Prediction: Online Adjuncting is About to Boom

SUNY has been pushing for more online for some time. It means an increased ability to sell credentials to a broader market with lower real estate costs.

As far as I can tell, the primary constraint has red tape. I don’t know who put it there (unions? accreditors? governments?), but getting a class certified to go online on my campus has meant going through a steep enough up front cost that few people bother. Combine that with the fact that an online class is simply less fun and you’ve got a recipe for a mercifully slow expansion of online teaching.

That changed this week. Now almost all of SUNY is online, like it or not. The red tape might be there when we get back to normal, but the up front cost to getting a class online will fall enough that many adjuncts will get in on the action next fall.

About 15% of summer 2020 classes are slated to be led by adjuncts. I predict that by summer 2021 that will increase to 25% and that will just be the start of a much larger trend of adjunctification of online classes.

“There’s Nothing Morally Wrong With Not Wanting to Work Hard at School”

That’s a point I agree with in an opinion piece I recently stumbled across.

And it relates to a larger point that’s been brewing in my head the longer I hang around campus. Most of these kids simply shouldn’t be here. They don’t want it enough, and they really don’t need it. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t want to work hard enough to make school a valuable experience. College is a distraction for most kids who really should be getting work experience instead.

I’d love to live in a world where people valued education and pursued it for its own sake. I’d love to find out my garbage man is a lover of classic Russian literature. But I actually live in a world where people value schooling which they pursue for credentials. And any education they get along the way is an accidental byproduct. The one things students seem to learn is how to flatter their professors. Sure, they learn while they’re at school (how can you be 18 and not learn something?!), but I’m far from convinced that they learn because of school.

The trouble is that the one thing schools have been effective at teaching students is how important school is. Is it so important that nearly a quarter of “amusement and recreation attendants” should have bachelor’s degree or higher? I won’t argue that carnies should be high school drop-outs like in the good old days. But if I had the choice between one who passed my class (with a C+) and one who spent an extra couple years learning how to make sure a bolt is tightened properly, I know who I want operating my teacups.

As a society, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve set up a system where we convince kids that they need a degree to live a good life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as college graduates go on to uncritically hire college graduates. That leaves an unsustainable tension: most students (rightly) don’t want to work hard at school, but they want to go to school. “Society” wants them to work hard at school, but doesn’t want to deny anyone a degree. At best we end up wasting everyone’s time. At worst, we set kids up for failure then leave them with student loans. In either case we erode standards and diminish the signalling value of school along with the educational value. We need someone to go into high schools to tell kids that there’s nothing morally wrong with opting out of college entirely.

Departments of Higher Education should have mystery shoppers

As you know, I teach at a SUNY campus. As you can imagine, the views I express here are only my own and certainly not those of any authority figure in the bureaucracy I live in or the higher ed industry more broadly. My union would be mortified.

In my opinion–coming from a limited perspective within the sausage factory–the problem we’re facing is that universities are good at education and bad at credentialing (at least when there’s a significant demand for the signal value of a degree). This has lead to a host of problems–Baumol disease, growing administrative expense, all sorts of cultural unsavoriness, declining standards, grade inflation, etc.

Education just happens. You can’t plan for it. You don’t do x amount of philosophy and then you’re enlightened. But a navel-gazing, consequence free environment with a culture of inquiry is a fine place for education to happen.

Credentialing on the other hand is a common pool with the usual problems. It doesn’t have to interrupt the educational component of the university, but when actors in this setting follow the basic economic logic of their situation enrollments (and budgets) expand and the nature of the good produced by schools shifts from unquantifiable to commodity.

In such a setting there is a strong case to be made for regulation. At the very least to manage the common pool resource of the signal value of a bachelor’s degree, but more ideally to ensure students aren’t simply learning to minimize cost while navigate a bureaucracy.

Of course, NOL readers know that regulation is never easy and comes with many problems of its own. In fact, many of the problems I see in the industry are the natural bureaucratic outcome of such regulation (particularly as I sit here avoiding the work I’ve got to do making my tenure packet more closely resemble a checklist version of the guidelines my campus gave me. God I hate this!). For a taste of how this mess is currently killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, check out BadAssessment.

How do we improve the regulatory quality? Mystery Shoppers!

My industry is disciplined through:
* direct state regulations,
* marginal nudges through strings-attached financing,
* “self”-regulation through quasi-public regional accreditation and much-less-public discipline-specific accreditation,
* direct consumer experience,
* U.S. News (and similar) rankings, and
* Peter Theil and other critics complaining about how the education system is broken.
My proposal could be done at any of these levels, but to my knowledge is only actually done at the statistically invalid level of direct consumer experience.

