Crossing the Finish Line — Undermatching

by Harry on September 15, 2009

David Leonhardt has an interesting column prompted by Bowen, Chingos and McPherson’s Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. [1] Leonhardt is impressed by the discussion of the phenomenon of undermatching:

[Undermatching] refers to students who choose not to attend the best college they can get into. They instead go to a less selective one, perhaps one that’s closer to home or, given the torturous financial aid process, less expensive. About half of low-income students with a high school grade-point average of at least 3.5 and an SAT score of at least 1,200 do not attend the best college they could have. Many don’t even apply. Some apply but don’t enroll. “I was really astonished by the degree to which presumptively well-qualified students from poor families under-matched,” Mr. Bowen told me.

This would matter less if the students went to schools at which they nevertheless thrive. But some well-qualified students do not go at all. And the advice is to go to at least one of the most demanding schools for which you are well qualified. Schools lower down the pecking order have much lower 4- and 6- year graduation rates:

They could have been admitted to Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus (graduation rate: 88 percent, according to College Results Online) or Michigan State (74 percent), but they went, say, to Eastern Michigan (39 percent) or Western Michigan (54 percent). If they graduate, it would be hard to get upset about their choice. But large numbers do not… In effect, well-off students — many of whom will graduate no matter where they go — attend the colleges that do the best job of producing graduates. These are the places where many students live on campus (which raises graduation rates) and graduation is the norm. Meanwhile, lower-income students — even when they are better qualified — often go to colleges that excel in producing dropouts. “It’s really a waste,” Mr. Bowen says, “and a big problem for the country.” As the authors point out, the only way to lift the college graduation rate significantly is to lift it among poor and working-class students. Instead, it appears to have fallen somewhat since the 1970s.

This part of their study is based on a study of students in North Carolina; but they draw also on the very rich work of the Chicago Consortium (in these studies) which has very similar findings.

Why does it happen? In the comments to the previous post concerns were raised about how the authors control for affordability. In fact, both the authors and the Chicago Consortium studies find that a large plurality of undermatches occur at the application stage—students don’t even apply to the colleges which they would easily get into. And at the levels of income we are talking about differences of financial aid packages makes the differences in the real prices of more and less selective public colleges negligible. In fact selective colleges often fashion packages of aid for highly promising low-income students that make the net price cheaper than they may find at weaker colleges. (This is especially true for students of color at flagship publics.) Unaffordability is not the issue.

Instead, Bowen, Chingos and McPherson say (in the book):

We suspect that the primary forces leading to such high undermatch rates were a combination of inertia, lack of information, lack of forward planning for college, and lack of encouragement
.

It’s worth reading the Consortium reports for a lot more detail. (And, incidentally, it’s worth reading all the Consortium reports; more on this one later…). But the “lack of information” part of the explanation of undermatching sent me straight back to CT-favourite Annette Lareau’s contribution to Social Class: How Does It Work?. It is the first report I know of the follow-up study she did to Unequal Childhoods (when the children were at the end of high school), in which she explores the process of college applications. One of the working class children, Jessica Irwin, having scored high on the PSATs received a lot of college material, and was a very competitive student.

Although she had wanted to attend Carnegie Mellon, Jessica’s parents vetoed this choice once they learned the tuition. they were unaware that the financial aid packages of private schools can be large enough to wholly or almost wholly off-set the high tuition rates. Nor were they aware that a nearby elite private university offers full scholarships for twenty young people from the Irwin’s home city every year. Jessica ended up attending a small public university.

Both Jessica’s parents had experience of college, and her mother graduated college; they had helped her some in looking at possible universities, but nowhere near as much as the middle and upper-middle class parents in the study. Janice Turner (hat tip: my mum):

When my colleague Alice Thomson wrote this week that you don’t have to be middle-class to be a pushy parent, I really had to laugh. How can you push when you can’t see where you’re going? My folks, who left school at 14, could teach me to read and encourage my studies, but the arcane rules of the educational system were beyond them. (And that was before the terror of debt from student loans.) As one child interviewed for the Milburn report said: “My parents don’t know anything about the application process and it is difficult to understand alone.” Even as a middle-class parent myself, I find this sharp-elbows business difficult, the system opaque. It takes intense application to work out what standard a child must reach at each point and how, by constantly bothering teachers or hiring tutors, to resolve all shortcomings. Meanwhile, there is always some other mother, invariably non-working and vaguely hysterical, who is five smug moves ahead. And to think our pushing days are not done when that Ucas [universal college application] form goes off, but only after we have called in the vaguest favours to blag our darlings a tea-making stint at Goldman Sachs.

