Friday, May 30, 2014

What Not to Do As a Graduate Student

Graduate students tend to be a desperate lot. We crave advice on a range of issues and seemingly devour any guidance the web has to offer. Thankfully, there is an ample supply of "to-do" lists produced by fellow graduate students and wise professors. Wondering how to make your summer productive? There's a list for that. Thinking about items to pack for an on-campus interview? There's a list for that. Looking to actually graduate without completely losing touch with reality? There's a list for that. Increasingly, there are consultants you can pay for advice, if simply reading a list won't calm your nerves.

I have found several advice columns for graduate students helpful, especially when navigating the ridiculously complex academic job market. Nevertheless, I find many lists vague or common sense. The ones that I have read effectively boil down to four points: figure out what you are doing, get your shit organized, do the work, and don't forget to take care of yourself. As far as it goes, this isn't advice so much as a description of life. So, I thought I would pass along some specific tidbits that I have learned along the way in the form of a "don't do" list. This wisdom has developed over my seven years as an on-again, off-again graduate student. Since I just officially ended my graduate student era last Friday, this feels like an appropriate closure.

1. Don't spend too much personal money on conferences.

There is enormous pressure to present at academic conferences when you are in graduate school. Your advisers likely travel to several conferences per year, and they encourage you to attend as well. This can be a great way to get feedback on your research, meet other graduate students, and network. If your department is willing to pay for a good chunk of the conference, or if the personal costs would be minimal, by all means attend and make the most of it. However, if you department provides little to no funding, I would not waste your own money. Depending on the conference, you could be looking at several thousand dollars in airfare, lodging, and food. Conference presentations don't have the same currency as publications or teaching experience when you are job searching. And, let's be real, academic conferences can completely consume your intellectual soul. Every graduate student can attest to this. On some days, conferences can lift your spirits and remind you of the reasons you are pursuing this degree. Most of the time, I found conferences to be remarkably awkward, devoid of true engagement, and tailored to the specifications of senior academics whose research is given top priority. This is my just my experience, of course, and I have a Holden Caulfield-like response to perceived phoniness.

2. Don't take the debates too seriously.

There ares surely a handful of big debates happening in your field right now. People get heated about these things, and for understandable reasons. If you dedicate your life's work to an idea, you will likely strive to defend/promote it. I have learned over time to observe these debates from the sidelines, entering only when it seems appropriate or necessary. Anytime I participate in big intellectual debates in my field, I don't feel a sense of accomplishment. The debates continue, minds remain unchanged, and I spend the next two weeks in an existential tailspin. It can be emotionally draining, and your energy can be better directed. Instead of spending hours in a message board with some anonymous academic, work on research that sustains you or grab coffee with a friend who doesn't give a damn about the debate du jour. The reality is that many issues that are all the rage in our fields are fleeting. Give yourself over to the things that are more lasting and make you happy. Avoid the quicksands of futile battles.

3. Don't expect the world from your adviser.

In some fields, you apply to work with a particular adviser and not a program. For these fields, you perhaps have a good idea of whom your adviser will be and what to expect from them. In all other cases, go in with an open mind. Remember that your adviser is almost assuredly overworked and cannot possibly provide all of the support you need to survive this grind. More than anything, be prepared to build a roster of advisers who help you in different ways. My assigned adviser was wonderful, and we had a great relationship that propelled me to the finish line. However, I developed close relationships with two other faculty members because they were better suited to assisting me through the job search or some other challenge. This network approach, I would guess, is far more common than having one person that embodies everything you could possibly desire in an adviser. And it means you have more people familiar with you, ready to help you overcome difficulties, and prepared to pass along opportunities or write a recommendation.

4. Don't do "throw away" course work.

In all of my courses, there was some culminating project at the end of the semester, usually a 20-25 page paper. I almost always stopped reading for the course about 2/3 of the way through the semester and focused entirely on this paper. I basically treated each of these as an opportunity to write a paper that I could present at a conference or submit to a journal. If nothing else, think about how papers for courses can be used down the road in the literature review or conceptual framework for your dissertation. When I did attend soul-sucking conferences, I presented final course papers. My journal publications as I went on the job market came from final course papers. I wasn't able to use many of these papers in my dissertation because I radically changed topics, but I think the idea is useful. Basically, course assignments do not need to sit in your Dropbox folders collecting virtual dust. Don't simply do the work to finish the course. Use the course to build the foundations of your future career, whatever it may be.