Governments could invent many students and their traits and send copies of these students to a sample of online programs. Teams would manage sets of students and gather data. With several of these students taking different paths through each school the agency could learn something useful about the school as a whole–is it a degree mill? How does the actual student experience compare to other schools? Are there pitfalls that might put vulnerable groups at a disadvantage?

Peter Theil could do it more aggressively and generate an upper-bound estimate on the bullshit in the industry.

The College Board or U.S. News would probably turn it into a new costly margin of competition between schools, but that’s probably an improvement over what we’ve got now.

To my knowledge, nobody is doing this. In my opinion, given the stakes and the size of the industry, it’s worth approaching this from many directions. Mystery shoppers would certainly be a more direct evaluation than the hundreds of pages of sacrificial paperwork we’re currently using.

What should universities do?

The new semester is here so it’s time for me to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing in the weird world of modern American university life. Roughly speaking, the answer is going to be “do the stuff that professors do to help universities do what universities do.” So what do universities do? What are they supposed to do?

Universities occupy a few different niches in society. I’m usually tempted to think of universities like a business. And in that framework, I justify my salary by providing something of value to those students. At my school, something like 90% of the operating budget comes out of students’ pockets.

But that’s an overly narrow view. Students pay to go to school because they expect they’ll get value from it, but they also go to school because them’s the rules–if you want to enter adult society, university is the front gate. In this framework, I justify my salary by serving as a gatekeeper. Even though it’s students paying, the (nebulous) principal I’m obliged to is the collection of people already inside the walls.

But wait! There’s more! Universities are (in no particular order):

  • A repository of knowledge,
  • A generator of new knowledge,
  • A place people go to learn,
  • A place people go to prove themselves,
  • A place people make friends and have fun (in a way that may be hard to replicate),
  • A business (engaging in mutually beneficial exchange),
  • A special interest group,
  • An institution that holds a particular (privileged) position in a wider cultural landscape.

Any one of these functions is a can of worms in its own right. When we start to consider tradeoffs between each function (and the many less visible functions I’ve surely missed), it gets downright intractable. I’m going to focus on the student-focused aspects of university life.

The mainstream view:

University is a place students get educated. This education helps them get jobs because employers value it. Students might also learn things that help them be better citizens.

The mainstream view doesn’t seem far off from what I’ve got in mind until you get your hands dirty and start disentangling what that view says. Here are three big problems inherent in that mainstream view:

  1. The education-for-job myth.
  2. The definition problem.
  3. The one-size-fits-all problem.

The Job-training myth

We’re told that students go to school to learn valuable skills. I think that’s true, but not in the usual way. Any specific skills students learn in school are a) incredibly general, or b) out of date. My students might learn some interesting ways of looking at the world (general knowledge), but a lot of what I teach is completely useless in the workforce (“Johnson, draw me a demand curve, stat!”). But students do learn valuable skills incidentally. They learn to manage their time (ideally), how to be conscientious, and in general they’re socialized so that they can fit in with adult society.

Lately I’ve been thinking of college as a form of upfront consulting. Instead of going to school when you’ve got a specific problem to solve, go when you’re young and have nothing better to do. Since you’re getting the consulting before you know what sort of problems you’ll face in the future, we couldn’t possibly give you exactly the right bundle of knowledge.

College exposes students to lots of different ideas that might combine in unexpected ways. Your class in underwater basket weaving might seem like a waste of time until some day 30 years later you are trying to solve some problem that turns out to make a lot more sense if you think of it like wet wicker (I’m looking at you civil engineers!).

Some of what I (and my colleagues) do helps prepare students for their careers, but mostly I’m trying to help them be better–better thinkers, better able to understand and appreciate, better able to enjoy life.

The definition problem

The word “Education” means a lot of things to a lot of people. More often than not, people use the word without being clear about what they mean. Often it means “job training.” Sometimes it means “enlightening.” Other times it means “making you agree with me.” In practice, it means surviving enough classes that you get a piece of paper indicating as much.

It should be recognized as a vague and nebulous word instead of being pigeonholed. It isn’t a binary state (I was ignorant, now I’m educated). It’s helpful to think of people as being more or less educated, but the state of your education isn’t something we can really objectively compare to my state of education.

There are lots of important but nebulous things in our lives: health, happiness, moral worth. Their vagueness makes them difficult, but it isn’t going away.

It isn’t hard to convince people that education is nebulous, but it is hard to get people to behave as though they really understand that.

Homogenization and commodification

Once people start thinking of education as some objective thing we can pull off a shelf and give to someone, we run into the real problems. This unexamined view leads to bureaucracies that attempt to standardize and commodify education.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why people would try to do this. We want everyone to get education (and moral training, and good health, and…). And as long as we’re worried about that, we’re going to worry about making sure everyone gets the best education possible. But “the best” gives the false impression that there’s one right answer.

