have in place the facilities they think they need to attract top students, they see decreasing overall revenue from tuition increases, they achieve a balance between full-fare payers and those on financial aid (a good part of these increases is a shift of the financial aid funding burden from society to wealthier students), and/or they have in place the additional support facilities necessary for a much broader, more diverse student body (how many schools twenty years ago needed to cope with ADHD kids who had been on Ritalin throughout their brain development?).

    Definition of “best” and the value of a college degree: A marketer might see the driving force behind university actions as US News rankings, but that’s not much of an internal driver for faculty or (at least most) administrators. The value comparison isn’t between different schools; it’s between college and not college, which is enormously large, now that so many people get college degrees. The difference between a large set of “good” schools and the smaller number of “elite” schools, in terms of earning power, might not be significant for the bulk of people, but it is for those in the tail of the distribution (check out the representation of Harvard grads in top corporate and political positions). If you want to get into a top graduate school, where you do your undergraduate work makes a difference. If your school provides no opportunities for involvement in research or doesn’t have faculty whose recommendations carry weight with their colleagues, you will be disadvantaged.

    Accreditation: Godin doesn’t have a clue here. Check out the ABET web site to learn about degree accreditation. The goal isn’t standardization (except to the extent that certain professions require mastery of a particular body of knowledge). The basic idea is that you say what you want to achieve in students’ educations and you “prove” that you actually do it.

    Information is free: What fraction of college-age kids (the bulk of the college population) are capable of learning on their own? I would say a very small fraction. I don’t think I would have been capable of doing so at that age and I (because of my massive ego) don’t consider myself to be typical. It took me years to learn how to learn on my own. In fact, that’s generally a major learning goal of a college education. And how are employers to determine who has mastered the material of a particular area of study? That’s not merely certification, it’s quality control. Would you fly in an airplane designed by people who studied on the web and only passed through whatever minimal qualification evaluation a company was willing to pay for?

    Globalization: Countries like China and Germany are ramping up their support for higher education. The idea that US students will just learn on their own on the web and be able to compete globally is ludicrous. We may be looking at the end of public higher education in the US, but there will be consequences and eventually, at great cost, Americans will either have to rebuild the system or accept non-competitiveness and movement of industrial and technological leadership elsewhere. It won’t be the end of the world, just a reordering. And, if you’re reading this from outside the US, likely a curious but largely irrelevant process.

  7. @Stiber Excellent comment which would be worth a blog post of its own.

    If you look carefully at my blog, you’ll notice a small red maple logo… I’m in Canada. We don’t have the “rising tuition” issue. But I still share many of these concerns.

    I agree that if you want to pursue a Ph.D., and go to a “lesser” school, you may hit some roadblocks. For example, scholarships may be more difficult to get. But then, how many people should get a Ph.D. in the first place? If you want to be a top-notch engineer, you can do just fine in a non-prestigious university.

    The CEOs who run major corporations in the USA may come from Harvard. Sure. But how many people are going to be running major corporations?

    I think most kids just want a sane job with a good salary. There are outliers who want to rule the world or get a Nobel prize. But they are outliers. And they’ll probably be just fine even if they don’t to Harvard. People are sometimes overanxious.

  8. eyeballing this graph http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Educational_attainment.jpg

    40 years ago a high school diploma put you above 40% of the adult population, a college diploma above 90%.

    Today you look to be ahead of around 20%/75%. So assuming a static job market about half of people holding a job with a college degree would have held that job without it in 1970. Of course, the job market isn’t static, but it does support your idea that the value of a degree is going down, in that it no longer says you’re ~1 in 10, but ~1 in 4.

    But this actually suggests to me a degree is more important than ever. Without a degree you could get a 85th percentile job, now you’d be getting a 70th percentile job. It’s no longer sufficient to get a degree, you now need the right one, or to do something to prove you’re the 1 in 10, not the 1 in 4.

    I think we’re heading to more education, not less, where a masters is the new bachelor’s, and a bachelor’s is headed towards a high school diploma.

  9. @Daniel What you say is true (though there are more students who want to go to grad school to become doctors, lawyers, or get MBAs, and at least admissions to medical schools is tightly restricted to keep the supply of doctors low). For students in the meat of the distribution, there are a wide range of fine choices for higher education. And just about any of them is better than no college (or places like Full Sail — the school, not the brewery, which is not regionally accredited and thus does not produce a “degree” that would be accepted as such by most graduate schools as a prerequisite for admission).

  10. And lucky you for living in a country in which the bulk of the citizenry still care about the public good. People in the US would be more than happy to see their neighbors’ children live in a sewer if it would save them a couple dollars in taxes.

  11. Thanks Daniel for your great insights.
    Here is my post whttp://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/to-be-or-not-to-be-in-a-quest-for-changes/which relates to yours.
    What could students get out of Higher Education? Apart from those listed, how about the development of social networking literacies and language, and the personal learning networks, based on the guidance of mentors (instructors and professors)? Higher Education should also be the research centre of new knowledge in the respective fields, where partnership with business could provide ample opportunities for students to research and learn from.

    I see Higher Education institutions are in the midst of changes. I think institutions could act as a bridge in connecting these young enthusiastic learners to knowledge and learning networks, to the best educators within and outside institutions, so as to prepare them for present or future challenges in employment, studies or research.

  12. Thanks to D.L.!The concept of “cluster” (related to point 1 of D.L. view) is perhaps the most important today (A main reason for the success of Silicon Valley or…even main streets!) Your one-stop-shop for knowledge and interaction with high IQ people of varied backgrounds which the university still is cannot be replaced entirely by a conference meeeting…The chance element would be obliterated…

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