5. Don't forget to put your field in a broader context.

There are some major issues in academe today--issues that absolutely affect your career prospects and post-graduate future. We have a tendency to get so bogged down in the minutiae of making progress in our programs that we fail to see how broader trends in higher education shape our lives. There is a good chance that your university, field, and department will change during your time as a graduate student. Pay attention to the winds of change and be prepared to adapt accordingly.

6. Don't read too many of these lists.

My final piece of advice is to not get enveloped in a blanket of advice from people who don't know you. You know yourself best. One of my advisers is a no-bullshit Basque who told me right before an interview to be myself and trust my instincts. I still think it's fantastic wisdom by which to live. Graduate school is a personal decision, and you will ultimately be the master of your own destiny. Embrace it and ignore all the noise out there.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Relationship Between Colleges and Corrections--And Why You Should Care

A recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye. It described several programs in which college professors teach courses to prison inmates. Hello, publicly engaged scholars! Apparently, exposing the millions of incarcerated Americans to new ideas can be politically charged if the program receives state funding. In the article, Ted O'Brien, a state senator in New York, opposed a proposal to provide public money to teach college courses in ten prisons. He explained: "However well-intentioned, I cannot support a policy that would divert resources away from helping students in good standing and their families afford a quality education." Interestingly, states have routinely directed money from higher education institutions to prisons. It is one of many ways that colleges and corrections are related and one of many reasons anyone with a stake in higher education should care about our increasingly imprisoned nation.

One way of thinking about state higher education funding is through Hovey's (1999) concept of the "balance wheel." Effectively, in good economic times, higher education is generously funded. However, in poor economic times, higher education is one of the first areas to receive cuts. Hovey usefully suggested a few possible explanations for this. First, legislators argue that colleges and universities have their own reserves and can better absorb financial instability. Second, higher education institutions are believed to be better equipped to translate cuts into changes in employee pay than other state agencies, where there may be pre-established payscales and multi-year contracts subject to collective bargaining agreements. Third, legislators think colleges and universities can easily adjust spending by reducing seats or courses. Lastly, higher education institutions can pass more fees onto students, unless they are bound to maintain tuition and fees by state law. The general idea is that, in a difficult economic climate, other areas of state funding get their pieces of the taxpayer pie first. Higher education gets the chunks of crust stuck to the edge of the pie tin.

Prisons certainly work according to a different set of realities than universities. Laying off prison staff can have dire consequences, and we can't ask prisoners to pay for their own incarceration (though it should be noted that inmates are frequently expected to pay out-of-pocket for a range of basic necessities). As America continues to incarcerate more of its population, the tab picked up by state governments continues to escalate. There are now some 2.4 million people locked up in the United States. The state and federal government spends over $700 billion annually on corrections. In several states, spending on prisons now exceeds expenditures on higher education, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and California. A report by California Common Sense found that, between 1980 and 2011, state spending on higher education decreased by 13 percent in inflation adjusted dollars. Over the same period, spending on corrections jumped by 436 percent. The state forked over $8,667 per college student in 2011, compared to $50,000 per inmate. Every single state in the country spent more money per inmate than it did per primary or secondary student, according to CNN Money. Beyond a shadow of doubt, states are prioritizing spending on corrections.

In other words, policy decisions are surely diverting resources away from helping "students in good standing and their families" access a high-quality, affordable college education. When states wage a failed war on drugs, impose mandatory minimum sentences, and sign contracts with corporations obligating them to fill private prisons, more taxpayer dollars go to keeping people behind bars than behind desks. The reality is that spending public money on higher education, both within prisons walls and on ivied campuses, is a policy win-win. It makes higher education accessible and affordable, while also lowering crime and incarceration rates. Research shows that the recidivism rate of prisoners who even minimally participate in college courses is much lower than average. In addition to potentially creating a pathway for inmates to acquire skills and earn degrees, a lower recidivism rate means few people are incarcerated, potentially increasing the crumbs appropriated to higher education. Additionally, studies indicate that one of the positive externalities of higher education is lower crime and incarceration rates. Thus, if we want fewer people to return to jail, spending a small amount on the provision of college courses in prisons is smart. If we want fewer people in jail to begin with, and less money directed to corrections, we should stop thinking of higher education as the "balance wheel."