A top-down approach isn’t the right way to achieve the goal of widespread education. Attempting to systematically scale up education provision kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. We should fight against attempts to commodify university (which currently happens via accreditation-as-gateway-to-subsidy and the general expansion of bureaucracy through administration).

So what should universities do?

There are different margins on which we can justify our existence, but it’s not obvious how to balance our tasks: teaching, researching, advocating, etc.. Given the high degree of uncertainty, I’d argue for pluralism… different schools (and professors) should be trying different things. As universities adapt to the future, it’s important that they don’t all try to adapt in the same way at the same time.

I think a big part of the problem is that we’ve been too successful at rent seeking. All money/privilege/goodies comes with strings attached, and more money comes with more strings. We’re always going to get a little tangled up in those strings, but in the last couple generations we’ve hamstrung ourselves. Accreditation and assessment have become the most important things a modern university does, which distracts from our more fundamental goals.

A bottom up approach doesn’t mean less education, just different education. A more modest education system would change the mix of costs and benefits faced by stakeholders. Employers might rely less on degree signalling, which means hiring managers and potential employees exercising more judgement in sending and evaluating quality signals. I don’t know exactly what would happen, but flexibility is valuable for the nebulous goals universities are supposed to be pursuing.

But at the moment we seem to be in an equilibrium. Students are expected to go to school, schools are expected to deliver on promises they can’t really fulfill, and we go through the motions of keeping schools accountable in a way that basically misses the point.

So what will I do this semester? I’m going to keep talking about interesting stuff to students. I’m going to keep working towards getting tenure. But I’m also going to quietly subvert attempts to commodify university.

 

From Grass Valley to Chico: party culture and noise ordinances

A professor at Chico recently asked his critical thinking class about noise ordinances: “Why should a few people get to shut down a few hundred people having fun?” The question is about our intuitive response to questions of utility. However, it goes beyond that.

Recently, students at Chico State tried to organize support for shutting down noise ordinances (after the penalties became harsher), which would mean more loud parties. It’s unlikely to go anywhere since there are thousands of non-collegiate adults living in the immediate vicinity who have to put up with noise on a regular basis and need police power to shut down public disturbances.

Nevertheless, the college was established in 1887, and everyone who chooses to live in the city has been here a much shorter time than the campus. Its reputation precedes itself. Chico State came in 59th place out of 1,426 colleges for its party scene for 2017. In 1987, Chico came in first place in a Playboy ranking, and since then, its status has been for general excess.

With a population of 90,000 when school is in session, that’s a lot of partying hard. President Paul Zingg, who resided over Chico from 2004 to 2016, made a crack-down on partying central in his mission statement. Zingg, 70, entered Chico administration after a fraternity hazing death and sought to reduce the school’s notoriety for binge drinking. Since his arrival Chico dropped another twenty or so notches in partying prestige.

There are many programs on campus to discourage binge drinking and equip students with the knowledge of how to proceed if alcohol poisoning does occur. Further, the local fines for minor-in-possession charges are exceedingly costly. However, policing parties harder – both academically and politically – might have some unintended consequences. Driving out parties means young people will have to entertain themselves in other ways, and, barring 20 year olds spending their nights at the science museum, different drugs may show up to occupy them.

There are many Californian cities where there are no parties but recurrent drug abuse. My hometown is one such place. Nevada County, composed of Grass Valley, Nevada City, Penn Valley, Alta Sierra, and, sort of, Truckee, has a problem with homelessness, youth homelessness and youth drug abuse; all misdemeanor offenses, however, so Nevada County has a low felony rate per capita compared to neighboring counties and the state as a whole.

When I went to middle and high school in Nevada City and Grass Valley, there was an impressive issue with teen drug abuse and recidivism. I knew many students without stable living conditions. Many graduates lacked any occupational motivation, while the area offered an extensive and encompassing drug culture. Narcotics and experienced vagrants provided a rubric against which a hopeless mentality prospered. (The Nevada County Sheriff’s activity website boasts largely of public disorder or drug-related arrests.)

The city of Chico, meanwhile, is adjacent to methamphetamine giants like Oroville and Marysville. The city itself has eleven suspected clandestine drug laboratories as of 2014, compared to Oroville’s twenty. (Residents know there are more.) The governance of Chico, in terms of partisanship, is not unique; nor is its relative adolescent-adult ratio peculiar for a college town. Yet it manages to get by without excessive hardcore drug use or addiction rates like its neighbors. I think it’s plausible that, among other factors, Chico’s party scene helps keeps out the harder drugs.

Parties mean marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. These are staples in any festive town. However, without parties, there are less party drugs, and instead a window opens for more deadly drugs. People don’t party on deadly drugs, like those that slow heart rate, so when there’s parties, more designer drugs appear rather than lounge-around, do-nothing narcotics, like opioids or barbiturates. (I think this effect holds for towns of a certain population, but once that population and acreage is large enough, the effect may begin to work in the opposite direction.)