[1] Disclosure in previous post.

{ 38 comments }

1

Keven 09.15.09 at 2:19 am

My wife would be a case study for undermatching. Neither of her parents went to college but they both emphasized the importance of education. She was in the top two at her class in Indiana and was offered a half-scholarship at the University of Chicago and a full-ride scholarship at Bowling Green State University. She went to BGSU for a number of reasons, but the primary one was financial. After graduating with an almost perfect GPA from BGSU she was considering doing her PhD at Yale, but decided on Ohio State because we knew we could never afford to live in New Haven on the salary I would make alone while she studied.

2

Jason Swadley 09.15.09 at 3:36 am

Much of this problem can be attributed to the low horizons given to many students. At my high school it was a big deal to go to the small liberal arts college nearby. It was a good school (it’s where I went), but none of the best students would have considered applying to any Ivy League school.

The option is technically open to these students, but it’s not even in the realm of possibility for them.

3

magistra 09.15.09 at 5:51 am

Janice Turner’s column, however, is also itself an example of creating this kind of undermatching problem. (It’s also noticeable that much hand-wringing over undermatching ends up with the equivalent of ‘bring back the grammar schools’). Every time someone writes a column which includes saying that Oxbridge is snobby and ‘ordinary’ people don’t fit in there, they discourage working class children from applying. (and inaccurate depictions like are also a problem). All this simply reinforces inaccurate stereotypes for those who don’t know much about the subject personally. For example, teachers at comprehensives systematically underestimate the percentage of state school children at Oxbridge. Both Oxford and Cambridge have access offices that are desperately trying to encourage pupils from a wider background to apply. But the existence of a lot of Oxbridge graduates, like me, who went to comprehensives (from a middle-class background, but with non-pushy parents) is simply ignored by the media.

4

Thorfinn 09.15.09 at 6:13 am

College admissions is a zero-sum game. Even if some people were better matched, other students would still have to go to lower-tier schools. The problem is that those schools are bad at producing graduates, and that high schools produce people unprepared for College.

5

Phil 09.15.09 at 7:42 am

magistra – yes and no. When people asked me about Cambridge, at first I used to say things like “only about half of us came from the big public schools” or “I only knew a couple of Old Etonians” – and the ‘only’ was perfectly sincere. Then I noticed the looks I was getting from people who’d only seen Old Etonians on TV & couldn’t name the big public schools, and I shut up.

Oxbridge colleges that only admit on A Level results & are genuinely committed to widening entrance are a different beast from the Magdalen that admitted James Lees-Milne. But perhaps not all that different.

6

derek 09.15.09 at 9:59 am

“I was really astonished by the degree to which presumptively well-qualified students from poor families under-matched,” Mr. Bowen told me.

Mr. Bowen’s class privilege is showing. I undermatched, turning down the most prestigious college that accepted me, because I didn’t have the resources to go the full course without income. The university I went to offered a sandwich course that put me into paid employment (with course credits) during the summers. For the prestige, intellectual stretching, and useful contacts, I would have been better off graduating from Imperial, but if I’d crashed out financially I’d have had nothing.

That was a rational calculation, but the irrational choices working class students make are real examples of class privilege too, in that middle class students are either taught by their within-class elders to be smarter in their choices, or simply guided, pressured or instructed by their families and the wider class milieu in where to go.

7

Bunbury 09.15.09 at 10:38 am

Haven’t grade inflation and the shift to coursework assessment killed off admission by A Level grades as an opportunity leveller?

Many private schools are abandoning A levels because they are too easy (more than 50% g0t A grades at private schools this year!) so soon state school students will not have access to the gold standard qualification. Baccalaurates aside, the gap between state and private school A level grades has been widening despite the compression of results in the top grades.