Once we realize that money once used to build a vigorous public higher education system is now being used to build prisons in small towns across America, we can see that the destinies of professors and prisoners are intricately bound. It is one thing to bemoan state budget cuts--it is quite another to follow the money trail and ask difficult questions. I urge everyone working in higher education to ask those difficult questions. Indeed, to advocate for prison reform and demand that "corrections" lives up to its name is to champion adequate funding for higher education.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Taking a Vacation from Higher Education

I love reading and writing about higher education. It is my job, and as someone trained in the subject, I take seriously the responsibility of engaging in public conversations about the past, present, and future of America's colleges and universities. Specifically, I advocate for a robust, well-funded, diversified public higher education sector, and I generally find privatization to be poor public policy.

Recently, it has been almost impossible for me to avoid any number of debates about college costs, spending, and governance. Most days I feel compelled to enter the fray, but for the better part of this week, I passed over the headlines. I disregarded the "humanities matter," "adjuncts are miserable," "students are entitled," "colleges are resorts," and "presidents are overpaid" tropes on my Facebook news feed. On Twitter, I skipped over the by now familiar cast of characters in the debates, including the data-heads, the disgruntled former academics, the over-confident and under-informed online journalists, and the edtech evangelists. I don't buy into the doomsday predictions for higher education, but I was certainly feeling burned out by the fire and brimstone rhetoric. As it turns out, the glory of the information age is also it's greatest weakness: we are able to follow the details of every incident in real-time, without the discerning perspective that comes with reasonable distance. It had me feeling exhausted. My social media dependence meant that I was fatigued by the array of issues and overwhelmed by the barrage of information, yet I continued to scroll and read.  

So, I shut down. For a brief period of time, I stopped caring about higher education. I decided that I was on a vacation, of sorts. A mental vacation. After writing my dissertation for the past year, I needed to recharge my batteries. I read about baseball statistics and perused urban development projects in my new city. I read a biography about Einstein and spent an hour following links from the "savant" Wikipedia page. Because why not? I didn't pick up my research on part-time faculty and instructional costs, and I didn't obsessively check the number of clicks on my blog posts. A type of serenity soon emerged as I realized that the higher education world kept turning without my complete immersion in its problems. Students still crammed for exams. Graduation ceremonies dragged on for too long. Administrators braced for a new round of budget uncertainties. Faculty slogged through mediocre exam essays. The media babble no doubt continued to stream on social media, yet the articles, thought pieces, and listicles suddenly seemed to me rather...fleeting and immaterial. 

In my moment of peace, I wondered if perhaps being an academic in certain disciplines is like working in a helping profession. Just as the ability of a counselor to help others requires that they periodically focus on their own mental well-being, the ability of an academic to launch headstrong into the issues that matter to them requires a mental vacation from time to time. It could even be that interdisciplinarity is not simply a research fad or hedge against unnecessary specialization. Rather, it could be a defense mechanism in the face of burn out. A search for new muses and a desire to see a topic through fresh eyes. We academics are a special lot in that we care a great deal about our work, sometimes serving as shepherd to pet projects that matter to only a select few. This is a wonderful thing and one reason why there is virtue in a life of the mind. However, it is possible that the mind can only take so much before constant engagement prevents our ability to effectively contribute. Could it be that caring too intensely without a break clouds our thinking?

