Of Majors and Publics

Those recommending that US universities might be improved by simplifying student choices fail to understand both the American academy and its students. Suggestions that colleges ought to limit their menu to a select number of offerings fail to recognize that curricula are structured more like video on demand. What’s most important is who they reach.

Our first post insisted that the universities serve not one public but several. Before asking whether higher education represents a public good, we need to ask: Which public?

Nothing more emphatically confirms the fragmentation of higher ed’s audience than the proliferation of degree programs since the 1960s. This process has affected higher education in all its parts and is generally misunderstood.

California’s Governor Brown recently provided a case in point by proposing Chipotle’s menu as a model for university course catalogs. University of California campuses “have so damn many courses,” he barked. Shifting responsibility for low graduation rates away from budget cuts, he insinuated that fancy pants professors would not deign to offer the classes students actually needed, preferring their “pet projects” instead. Solution: a “good basic education” modeled on Chipotle’s limited menu.

While we too enjoy burritos, Brown’s analogy dangerously misapprehends the causes of course proliferation. Professorial “pet projects” are really not the problem. Institutions create new courses and degrees to compete for students. And while some schools do attract undergraduates with a rice and beans approach–St. John’s comes to mind as an exemplary “limited menu” college–most have found variety important.

Curricular marketing schemes effectively called the American research university into being. The late nineteenth-century elective system put every course and professor in the position of competing with every other for student attention. Ever since, general education has constrained choices by defining “the basics” without disturbing a commitment to student selection. College is different from high school precisely because undergraduates chart their own paths.

Television analogizes these audience dynamics far better than the restaurant trade.

Like television programs, courses are not “used up” when consumed. The best burrito in the world loses its worth once eaten but even a so-so course can have durable value to the student.

Like TV producers, academic administrators invest in talent that they hope will produce attractive content, but they cannot be experts in every field–not even all the supposedly “basic” ones. Deans and department chairs do not evaluate course content like Chipotle managers assess whether a line cook has produced savory beans. They only learn if professors are effective after the fact, once their teaching record has been interpreted.

Like TV writers and directors, professors know popularity is a major criterion of success, but other factors also count: critical acclaim, experimentation, and staying power (reputation over the long term). It’s a complex evaluative situation.

Academic majors offer a way to manage the risk of new courses that may or may not meet changing student interests. Majors make demand more predictable by bundling a set of requirements with a set of electives. Majors anchor marketing, moreover–these days by offering specific career pathways. In the TV analogy, majors are series, courses are episodes. Majors are not meals, wherein chips and a drink complete the bundle.

A restaurant can measure popularity in units sold, but advertiser-supported television requires different means to measure the success of its programs. Third parties, especially the Nielsen company, develop and sell metrics of ratings, reach, and share.

Ratings measure the percentage of total potential viewers who might have watched a particular show in a particular time slot, whether or not their TVs were on. Share measures the percentage of viewers watching TV who watched a particular show at a particular time. Reach measures the availability of a particular show (at a particular time) to viewers in a particular market.

Measures of popularity in higher education have focused almost exclusively on the share of students completing particular majors. Humanists who teach in old, established fields like history and English are particularly obsessed with their recently declining share. (Ben Schmidt offers some up-to-the-minute visualizations.)

Consideration of share alone, however, presents a skewed picture. A ratings-like measure, for instance, might weigh the percentage of all adults who had earned particular degrees. Individual majors would be seen to compete not only with one another, but also with everything else potential learners might do with their time. Back in 2013Schmidt proposed that such a measure would provide a far more realistic perspective on the “crisis” in the humanities than share does.

“Reach,” offers another perspective-altering metric. In our book, Media U, we develop a reach measure for university degrees and reveal that higher ed changed historically roughly in parallel to TV. University curricula transitioned from a “broadcast” era in which majors were fewer to a “narrowcast” era of the sort often associated with cable TV’s proliferation of channels. Among other features, this shift sundered the relationship between discipline and department. Majors increased faster than the number of departments to manage them.

Although Governor Brown has reason to imagine taxpayers might find the resulting array of courses bewildering, his Chipotle analogy is full of beans. A comparison to Netflix would have been equally easy to understand and better capable of accurately capturing the allure and marketing of degree options.