Expanding tertiary education places while cutting funding per place to pay for the expansion seems to have made this problem worse in the UK. The rewards are smaller (because there are more graduates) and the risks greater. Instead we now have a world where every middle class child will go to university while working class children are discouraged and undermatching.

I don’t think this is what the Labour government intended but it is what they were told would happen.

8

Chris Williams 09.15.09 at 11:21 am

Hmm . . . the backlash against cramming might be starting soon. Heard of a recent crop of MA students at the University of Reputation: “They all went to private schools. They all got As at A level. They all got firsts or 2.1s. None of them can think for themselves. They are hopeless.”

9

Phil 09.15.09 at 11:50 am

Bunbury – it’s still a better leveller than the entrance exam, which I (arrogant git living in my own intellectual bubble) cruised through. I got three Bs at A Level – which wasn’t that bad in 1978, but certainly wouldn’t have got me into Cambridge unaided. I went into the entrance exam aiming to ring the “we’ll have this one” bell, and succeeded (I wrote about Wyndham Lewis’s anthropological reading of Shakespeare, and discussed Edward Lear as a Romantic poet).

But yes, the levelling effect of A Levels has collided rather badly with the (glaringly Goodhart-prone) drive for continuous improvement of results across the board. And yet there’s still a need for some sort of metric that genuinely tracks academic achievement. So we have A* as the new A (coming soon at A Level), IB as the new A Levels and IGCSE as the new O Levels – which unfortunately makes GCSEs the new CSEs.

I think the problem is that the government don’t really know what change they want to bring about to the distribution of marks – is improvement measured in a shorter left tail, a longer right tail or nudging the whole brontosaurus to the right, leaving its shape unchanged?

10

rm 09.15.09 at 12:23 pm

I teach at a place like the Eastern or Western Michigan in the first passage above — that is, the state’s second tier, a “regional comprehensive.” I think this discussion discounts the amount of rational, realistic choice students are making in the context of an unequal (I’d say unjust, and in the US unacknowledged) class system. They are likely to drop out for economic reasons that are real, that would cause any of us to stop going to class if placed in their shoes. They are likely to undermatch because of a terror and loathing of being in debt or being beholden in any way. They need financial aid or a full-time job just to attend the state university, so the nominal tuition at something like an Ivy or a Vanderbilt is not only beyond their horizon, it looks like a trap. You’re going to charge me how much and then “discount” part and LOAN me the rest?! Yeah, right — find another sucker.

Of course there are cultural factors (don’t move from home, don’t “get above your raising”) and the issue of parents who are at a loss (I have a doctorate and I’m at a loss when it comes to the financing part of this — at least I know how to prepare my kids academically).

But I don’t think the solution is to match more kids to the flagship campuses, it’s to make the other campuses work better for the students they serve, and that can only be done partly on campus. It requires something like economic justice. It requires, say, nearly-free college tuition like civilized countries have. The US is a million miles from that agenda.

11

Bunbury 09.15.09 at 12:38 pm

Distribution of grades is not any kind of measure of standards and to some extent irrelevant to the purpose of A levels which is to work out who gets which university place.

Setting things up so that straight As is a minimum requirement shifts the actual basis of decision making to other factors which will be less than transparent.

12

Matt 09.15.09 at 12:52 pm

This still seems to me to be seriously underestimating and misunderstanding the way financial considerations work in cases like this. The problem isn’t just that poorer students can’t afford to attend more expensive universities, but that they are more likely to be pushed out due to economic events than are more wealthy students. Financial aid packages do little to help that. If their family must contribute something (often the case), but then has a financial set-back, they are out of luck. That’s much often less likely among the more wealthy. My point is that the same sort of financial considerations that often lead (perhaps mistakenly, though I’m less sure) to “undermatching” also lead to dropping out more. This seems to indicate that it’s not “undermatching” as such, but other factors (not just financial) that are doing the work. The discussion above doesn’t seem to change this evaluation.