I haven't fully returned from my vacation. Sure, I've clicked on a few stories, but I couldn't finish them. I know I will re-enter soon, and this post may re-ignite my passion. For the time being, I'm basking in the sunshine of being disconnected. There is freedom in knowing that I am just a tiny speck of grease in the machinations of the higher education universe. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Exposure, Public Engagement, and Young Scholars

Last week, I was called into my supervisor's office for what I thought was a routine meeting. As it turned out, the purpose of the meeting was to inform me that I had made a serious mistake, one that put the office at risk. I work as a graduate assistant (for a few more months) in the office of the provost, and my supervisor is an associate provost. Consequently, I am privy to many conversations about university politics. These conversations colored my views on a piece of senate legislation that many central administrators opposed. During the senate meeting in which the legislation was considered, I stood up and fired off a less than thoughtful comment. Although I am an elected senator for my college and, therefore, had every right to speak, it was clear to many individuals present that I overstepped conventions of discretion and capitalized upon insider's knowledge.

I was horrified, to put it lightly. For one thing, I care deeply about my work as a higher education professional. More importantly, I am fiercely loyal to my office, which helped nurture me as a graduate student and, in many ways, facilitated data collection for my dissertation. To think that I had made their jobs more difficult because I couldn't keep my mouth shut was disturbing. My supervisor did not scold me. Rather, as a fellow academic, he warned me to tread lightly in my next role as assistant professor. In his words, my decision to stand and say something left me exposed, and exposure is not always a good thing as a young scholar. He would never advocate that I simply keep my head down and concentrate on my own work. His message centered upon being selective about the battles I fight moving forward and realizing the sheer political dimensions of the profession. I appreciated his developmental approach, but could not help but feel like I let one of my mentors down.

Over the next few days, this idea of exposure as a young scholar haunted me. Meeting with my supervisor coincided with another event about which I recently wrote, another event where keeping my mouth shut proved to be no small order. I wondered if newly minted PhDs starting faculty jobs should be wary of public engagement--of circulating their opinions too widely--for fear of the possible repercussions. Should I focus upon traditional metrics of success in academe, such publishing articles, teaching solid courses, and serving on a conference committee? Should I stick to less controversial topics when it comes to research? Should I give up on a blog for now, or keep my tweets rather vanilla? In other words, should public engagement for a young scholar be much more strategic, guarded, or even diluted? I sense that the answer to these questions are not easy and probably vary.

Some seasoned academics say that, as a young scholar, my job isn't to take part in any battles. I shouldn't devote much time to university politics, and fiery blog posts should not be a high priority. My job is to do what is necessary to get tenure, then I can do engagement and maybe ruffle a few feathers. Others might argue that I stay true to myself and not surrender my voice simply to avoid the risks of exposure. Far too few academics, they might say, are willing to put their neck on the line out of fear. And then there are those who say, by all means, be publicly engaged, but recognize that not all forms of engagement are valued and some forms might not help your career much.

I would love to hear from others who have navigated these waters. There is a recent emphasis, one with which I generally agree, on scholars having a public presence through social media and other platforms. Sometimes it feels like you can't be a legitimate scholar and not have a blog, Twitter handle, and personal website. Nevertheless, it isn't yet clear to me whether such a public presence is advisable for those of us just starting our careers. And I'm not convinced I've been adequately prepared for the gray areas that accompany exposure and public engagement. The game of being a young scholar seems much more difficult for my generation than it was for the people who trained us for this line of work.

Friday, May 2, 2014

On Empirical Superiority and What Truly Counts in Higher Education

I recently attended a higher education reform event that, putting it lightly, induced both thought and reflection. I wrote a response to some of the claims made during the event and shared it with a few of the organizers. In particular, I took issue with a comment surrounding the value of on-campus experiences and in-person interactions with faculty. I supported my argument by vaguely referencing the massive body of literature that analyzes the effects of college on students. I failed to cite specific sources, mainly because we’re talking about thousands of empirical studies over many decades—studies on how students learn, transition, and succeed in college, otherwise known as the foundation of higher education and student affairs scholarship.

After I shared my piece, one of the organizers asked that I name specific studies and findings. It initially struck me as odd that I bear the burden of citing sources for my arguments, while he can make any claim he likes without reference to empirical research. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that he was giving a speech and I was writing an essay, and platforms carry different expectations. I also set aside the obvious challenges of talking about research through Twitter (as it turns out, 140 characters ain't going to cut it when it comes to citing research). In the end, I provided a few examples, all of which are fantastically commonplace in higher education research (e.g., How College Affects Students by Pascarella and Terenzini).

