Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower is a documentary about the affordability crisis in American higher education. Ty Burr in the Globe gives the movie a mixed review, finding that it tries to cover too many issues. I thought it was better, but then I am a junkie on this sort of higher ed material. Also, my institution comes out looking good, and that may have colored my impression of the film. It's playing at the Kendall Square Cinema. To judge from the size of the house when I saw it, it won't be playing there or anywhere for long (if you can't make it in Cambridge, …).

Andrew Delbanco of Columbia, author of College: What it Is, Was, and Should Be, serves as sort of an overall narrator. Delbanco's is a good book, and he has written a number of other smart pieces, so he's a good choice as the prototypical professor, idealistic and realistic at the same time. (Though there were rather too many mood shots of him shuffling across the Columbia campus with his book bag.)

Harvard, as I said, gets treated well. As the film notes, Harvard is one of a tiny number of American colleges that admit need-blind and provide financial aid up to need for all admitted students. I think the frame on that says that only 1.25% of American colleges do that. That is probably the number that say they do it; the number that don't fudge on either admission or the definition of "full need" is probably smaller. The Boston Globe has a piece today on how the median "net price" of college (tuition minus aid) has continued to rise faster than inflation at almost all colleges. Harvard is one of the few where net price has gone down over the past few years. If you sort the table by net price, Harvard is near the bottom at $15,079, $5K less than MIT and less than half the median net price of BU and even Northeastern.

The narrative wanders in and out through Harvard and various other institutions, representing different models for higher education; Harvard is the one place where money is never an issue. I wish the whole Harvard faculty would see the movie, because it serves as a reminder how how much of our high moral ground is based on two things most faculty don't appreciate nearly enough: One, that we can afford to pay the full demonstrated need of the students we admit; and two that we do admissions with an eye toward creating the future, not rewarding applicants' past achievements.

Clayton Christensen, of all people, makes an early appearance explaining that things in higher ed can't go on as they have. Harvard is in the "DNA" of every American college, he says, but they can't all be Harvard and many are wasting a lot of money trying.* This tendency to build rock walls and luxury dormitories (neither of which Harvard has, in fact), and the growth in nom-teaching employees, seem to be the conventional wisdom now about why costs keep going up. A more nuanced observation is made by one person interviewed for the film---that at state universities it's the need to draw out of state students to balance the budget (out of state tuition being higher than in-state) that forces universities to compete as though they were luxury hotels. It also creates irrational exchanges, with Texas universities trying to fill their beds with students from California and California universities trying to draw Texas students, rather than either state university trying to educate the maximum number of children of their own taxpayers at a lower price point.

Harvard president Drew Faust also appears early on, both in a freshman event and in an on-camera interview, where she seemed to me pitch-perfect about liberal education (or "liberal arts eduction," as it is now customary to call it, I suppose less to avoid the sciences than in an attempt to forestall paranoia from the political right). The film traces a computer science student, a guy from a very disadvantaged background, on his freshman-year journey through Computer Science 50, so a lot of the faces are familiar to me --- my brilliant colleague David Malan who teaches the course, and several of his undergraduate teaching assistants. I actually know the student as well, and the guy on screen is the same guy I know. This all looks very true to me.

It was when the filming moved away from Harvard that I started to cringe. Some significant educators agreed to be interviewed---John Hennessy of Stanford, Peter Thiel (funny how nobody who quotes him adoringly on higher education these days describes him as an author of The Diversity Myth), Arizona State president Michael Crow, Wesleyan president Michael Roth, and Cooper Union president (and sometime Tufts provost) Jamshed Bharucha. The cringing is because some of these folks didn't have good answers to obvious questions. Crow contemptuously dismisses ASU's reputation as a party school (having acknowledged it by completing the interviewer's question); then there is a fast cut to several minutes of ASU bacchanalia footage. Roth answers a prospective Wesleyan parent's question about whether his daughter will wind up employable by preaching the virtues of a liberal education, which was not the question (though to be fair, I know that the real answer might have been edited out). Bharucha comes out the worst, in part because he has a facial tic that does not film attractively. He is asked how he can justify making about the same amount as Faust in salary when her institution is so much bigger, and his has such financial woes that it is starting to charge tuition, against the vision of the founder. He replies, with great confidence, that she doesn't have half the problems he has---but that's the point: Cooper Union has financial problems due to debt it unwisely took on, and for the president to take a modest pay cut might have been a politic gesture of shared sacrifice.

About the only place, other than Harvard, that comes out looking good is Deep Springs, which has 26 students, all men. This may seem to be an irrelevant distraction; higher education's cost problems can't be solved by generalizing the Deep Springs model. But it drives home a crucial question, what are you really paying for when you buy a college education?

The big villain, in the narrative, is student debt, which has been getting lots of attention lately. I do wish that some president of a college that charges a lot of money and can't balance that with scholarship aid would say the simple truth to prospective students and their families: "I hope you will attend Bozo U. It's a great place and you would get a lot out of being here. We are looking for people like you because we are no better than our students are. And we will do the best we can to make Bozo U affordable for you and your family. But you should not attend this university if you are going to wind up more than $X in debt when you are done. In fact you should not attend any college that will leave you that much in debt."

But what would $X be? One problem is that it depends on what you learn, but talking about that is hard at the same time as you are preaching the importance of a liberal education. If you graduate with a degree in computer science, $50,000 of debt would not be too much. You could probably pay that back in a year --- entry level jobs in Silicon Valley are paying in the six figures these days, at least for graduates of good programs.

The film quotes the statistic that the average (or is it median?) student debt on completing college is now $25,000. That is said as though it is a shocking statistic, but I am not sure why it is so shocking. If I remember the national data correctly, that is less than the delta between the annual salaries of college graduates and non graduates.

The film, however, pivots to interview at some length an articulate, unemployed college graduate with $140,000 in debt. (I hope someone sees this clip and offers her a job!) Now it seems to me the real issue is, what predatory forces got her to agree to take on that much debt? She did not need to be a math major to figure out how long it would take her to pay that back. I'll bet she got some bad advice, probably from people who stood to profit by her woes. I have a hard time thinking that the enthusiasm of the national "college for all" forces are really most responsible for encouraging such bad decision-making. (The whole for-profit higher education sector isn't mentioned in this film at all.)

Overall, it's a well done film. It certainly homes in on some of the hypocrisies and snake-oil salespeople in higher education, and its bottom line about MOOCs, which seems to be that online materials can help but education almost always requires direct communication between teachers and students, seems about right. That is, in fact, the impression from which you come away from all the CS50 footage, and that is the way that course works. It is a highly social sort of intensive technology education.

* The spat between my two Harvard colleagues Professors Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen continues to roil. (See the previous two posts on this blog. I wish I had noted, when trying to parse Christensen's belittling way of referring to Lepore by her first name, that in the same interview he refers to himself as "Clayton Christensen," in the third person!) Economics writer David Warsh provides some helpful background; I had forgotten that two years before Lepore's article, a "hagiographic" (as Warsh puts it) profile of Christensen had appeared, also in the New Yorker.

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