13

Cranky Observer 09.15.09 at 1:33 pm

> ” Even as a middle-class parent myself, I find this sharp-elbows
> business difficult, the system opaque. It takes intense application
> to work out what standard a child must reach at each point and how,
> by constantly bothering teachers or hiring tutors, to resolve all
> shortcomings. Meanwhile, there is always some other mother, invariably
> non-working and vaguely hysterical, who is five smug moves ahead. And
> to think our pushing days are not done when that Ucas [universal college
> application] form goes off,

Not to mention, in the US, the College Board’s Financial Aid Form. I design and implement manufacturing management software for a living and work with complex systems both physical and software every week, and I spent 5 evenings in a cold sweat getting that thing completed. Low-income families who move from apartment to apartment every few years have 5 years of tax forms sitting to hand, you betcha. And woe to anyone who has been self-employed for as little as $1 in income: that’s another 5 pages of forms. Of course, you are expected to have your own computer and internet connection…

Cranky

14

Cara 09.15.09 at 1:43 pm

I’ve been a professor at a historically black college for ten years, and honestly I’m most surprised at Bowen’s surprise at the prevalence of undermatching. I had thought it was common knowledge, at least among professors, that this happens all the time. Most profs will tell you that their student body is uneven, which means that their students vary widely in their preparation for college-level work. It’s sort of astonishing to me that undermatching comes as news to anyone with experience in the college classroom.

Also, I agree with rm that the factors that place a Harvard-quality student in my HBCU classroom are cultural as well as financial. Sometimes it is hard to separate these factors. For instance, many of my students are here because don’t want to move far away from home. This is partly cultural–none of their friends are leaving home to go to college, and everyone they know is local–but it is partly financial–living at home is rent-free.

15

john b 09.15.09 at 2:15 pm

Is there any evidence that the dropout rate point holds for the more able students discussed in this post? I’d expect someone studying at East Michigan who left high school with a GPA of 3.9 is rather less likely to drop out than someone with a GPA of 3.1 (and that the difference between institutions for student who achieved the same GPA is small).

16

Paul 09.15.09 at 2:42 pm

Sometimes a less stellarly academic school is a better option for cultural,financial and social reasons. My daughter went to Vanderbilt, but I would have been just as proud of her if she had gone to Clemson in her home state…

17

Witt 09.15.09 at 3:52 pm

I think this discussion discounts the amount of rational, realistic choice students are making in the context of an unequal (I’d say unjust, and in the US unacknowledged) class system.

I just wanted to highlight rm’s post, and especially this point, which in my experience is hugely important.

They are likely to drop out for economic reasons that are real, that would cause any of us to stop going to class if placed in their shoes.

Right. It’s so fragile — there are often so few family assets to fall back on, so if just one bad thing happens, it’s like a domino effect through the whole family unit. Older sister gets sick, loses her job, family loses her income, feeling financial squeeze because of it, turns into huge pressure for the student to quit school and help the family.

They are likely to undermatch because of a terror and loathing of being in debt or being beholden in any way. They need financial aid or a full-time job just to attend the state university, so the nominal tuition at something like an Ivy or a Vanderbilt is not only beyond their horizon, it looks like a trap. You’re going to charge me how much and then “discount” part and LOAN me the rest?! Yeah, right—find another sucker.

Right. Plus, there are all of these sort-of-hidden fees that you find out about after you get to college. The technology fee. The gym fee. Everybody has a cell phone, and it isn’t prepaid. You really have to have your own computer, but wait! There’s software you need too.

And they haven’t had personal experience or even observation of the kind of intensive it’s-in-our-best-interest-for-you-to-succeed monitoring that elite institutions give to their pupils as a matter of course, so why should they trust that it exists?

(I’m thinking of a couple of private middle/high schools I know, where the administrators would literally move heaven and earth to help students with learning disabilities or even generic lack-of-interest-in-school, precisely because dropouts make the school look bad, whereas high college-acceptance rates make them look good.)

Of course there are cultural factors (don’t move from home, don’t “get above your raising”) and the issue of parents who are at a loss (I have a doctorate and I’m at a loss when it comes to the financing part of this—at least I know how to prepare my kids academically). This too, as Matt and Cara also noted above. Plus, in addition to the living at home being rent-free, some students have family caregiving responsibilities which require them (or which they perceive to require them) to continue living at home.

18

Witt 09.15.09 at 4:05 pm

(Whoops, obviously not literally move heaven and earth. Sorry — artifact of comment-editing!)

19

evil is evil 09.15.09 at 7:56 pm

This sounds like me in 1965. I wanted to go to the best school that I applied to but the high school counselor had no time to help me. He had 3 or 4 students that year whose parents were on the school board, so no pull left me a third tier school.