I have come to realize that this Twitter debate was probably a waste of my energy, as it is unlikely to change anyone’s thinking. Although I would like to think that my writing provoked careful consideration of the relationship between campus-based experiences and student learning, I recognize that its reach is limited to the few dozen people who follow me. I don’t expect to read any of the examples I provided in the organizer’s forthcoming book, nor do I anticipate him acting upon my suggestion to host a more balanced reform event by including higher education scholars. In my mind, if you want an event to truly evaluate the future of higher education, don’t stock the panels with edtech evangelists. But before I can shrug off this incident and move on with my life, I want to address the epistemological dimensions of the experience.

More specifically, I want to talk about the nature of knowledge and empirical superiority. One of the rhetorical devises employed at events like this is to make sweeping claims, then throw “data,” “evidence,” and/or “research” in the faces of the audience. This effectively inoculates the speaker against criticism and turns an assertion into irrefutable fact. Before you know it, we “know” the “truth,” leaving little room for alternatives. The problem is that anyone with a modicum of training in research understands that what we “know” can be rather circumstantial and fragile. You cite a few studies that say x, then I counter with a few studies that say y, and soon enough we’re embroiled in an empirical pissing match. This happens to be a favorite pastime of academics. I don’t want to downplay the importance of dialogue and disagreement when it comes to the evolution of knowledge. Rather, the idea here is that what we “know” when it comes to higher education is far muddier than many people in the “disruptive innovation” movement like to believe.

Let’s take an example from the event I attended. The most frequent claim made during the event was that there is little to no learning that actually happens at colleges and universities. There is reason to buy into this claim. We have empirical findings that certainly raise questions about what students are learning, and some even indicate that students aren’t cognitively changing much from start to finish. Yet we also have studies that either challenge the validity of the aforementioned findings or show the opposite—that many experiences (inside the classroom and outside the classroom) lead to positive outcomes like the development of leadership skills, enhancement of critical thinking, and capacity for self-advocacy and political engagement. As it turns out, our knowledge of learning in higher education is highly dependent upon what type of learning is valued and how it is measured. In other words, findings differ according to context, data, and methodology. I don’t refute the possibility that there is limited learning on campus. Nor do I completely the reject the possibility that online media provide equally credibly means of promoting learning. I simply recognize that saying there is no evidence that campus-based experiences or interaction with faculty are beneficial to students is an audacious proposition, one that borders on the ridiculous.

When I objected to a panel’s interpretation of learning and suggested that there are many social benefits to investment in higher education, I met another rhetorical device that seems particularly popular among economists. The response I received was: “I’m not convinced by that evidence.” I don’t deny him the right to evaluate research and use whatever he deems most compelling, but what happens is that the knowledge produced by disciplines given most respect in policy circles rises above the others. Even though higher education researchers understand the issues and realities of colleges and universities better than anyone, we are placed low on the totem pole of knowledge producers. In these circles, it doesn’t matter that my evidence casts a shadow of doubt on your claims because you can enforce empirical superiority and trump my evidence.

I want to end by emphasizing something missing in all of the discussions during the event I attended. It is something that I wish I had noted in my Twitter debate about evidence, but failed to bring up because it is an undervalued form of knowledge. That is, I know that students learn and benefit as a result of on-campus experiences and interactions with faculty because they tell me that they do. It struck me that some of the experts speaking about higher education reform have hardly worked on a college campus. They haven’t supervised resident assistants and watched them grow to become leaders. They haven’t advised a sorority and helped women take action against rising incidents of sexual assault. They haven’t received letters from students years after they had them in class—letters just saying hello or thanking them for revealing new insights. They haven’t run into former students who ascribe their professional success to a really great mentor or professor. In truth, they hardly know anything about students or have much experience working with them.