There is no such thing as private higher education

There is no such thing as private higher education. Every college and university responds to public demands. All higher education shapes the affairs of others. It could not be otherwise. In the United States, colleges and universities must engage various publics to thrive.

To engage various publics requires that schools address conflicting demands. Some constituents strive to better themselves while also reveling in campus social life. Others want to solve grand challenges without, however, upsetting the status quo. In Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education, we show how such contradictory audience interaction has set expectations for the American research university.

In particular, US citizens have had a lot riding on the expectation that college will sort and certify students based on their merits. For much of the twentieth century, this function anchored the belief that individual talent and hard work could overcome inherited privilege. European industrial democracies tended to address economic inequalities through a redistributive welfare state. In typical fashion, Americans preferred to imagine that the right kind of individual attainment would serve the commonweal. We expected our universities to reconcile the competing imperatives of individual (private) and collective (public) benefits. We expected them to do so whether they were tax-exempt corporations supported primarily by students and alumni or state agencies supported by taxpayers.

It is noteworthy, then, that arguments against “privatizating” higher education seem willing to abandon the claim that certifying individual merit guarantees a public benefit. Prominent recent books by Christopher Newfield and Cathy Davidson provide cases in point.

In Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, “privatization” names a decades-long process with multiple stages that include regular tuition hikes, state cuts to public funding, and increased student debt. He argues that this process has destroyed public universities. They no longer provide educations comparable to those of “elite private” schools. Nor do they guarantee social mobility for their debt-burdened graduates. State systems were built to have transformative effects at a massive scale. Privates were not. Thus, Newfield argues, ruined public higher education all but guarantees rising social inequality.

Similar observations animate Davidson’s The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. There too “elite privates” appear as engines of inequality, and the withdrawal of taxpayer support imperils public higher education. Despite difficult budgets, however, Davidson sees public schools as incubators for new approaches. She grants their classrooms almost magical powers to remake the social order. In community colleges and public research universities alike, her exemplars jettison the exams, grades, and lectures that characterize an archaic “industrial” education. In their place, these educators cultivate collaborative, problem-solving, student-centered approaches. These approaches not only nurture skills more suitable for today’s knowledge economy but also, she maintains, equip students to chart a more egalitarian course for the future.

If Davidson’s faith in the classroom leads her to greater optimism than Newfield, both authors treat “merit” as a dirty word. Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Meritocracy persuades them. Guinier shows how testing mechanisms meant to identify and promote academic merit as a counterweight to inherited privilege have the opposite effect.

Where Guinier calls for a more “democratic,” less “testocratic” merit system, however, Davidson and Newfield seem inclined to tar “merit” and “private” with the same brush. Newfield thinks that the “elite privates” do better because they have the resources. Davidson sees them as clubs that confer benefits primarily through social networking. Both relish the conservative connotations of “private”–old, establishment, reluctant to change–and imply that private school students benefit at the expense of others.

If pressed, we suspect both authors would acknowledge that “elite private” institutions can produce public servants (Newfield has a BA from Reed College, for instance, while Davidson’s is from Elmhurst). Yet they persistently align the terms “private,” “selective,” and “elite.” This strikes us as a symptom.

The “elite privates” are not private. They are the standard bearers of a broken merit system. Neither revolutionary pedagogies nor a reversal of the state university’s decline will reweave the garland of merit. If we want university education to be something other than a way for elites to reproduce themselves, we need to reexamine every ranking mechanism. We need more convincing ways to identify and pay for talent. We need better ways to explain how publics benefit from it and what it is worth.

It may be the case, of course, that Americans no longer expect their universities to harmonize individual and collective goods. (Surveys suggests most of us do, although it’s complicated.) It may also be the case that the wishes of citizens no longer affect how our leaders and institutions conduct themselves. (The public university’s demise could indicate the last gasp of liberal democracy, Joshua Clover argues in his review of Newfield’s book.) Either scenario would make it vital to reclaim merit. If the future seems likely to be very different from the present, it will need all the help we can give it.