I paid my way through college by working every time I could at local mills. At one mill, the owner had not gone to college and made it a rule that any “summer relief college students could have all the overtime they wanted.” I worked 80 hours a week doing strenuous physical labor one week and 88 hours the next week.

I was accepted at MIT because my combined scores on my SAT tests were over 1575.
I had no idea that I could get financial aid. I simply could not afford the tuition. The people at MIT never even sent me financial aid information.

All of my fellow students in my high school class that received scholarships that were full scholarships were all children of the school board members.

This whole financial thing needs to organized and put into logical sequences for college admission and financial aid. There needs to be one data base that anyone can go into, fill out a comprehensive form that covers every possible scholarship (up to and including things like blond haired children raised in St Louis between the ages of 19 and 30).

There should be grant money from the biggest foundations to put this together.

Would appreciate it if someone would do this.

20

Harry 09.15.09 at 10:33 pm

I can’t help feeling that Bowen is doing a Claude Rains impression (in response to Cara #14). And sure, there can be good reasons for going to a less selective school than you can get into (it occurs to me that I did so myself, for bad reasons I now think, even though it was in the end clearly the best choice). They understand that, but we shouldn’t ignore the class-dimension of it. (Sorry to be unresponsive — I am managing to post things only by deciding not to monitor and comment while in meetings all day).

21

Salient 09.16.09 at 1:12 am

I’d expect someone studying at East Michigan who left high school with a GPA of 3.9 is rather less likely to drop out than someone with a GPA of 3.1

Oh, my intuition runs the other way. Which student is more likely to panic at the sight of their first C? (Equivalently, which student is likely to receive their first C ever in college and interpret this as a sign that they should give up?)

22

lemuel pitkin 09.16.09 at 1:23 am

Can’t help, reading something like this, being reminded of lines from a certain Geroge Scialabba:

“The purpose of [concern with access to higher education] is to change the current distribution of jobs and educational credentials, since that is what determines the distribution of status, leisure, medical care, retirement security, and most other social and individual goods. But why should the former determine the latter? There is an intrinsic connection between medical, managerial, or any other kind of skill and the supreme pleasure one may feel practicing that skill and being esteemed by fellow practitioners. But there is no intrinsic connection between practicing any kind of skill and driving a Jaguar, flying first class, owning a summer home, having state-of-the-art consumer electronics, or sending one’s children to private schools. … Why not, then, distribute sports cars and summer homes at random, by lot, so that cardiology, poetry, and investment banking will be practiced only by those attracted to and capable of their peculiar pleasures?”

The premise that the privileges that attach to a degree form an elite school are the necessary accompaniments of merit or productivity should, at the least, not go unexamined. And if they’re not, then why is our concern so much with who graduates from UC-Berkeley rather than why where you graduated from has such bearings on your life chances in the first place?

23

Harry 09.16.09 at 1:49 am

Well, I agree about 100% with that (brilliant) quote from Scialabba. The authors treat the distribution of those goods as a fixed point of reference, not because it is something that they think should remain unchanged (I don’t know what their line is on that, or whether they have any agreement), but because it is something they think will not be changed by changes in access to HE. I think that’s right; there may be other policy levers that can change the character of the reward schedule, but as long as it is somewhat unequal and one’s position in it is significantly affected by one’s education, issues of access are matters of justice.

24

TD&H 09.16.09 at 3:42 am

I seem to recall a number of studies which indicated that students’ choice of university actually made little difference to their overall success – driven students did well because their personality traits (intelligence, studiousness, work ethic, etc.) were what was important. Obviously, choice of university sometimes does make a difference, or makes things easier, in specific instances, but as a rule the specific school attended had little impact.

If this is the case, does “undermatching” really matter?

25

Bunbury 09.16.09 at 9:21 am

Well I don’t, it’s both wrong and wrong headed. At best Scialabba is pissing in the wind at worst he’s arguing for Cambodian style Maoism, acting as a diversionary stooge for the Man or most likely both.

A purpose of any form of education policy is indeed to change the current distribution of jobs and educational credentials. So what? We shouldn’t worry if people can read or not because that isn’t a fair basis for the distribution of wealth? Scialabba seems to have achieved the impressive feat of being more complacent than Alan Milburn.