The notion that we have no evidence that being on campus and interacting with faculty is beneficial is laughable because it runs contrary to what students, staff, and faculty experience on a regular basis. This is the knowledge that keeps me in higher education, and it is the evidence that truly matters. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

My Morning with Higher Education "Hackers"

These [traditional colleges and universities] are organizations that were essentially designed in the 19th century under conditions of resource scarcity that simply do not exist today. And they are in a profound state of denial about all of this. To start, they grossly underestimate how much of the education they currently provide is already wholly replaceable by a simple broadcast model. Every aspect of the standard lower division lecture course…can now be perfectly replicated online today and distributed at no marginal cost.
Now, if you can get colleges to admit this, which is hard, they will then sort of fall back on assertions that are rooted in the intangible, the ineffable, the unprovable, and the ‘you just kind of have to be here to understand.’ …whatever the benefits of things like being on the campus and interpersonal interactions with professors may be—and to be clear, those are real benefits that people have—colleges have absolutely no evidence that would meet their own standards of scholarship credibly estimating or quantifying the size of those benefits. None. If you don’t believe me, try asking them sometime.
-Kevin Carey, Director of the Education Policy Program, New America Foundation

As I listened to these claims, I cocked my head to the side and furrowed my eye brows. No evidence whatsoever that being on campus and interacting with professors is measurably beneficial, you say? My heart began to race and my palms became sweaty. I wanted to immediately raise my hand and politely yet firmly declare: “Excuse me?” Saying nothing, I waited until a more appropriate moment to challenge the speaker—a moment that never arrived. As a higher education scholar, I knew that there is a massive body of literature demonstrating the various positive effects of the residential college on student learning. In fact, there is an entire field of study predicated upon the analysis of the relationship between various experiences in college and student development. My sense of outrage was boiling, and it was just 9:30 in the morning. This was just the beginning of a planned three-hour event titled “Hacking the University: Will Tech Fix Higher Education?” co-sponsored by Slate and Arizona State University. It was going to be a long three hours.

The event was structured like many others that regularly take place in our nation’s capital. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the think tank and policy center circus, let me provide a brief overview of how these events work. Typically, you arrive to a nondescript office building on a lettered street and enter the lobby. You are asked by a security officer to sign in and present identification, after which you proceed to whichever floor the organization occupies. There is usually a room is set up to film the event and, like the much maligned lecture, broadcast it over the web at no marginal cost. In the front of the room is frequently—and ironically—a podium and stage on which the sages sit, usually in front of a screen or wallpaper with the organization’s name plastered all over it. We should wonder why these organizations are so wild about MOOCs. They've been doing this for years. You enter the room, perhaps partake in the free refreshments and take note of the largely white audience starring at their cell phones and iPads. You get the sense very quickly that this is not a space designed for dialogue, and you wonder whether you have any right to be there.

After the first speaker, whose job was to explain why higher education is broken, Robert Wright, a Princeton professor and Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation described his experience teaching a MOOC for the first time. He then moderated a panel on technological advances related to the delivery of higher education. One of the panelists, Jeff Selingo, author of College (Un)bound and frequent speaker at events like this, argued that higher education is a one-size-fits-all system trying to accommodate an ever more diverse population of students. There was the standard debate about MOOCs and the obligatory nod to Clayton Christensen. After all, you can’t have a legitimate higher education reform panel without at least one reference to “disruptive innovation.” Perhaps the most intriguing comments came from Robin Goldberg, Chief Marketing Officer for the Minerva Project. Although the Minerva Project seems to be designed to educate a cohort of elite, global cosmopolitans and not affordably educate millions of Americans, I wanted to hear more about the institution’s heavy investment in faculty and curricula development. At this point in the day, nearing 10:30AM, my heart had returned to resting pace. My sense of indignation slowly dissolved. It was like hearing a story told by your grandfather for the umpteenth time. We get it, pop. Technology will rescue us from this apocalypse.

In the short time between the panel and the next speaker, I moseyed to the refreshments. Since I’m still an underpaid graduate student for a few months, I had a larger than average share of free coffee, leaving me dangerously caffeinated when the next speaker walked to the podium. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, was tasked with presenting the first “hack.” Even as a young person, the notion of “hack” was somewhat unfamiliar. I associated it with breaking into a secure database or doing something that would result in permanent exile to Russia. Sheepishly, I did quick Wikipedia search, just to make sure I was on the same page as the speaker. I was disappointed to learn that “hack” did not, in fact, refer to a method of training young falcons. Instead, it seemingly means solving a problem. Thus, we begin with the assumption that higher education is a terribly expensive and ineffective monstrosity that, despite educating nearly everyone in the room, needs to be altered so that future generations can’t participate in the wasteful, non-vocational experiences that the rest of us did. And how does Dr. Caplan believe higher education should be fixed? Naturally, cut government funding and make it more expensive to attend. Recommence indignation.