Grass Valley and Nevada City have a large proportion of young adults but a microscopic party scene. They are sister towns where the borders are relatively undefined, and have a combined population of about 16,000, made up of mostly middle-aged adults and a subsection of retired elderly folk. Nevada City came in eighth place for most dangerous city in California in a Telegraph Today poll. This is partially explainable in terms of population – the total amount of people is so small that any violence means, per 1,000 people, the likelihood of being a target of violence grows heavily. Like I said, violent crime appears relatively absent. Nonetheless there is an inordinate amount of drug use, from harmless depressants like marijuana to titans like methamphetamine.

Grass Valley teenagers don’t have many all-night ragers to shotgun cans of Pabst at. This means they don’t have an environment to learn how to party hard safely, and also that they become dependent on drugs that can fit any occasion.

There’s a reason why alcohol is the most popular drug for people under 21: it’s illegal until you turn 21. Similarly, I think crackdowns on drug use – common and relatively harmless drugs like alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and cocaine – may lead to backfires and encourage kids to move into more unexplored narcotic territory. (I also wrote a paper last year illustrating that several non-profit efforts to quell methamphetamine use across the nation had a negligible effect or the reverse effect.)

The drugs of today are a new type of foe. The lost war on drugs is getting the tar kicked out of it by Vicodin and OxyContin in the age of the highest recorded overdoses of all time. Smart drug policy would investigate the positive effects that parties have in the broader neighborhood, like tourism, promotion of social behavior, and promotion of drugs that are better understood by medical professionals and users alike.

The hazing overdose death that President Zingg came to office on was not from alcohol, nor any party drug, but from excessive water intake. The mistake is to infer a causal connection between dangerous partying and deaths like these, when there are causal events underlying both. Loud, boisterous parties are preferable, any day, to equally illicit, but infinitely more dangerous, covert drug use.

So, to answer the original question, “Why should a few people get to shut down a few hundred people having fun?” They shouldn’t. Screw them.

University Graduation Rates are Too High

A proposal has surfaced to “punish” California state universities, including San Jose State where I teach, if they either (1) continue to raise tuition rates or (2) fail to raise their graduation rates. The punishment would take the form of reduced state support.

First of all, we taxpayers (including me; I’m a net tax payer) should rejoice at such “punishment” as it would lessen the burden on us. Taxpayers aside, how might the state universities respond to such punishment? On the fiscal side, they could recruit more out-of-state and foreign students who pay full freight. The UC campuses are already cutting admissions of in-state students in favor of out-of-state full payers – will UC eventually become UNC – University of Non-Californians? Furloughs are unlikely; they were tried once and didn’t work. They can’t cut salaries; there’s a faculty union. They’ll never cut out administrators. No, all bureaucracies, when forced to cut expenses, make cuts that are most painful to the public. Therefore, in addition to recruiting more full payers, they will cut classes.

What about graduation rates? They can’t raise admission standards because that would be “unfair” to racial minorities who are disproportionately ill-prepared for college work. They already have programs to try to coax students to study, with marginal results, and the obligatory special privileges for students with “learning disabilities.” It’s not clear what more could be done along those lines. No, I contend that the most humane policy for state universities would be to cut graduation rates. Here’s why.

It is indeed unfortunate that so many students, more than half at SJSU and other state universities, fail to graduate within six years. Those students have paid a big price in terms of money spent, debt incurred in many cases, and foregone income, with almost nothing to show for it. A bachelor’s degree from a state university, unless it’s in engineering, is worth little enough; two or three years of class work is worth nothing. Those who do make it all the way to the sheepskin gain a marginal advantage; their degree signals a certain amount of persistence. Their value to an employer remains uncertain; many, I fear, couldn’t be trusted with such simple tasks as reading with understanding, writing, doing simple calculations or, perish the thought, critical thinking.

All too many students who enter SJSU are ill-prepared and/or poorly motivated. Large numbers must take remedial math or English because they learned nothing in their public high schools. Many have little or no idea why they are there – some seem to view college as a way to delay their entry into responsible adulthood.

A good number surely have aptitudes for jobs that may require some specialized training, but not a college degree. I’m thinking of welders, hospitality workers (wait – you can get a B.A. in hospitality!), tile setters, carpenters, electricians, roofers, beauticians, nannies; the list goes on and on. What a tragedy that such students fall into the sinkhole (for them) that is a university campus.

Since admissions standards aren’t likely to be raised, the only humane thing to do is to get these students out the door as fast as possible. I expect to give a lot more D’s and F’s in my class this semester than I normally do, not because I’m pursuing any agenda but because they won’t have learned the material. Those students will be hurt, short term, but it’s the right thing for them, long term, especially if it hastens their exit from a university where they don’t belong.