In what way are the two concerns in competition? I can only see that one might regard letting proles enter elite institutions as a way of buying off trouble makers or legitimising a corrupt system but that really is crazy talk.

This smacks of the thinking behind the story, I hope apocryphal, I heard at Oxford that the students at said university had voted to demand the end of extra Oxbridge weighting of means tested student grants on the grounds that it was elitist. It is certainly the sort of thinking that has lead Labour to make a complete pigs ear of its higher education policy.

I note that Scott McLemee’s profile of Scialabba begins:

George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University

26

Harry 09.16.09 at 11:02 am

You might note in what capacity he works there, though.

27

Bunbury 09.16.09 at 11:26 am

The profile starts with an almost heraldic presentation of credentials that belies the rather dismissive view of higher education that seems to form the crux of the argument above.

I don’t know enough about Scialabba to know why he has chosen to pursue his career at his alma mater rather than at, say, a high school in Florida or a national park in New Mexico or somewhere where the families of the people whose access to his alma mater is in question might work. Might it have something to do with access to what goes on there?

28

Salient 09.16.09 at 9:34 pm

The profile starts with an almost heraldic presentation of credentials

Wow. I think you have been hook-line-sinkered. There is a, shall we say, playful ambiguity in that “heraldic presentation.”

I don’t know enough about Scialabba to know why he has chosen to pursue his career at his alma mater rather than at, say, a high school in Florida or a national park in New Mexico or somewhere where the families of the people whose access to his alma mater is in question might work.

Bunbury, I would appreciate it greatly if you would clarify for us what you understand Scialabba’s career at Harvard to be.

29

Salient 09.16.09 at 11:04 pm

Also:

The purpose of [concern with access to higher education] is to change the current distribution of jobs and educational credentials, since that is what determines the distribution of status, leisure, medical care, retirement security, and most other social and individual goods.

I disagree. But then, perhaps I am the only American who is actively arguing for a restructuring of public higher education that would allow any resident to take a class that interests them, as a leisure activity, with minimal manageable cost in line with other accessible luxuries.

I am deeply uncomfortable with any reduction of higher education to job training, and I would maintain that this reduction is supported in Americans’ minds in part because education is sufficiently expensive to preclude any other purpose. This is exacerbated when policies to defray the cost of attendance are designed to only support full-time students in pursuit of a credential.

What’s my problem with this? Higher education is conceptualized in terms of its capacity to mobilize a person into a preferred socioeconomic status precisely because it is sufficiently inaccessible to ensure its selectivity as a marker.

All else being equal, if everyone achieved roughly equivalent educational credentials, employers and discriminatory social institutions would out of necessity develop new markers for discrimination.

There are jobs aplenty which demand at the application-submission process an educational credential that is frankly irrelevant to the occupation itself; the credential is a fungible marker, and if too many individuals attain that marked condition, the employer will simply design a different way to discriminate.

It is rather more appropriate to conceptualize higher education as a public good in and of itself, one which should be made reasonably accessible to the entire body public. By reducing the cost of attendance sufficiently much to ensure equal opportunity to take courses without seeking a degree, we as a side effect ensure it is possible to afford

Some folks above are correct to mention loans are a big concern: I admittedly dropped a master’s program because I’d already racked up $40K in loan debts and didn’t want to rack up $20K more for a third year.

30

bunbury 09.16.09 at 11:49 pm

Salient, it’s nice to have the opportunity to make someone happy so easily.

I know little more than McLemee’s article and the Wikipedia say: After graduating from Harvard he tried a few things including Opus Dei before returning to Harvard where he did something in facilities management to keep body and soul together while writing book reviews and availing himself of the library and possibly other facilities.

My point, made in as much awareness of the story as I have just presented, was that the person being so dismissive of concerns about access to elite institutions of higher education was himself a graduate of such an institution, of all the institutions offering unconsuming jobs he chose to return to one (there was the practical consideration of access to a good library) and the fact that he works at one merited a place in the first line of a profile of him.