Dr. Caplan’s contention is that we need to scrutinize the true function of higher education. Doing so reveals that higher education is basically a signaling mechanism. Echoing a theme that repeated throughout the event, there is no actual learning that takes place in colleges and universities. People simply attend to signal social normalness and a baseline level of intelligence to get a job. Because more people are attending college, the credentials needed to secure employment are escalating, such that we are obtaining degrees for jobs whose responsibilities do not truly require additional education. His proposal was that, due to the fact that higher education is socially wasteful, the government should stop funding it. This is perhaps unsurprising since Caplan is affiliated with the Mercatus Center, which labels itself “the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.” It’s unclear where this center would be housed if, as Caplan argues, the government stopped funding public universities like George Mason. Once again, my experience as a higher education scholar made Caplan’s argument difficult to stomach. There is a large quantity of scholarship showing the positive externalities of a college-educated citizenry. In other words, we have quite a lot of empirical findings to support the idea that higher education is not socially wasteful. Heck, there is even good evidence of the economic returns to government investment in higher education. I’m not even talking about individual returns on investment. Communities prosper economically when there is a thriving anchor institution like an accessible public university nearby. This is an idea that sparks debate, but it clearly has disastrous public policy ramifications. So much so that we should wonder why this "hack" is considered at all.  

At this point in the morning, I was angry. I couldn't wait to roast Dr. Caplan and drop knowledge bombs. I started formulating questions and comments in my mind. I started to get nervous because I wanted so badly to persuade the audience that what they were hearing was one-sided hogwash. Alas, the feelings were left to fester, as there would be no time for questions until after the next “hack” was presented. Amy Laitinen, Deputy Director of the Education Policy Program, offered reasons why the credit hour was a poor measure of student learning. I actually found this “hack” compelling and learned interesting facts about the historical origins of the credit hour. Apparently, it was devised as a way to delimit faculty workloads and was never designed to serve as a proxy for student learning. By this point, however, I was heavily distracted by my burning need to say something. My chance came after a short panel discussion that effectively made the point that a degree is increasingly irrelevant in the “tech economy.” The main proponent of this view was Michael Gibson, Vice President for Grants at the Thiel Foundation. This is the foundation, you might recall, that gives money to high school students if they forego college and work on projects or startups instead. I set aside my complaints that the “tech economy” is a poor reflection of the true economy and, in any case, may be more discourse than structural reality. Finally, the floor was opened to questions and my hand shot up.

My question and subsequent comment fell out, uncontrollably, like groceries through a wet paper bag. My voice shook ever so slightly. I felt so convinced of what I was saying, but its ineloquence left me rattled. Did I just blow my opportunity? My question and comment were partially answered, then the panelists pivoted to other topics. And that was it; the world kept turning. I spaced out during the remainder of the event. There was another “hack” related to math education, and a halfhearted effort to reconcile the continued conflicts between technology and educational disparities.

I was principally consumed by a single question. Why did I care so much? Why was asserting my rightness and their wrongness such an enveloping priority? I began to reflect upon what brought me to this event in the first place and what role I should play as an academic. For the most part, I came to sate my curiosity and begin tracing the ideas circulating within higher education’s reform-industrial complex. However, I also wanted to engage in the conversation, publicly, and to affirm that higher education scholars have a place at the table. That our knowledge is valuable and should be informing the conversation.

Walking away from the event, I felt helpless and defeated. There is a war raging in the world of higher education policy over the future of colleges and universities. My aim was to fight the good fight, but I learned a valuable lesson: choose your battles wisely. Engagement comes in many shapes and sizes, and my greatest contributions to challenging the faulty claims I heard is likely not through raising my hand or allowing every talking head to infuriate me. It is instead through careful thought, provocative writing, empirical research, and good teaching. If I can do that, I wish the machines the best of luck in replacing me.