I haven’t yet made up my mind about Obama’s proposal for free community college. Well, I have made up my mind on one (arguably small) aspect: ain’t gonna happen. His proposal is nothing more than that: a proposal for a bill that would have to be passed through Congress. The GOP-led Congress has no interest in Obama’s proposals as a general matter of principle, and even less in proposals for expanding public education. There are many more contentious issues, most raised well by Andrew Sullivan and readers: what are the costs, what are the benefits, and will this truly benefit the worst-off or the generally well-off?
I do think this hinges largely on whether you believe higher education is a human capital investment or signaling. If it’s investment, then this is unequivocally a good thing even if it might not be the wisest investment compared to primary education. If education is just a signal of hard work and intellectual ability, there’s no social benefit to increasing the education level of the marginal. It will just push up the competition for jobs open to current associate degree-holders, and encourage them to get four-year degrees, and so on up the credentials chain. Tim Worstall makes this point well.
One thing I think can be neglected is that it’s implausible to believe that education is just signaling or just human capital investment. It’s surely some of one and some of the other, and different for different degrees and people. A BA from Yale in English may be almost pure signaling, while an Associate’s from a community college in electrical engineering is probably mostly investment. Correspondingly, the value of the Yale degree resides less in the education one receives than just how competitive it is to get one. I suspect that most community college degrees lie further towards the investment end than might be obvious to social elites, who are highly attuned to signaling and positional goods. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best investment of money – again, probably there is much lower-hanging fruit in earlier education. But I think that increasing the number of community college graduates by one will likely yield far higher social benefits than increasing the number of Ivy League graduates by one.
Scott Newstok drops this interesting tidbit into a polemic against “Massive Online Open Courseware”, or MOOCs:
Why, in spite of all the fantasies about “working from anywhere,” are “creative classes” still concentrating in proximity to one another: the entertainment industry in LA, information technology in the Bay Area, financial capital in New York City? The powerful and the wealthy are well aware that computers can accelerate the exchange of information, and facilitate low-level “training.” But not the development of knowledge, much less wisdom.
This is absolutely correct! It’s well-known (or believed) in Silicon Valley that to be a remote worker is basically a career time-out, and if you’re serious about working in technology you must live in the Bay, or at least in New York. The reason being that there are very real agglomeration benefits to working in an industry town; when I go to parties, the vast majority of people I meet also work in technology. You learn interesting things, exchange knowledge and ideas, and become part of the wider community. As Alan Jacobs puts it:
[MOOC proponents] clearly believe that not just their personal well-being but also their intellectual sharpness depend on regular face-to-face encounters with others like them. Yet they proclaim that for hoi polloi none of that matters.
It’s very easy to point out the contradiction between the practices of Silicon Valley and the ideals of MOOCs, but it is more self-satisfying than illuminating. Newstok promotes “close learning”, the gathering of students together in a room with others like them and a skillful teacher. Which is all very well and good, but it is not really the alternative on offer for most Americans. Most Americans have no access to the liberal arts education imparted by Professor Newstok at Rhodes College, which costs $47,596 a year. Most Americans are lucky if they have access even to community college; most Americans have access to nothing beyond night-and-weekend classes at the University of Phoenix Online.
One can advocate online distance learning without claiming it is the best of all possible worlds. I fully agree that it would be best if all Americans could have access to small classrooms led by excellent and devoted teachers, but there are many reasons why that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. Compared to the alternative of “almost no educational options available to the poor and isolated”, MOOCs seem pretty good!
Furthermore, Newstok ignores the entire issue of “non-traditional students“. “Traditional students” are 18 or 19, enrolled full-time in college..and comprise a whopping 27% of all college students. On-site, full-time, intensive education of the style Newstok advocates isn’t an option for a majority of the current college population right now, not to mention others who may want to seek more education. I’m a member of that group right now – I’m studying in my free time to prepare for grad school. And the explosion of MOOCs and associated resources have made that much easier.
MOOCs may supplant traditional college, but it’s only likely to do so if it’s actually better. If it’s a lot cheaper and rather worse, it’s more likely to serve as a complement to college rather than a replacement. After all, college has valuable properties like signaling and social capital that will be impossible to replicate with a MOOC. So the people who are going to college primarily for those purposes (probably most people!) will continue to go. The most likely role for online learning is to expand education’s reach to those who found it impractical before for reasons of cost, time, and location. Professors ought to celebrate this rather than treat it as a threat.