If he had, as I have above failed to persuade you to consider, as an alternative kept up the school teaching or written reviews professionally or worked in Starbucks or at a community college the tone of that first line would have been quite different. I see the joke but it hinges on the shocking revelation that he is not on the academic staff (gosh, he’s like Will Hunting and Benjamin Button all in one! Imagine!) of the institution and that very fact that it merits comment confirms the importance of elite educational institutions and therefore of access to them.

It seems clear to me that Harvard has a value to him and to those who value his work that extends beyond access to first class air travel. Are there no other people for whom this is true? Or do they all have lots of money?

In case I have still not made myself clear I am unimpressed at Scialabba’s willingness to forego access to elite educational institutions on behalf of others and surprised that others are sympathetic. It’s not attractive when it’s Lord Farquad speaking and it’s not attractive here.

31

bunbury 09.16.09 at 11:52 pm

Salient we overlapped. I agree with almost everything in your “Also”

32

Harry 09.17.09 at 1:11 am

Wait, this isn’t fair to GS (or at least, to the quote) and what’s being imputed to him is not what I signed up to. He doesn’t say that in a world in which access to all those unequally distributed goods hinges on elite higher ed we should not care about access to elite higher ed. He’s just saying (and this is what I agree with) that elite higher ed shouldn’t provide access to those unequally distributed goods (in his version because they could be distributed by lot; in mine because they shouldn’t, ideally, be distributed unequally). In such a world, my guess is, many of those who currently crowd out people who would get a lot out of elite higher ed would not be seeking it for themselves, so access would be more open. But in our world there is no reason to think that GS is unconcerned about access (or rather, the quote gives us no reason to think that).

33

Salient 09.17.09 at 2:55 am

Wait, this isn’t fair to GS (or at least, to the quote)

I know, truly, my reply didn’t make any sense as it was worded. (Apologies.)

I should’ve re-quoted the first two sentences and then said, “While I agree with the proposed disassociation, my preoccupations still extend to higher education: I disagree that our concern for educational opportunity is, or should be, bounded by our concern for the vocational opportunity it consequently provides.” Then, etc, as before.

34

Salient 09.17.09 at 3:31 am

Actually, bunbury, I think we are likely to all be in agreement, at least to a first approximation:

* Establishing greater equality of access to education is important in our society, (in part) because the corresponding credentials are widely utilized as markers of how employable one is.

* The above is true, but that doesn’t mean it ought to be true, ideally speaking: educational attainment (or really, credentialization which is supposed to represent that attainment) is in our society inappropriately overvalued as a marker of how employable one is, and correspondingly undervalued for its own sake.

It’s hard for me to envision any of the persons involved in this discussion disagreeing with either of these points, including geo, though of course I anticipate he would characterize the idea more elegantly.

In such a world, my guess is, many of those who currently crowd out people who would get a lot out of elite higher ed would not be seeking it for themselves, so access would be more open.

Possibly, but affordability could become an issue — as public support for funding would dissipate — and I see no compelling reason why higher education wouldn’t just revert from an employability marker to a social-class marker. If attainment in higher ed becomes disassociated from employability, we might well end up with the world’s frontiers of knowledge again largely accessible only to the children of the wealthy, those with leisure years to spend attaining class-marker university credentials.

To avoid that kind of reversion, it seems necessary to establish a popular conception of higher education as a public good (and one that shouldn’t be tailored exclusively to degree-seeking pre-career young students).

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Sam C 09.17.09 at 11:34 am

Given the turn this conversation has taken, the following might be of interest for people in the UK:

THE IDEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY

Sponsored by the Royal Institute of Philosophy

Lancaster University

Monday 28th September
11am – 4pm, Institute for Advanced Studies Building, Meeting Room 2

This workshop is free and open to all but places are limited. Please
email r.v.cooper@lancaster.ac.uk to reserve a place.

11-12 Professor Anthony O’Hear
Education, Buckingham University
The Idea of a University

12-1 Dr Sam Clark
Philosophy, Lancaster University
‘No new sense was ever developed without pains’: Universities and the Cultivation of Pleasure

1-2 Lunch – own arrangements

2-3 Professor Michael Luntley
Philosophy, Warwick University
Apprentices in academia

3-4 Dr Bob Brecher
Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics. University of
Brighton
Is critical education still possible in UK universities today?

