Education Has a Glock to Its Head

The immediate furor over Glock-gate at Mount St. Mary's University has died down, so it's an opportune moment to take the focus off this particular bunny-drowning president (who resigned as I was writing this), and to consider what's at stake at MSMU and beyond.

The plight of the small liberal-arts college is well known. Hundreds of these colleges dot the map of America (at least its eastern half). Most of them are far more expensive than public universities, because they are (a) private and (b) often have expensive, historic campuses to maintain. In an era of diminishing economic returns on a Bachelor's degree, the costly private option becomes less attractive.

Liberal-arts colleges now find themselves in a brutal competition to attract a certain kind of paying student. By and large, students are not moneymakers for the college if they are poor enough to qualify for need-based aid, pedigreed enough to command major scholarship offers, or a minority who must be lured, with a nice tuition discount, to a place like Crawfordsville, Indiana. In short, white mediocrity is the bread and butter of the contemporary liberal-arts college.

But in order for the formula to work, these colleges must have a critical mass of students. There have to be enough profit-generating students to allow the college to take a loss on the students who will boost selectivity™ and diversity™. This is why Simon Newman wants to increase enrollment at MSMU and why college presidents everywhere lose sleep over enrollment numbers. These pressures are not unique to liberal-arts colleges, just more acute because of their relatively small size and their already inflated tuition.

Historically, at public universities, tuition dollars have been less important for the bottom line, but this is changing. Legislators in most states have become less friendly to funding public universities, even as students and faculty become less white. Coincidence? University administrators themselves, many of them cast in the mold of Gordon Gecko (or Simon Newman), now increasingly prefer tuition dollars over state funds, which have more strings attached.

Public universities, like their private counterparts, game the rankings in order to compete for paying students, many of whom are international or from other states and pay higher tuition. One way to climb the ladder is to boost "selectivity" by making admissions standards more stringent. Consequentially, public universities become more stratified, with top flagships accepting fewer local students.

Since international and out-of-state students pay more, this limits the income diversity, and therefore the ethnic diversity, of the student body. Top publics are now hard to distinguish from private universities, where students are mostly white and wealthy. The carefully calibrated diversity quota, along with the ubiquitous "multicultural center," allow universities to plausibly claim that they support minorities. However, a closer look at demographics belies this claim.

To cite a single key example, UC Berkeley's students and faculty are considerably less diverse than the state at large. California has a Latino majority, yet its flagship campus boasts an undergraduate Latino enrollment that, according to the most generous figures, sits around 20%. This shows the opposite of a commitment to diversity.

As Marshall Steinbaum notes, segregation according to institutional prestige is becoming commonplace.

We have all of this emphasis on getting minority students into college, but there’s almost no attention paid to the fact that minority students disproportionately go to lousy colleges. The better colleges, the four-year nonprofit institutions with track records of graduating very successful students, are by and large still difficult to access for minorities.

This stratification will only intensify as colleges turn to the "Newman Strategy" of leveraging student data in order to profile "low performers" to eliminate with pre-emptive dismissals. This is the educational version of the "signature strike."

Moreover, as Steinbaum goes on to explain, this strategy has the potential to remake institutions.

In addition to regulating colleges for drop-outs and delinquency, there's a definite chance that colleges would be regulated for graduates' earnings as well. The effect of that will be to induce institutions to force students into “in-demand” majors, and possibly even close down other departments. That is an ideological purge masquerading as an economic or higher education reform policy.

It's not implausible to think that universities will begin to actively discourage certain majors, even if this particular case isn't exactly a smoking Glock.

If education becomes "regulated for graduates' earnings," it becomes job-training, an extension of the workplace. If students are workers, they are subject to layoffs (dismissals), and it won't be long until higher education becomes, once again, the domain of the elite.

Land-grant universities, somewhat remarkably, were intended to provide the masses with an education that was not merely vocational or technical. The 1862 Morrill Act made it clear that the land-grant institutions were to "promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes."

So when administrators like Newman hatch plans like Mount 2.0, they betray the mission of the university, whether public or private, and hollow out the concept of education itself. Education, to mean anything, must be more than instrumental. It must be the self-realization of the individual, rather than the realization of profit.