This is slightly cheeky self-promotion on my part, since I’m one of the speakers, but hopefully it’s sufficiently relevant.

36

mpowell 09.17.09 at 2:09 pm

Salient, regarding your claim that we ought to make education much more affordable, do you mean that we should be subsidizing education expenses for people or that we should just find a way to provide the goods at lower cost? I ask because it seems to me that education has gotten pretty damn expensive and although it’s not clear why, it’s seems like a prohibitive problem to what you propose.

37

Salient 09.17.09 at 3:54 pm

Salient, regarding your claim that we ought to make education much more affordable, do you mean that we should be subsidizing education expenses for people or that we should just find a way to provide the goods at lower cost? I ask because it seems to me that education has gotten pretty damn expensive and although it’s not clear why, it’s seems like a prohibitive problem to what you propose.

To say “we should just find a way” is not saying anything more than “according to principle, this ought to be” — any imperative connotation is meaningless in the absence of guidance toward accomplishment. I was speaking in principle, but can extend this to concrete recommendations.

In principle, I would like for higher education to be socially comprehended as having societal value equivalent to the societal value of a public roads / transportation system. That is, I would like for most people in most communities to believe that Knowledge is just as valuable as Mobility, and that society should work together to provide both of these to all its members. (By “work together” I simply mean “contribute some of one’s resources.” I’ll leave Knowledge and Mobility loosely defined as “the kind of thing one may learn at university” and “the ability to get from point A to point B” respectively.)

Since I’m not being asked to defend this principle, I’ll take it for granted. How might we accomplish this ideal?

Well, I take inspiration, in a very general sense, from the public transportation sector, both in America and worldwide: highways, trains, buses, theory of congestion management, et cetera. “How might we accomplish the provision-of-knowledge ideal?” is, economically if not operationally, a very similar question to “how might we accomplish the provision-of-mobility ideal?”

What I mean by this is, the mechanisms for provision of the good are quite different, but the mechanisms for resource allocation which fund that provision are quite similar.

Whew, all that just to say that taxes should fund educational infrastructure, defraying the cost of usage, just as taxes fund transportation infrastructure to defray the cost of usage. Car drivers and bus riders still pay some cost to access the system (e.g. registration fees, gas, bus/train tickets). The lowest-cost services (e.g. bus/train) are not maximally convenient for the individual user, but (when appropriately designed) these services ensure reasonable access to nearly every member of the community. The cost may look intimidating, but has proven manageable. (I’m not sure that I agree that higher education “has gotten” pretty damn expensive: it always has been pretty damn expensive.) And public transportation would be pretty damn expensive to each user if we didn’t establish resource-allocation mechanisms which defray that cost.

My rather snarky concrete resource-allocation recommendation is that we ought to hire defense contractors to build and maintain educational infrastructure instead of defense infrastructure. Instead of a military-industrial complex, we ought to foster an educational-industrial complex. Profiteers are profiteers; they’d follow. It was a recent accident of history (WW2) that gave us the military-industrial complex we now take for granted, etc.

But still, I’ve only discussed the resource-allocation mechanism. Operationally, how to we ensure near-universal access? And going back to the original principle, what reason do we have to believe that people want, or ought to want, lifelong access to higher education?

These are good questions, but ones which I haven’t been asked to pose answers for, and I’d hate to try your patience going on about it unsolicited.

38

bunbury 09.17.09 at 10:44 pm

The purpose of [concern with access to higher education] is to change the current distribution of jobs and educational credentials, since that is what determines the distribution of status, leisure, medical care, retirement security, and most other social and individual goods. But why should the former determine the latter?

Without the definite article at the start of the first sentence or the naked “But” at the beginning of the second I wouldn’t have taken such exception.

Nevertheless I still disagree and more or less from start to finish. I wonder where lawyers are supposed to fit into the GS utopia above. They often perform socially useful work that requires intelligence, education and hard work that is also very boring. Boring, I suspect, to the point that pleasure in exercising their mastery of the relevant skills would not be enough on its own to bring anyone to do it. However combined with the appropriate mix of first class air tickets etc. people can be found. OK, since when did Utopia have lawyers? The point is that I think the first class air tickets are more tightly entwined with higher education than Mr. Scialabba suggests.

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