An initial response to Carey’s “The End of College” (or college costs don’t matter)

I’ve read about half of Kevin Carey’s The End of College and I’ve seen lots of the critiques of it in the education media, particularly in Inside Higher Ed.  There’s this, this (which has a pretty decent bullet-point summary of the book), this (which is probably too polite), and this piece by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab.  That Watters/Goldrick-Rab piece is probably my favorite because it is so biting and so extensively cited, though Kim thought it a little too “biting.” I commented on that article already. In any event, while my own reading of Carey is a “work in progress,” I thought I’d share two thoughts for now.

First, I am both bothered and puzzled by the attention Carey’s book is getting. I’m bothered because this book seems to be getting way WAY too much attention, and I’m puzzled by this because it seems to me the point he is making about “The University of Everywhere” is basically the same that the “Year of the MOOCs” bandwagon was making in 2012. If all this were new, I guess it might make sense; that it’s not new at all and it’s still getting great PR confuses me.

I referenced Carey’s book (well, indirectly because I ran out of time during the presentation)  at the CCCCs, and I suspect I’ll be quoting from him if I ever get this MOOC book/sabbatical project together (knocking on wooden things). I see him figuring into the last chapter where I am imagining the future of MOOCs and whatever comes next, and the seemingly never-ending quest to make education cheaper by making it more “efficient” and by further distancing teachers from students and/or bypassing the teachers altogether. Here’s a long quote from my CCCCs talk that I didn’t get to read that gives you an idea about where I’m coming from about why I’m confused by the attention:

I think Carey is wrong in lots of different ways. I think he’s right that higher education spends too much money on football and fancy campuses, and there is no doubt that higher education costs too much money. But his assumption about the research/teaching balance being out of whack and the inability of professors to teach is at best an exaggeration. Carey talks about runaway costs, but as far as I can tell, he says little about how expenses have been driven up by rising administrator salaries and increased bureaucratic demands on everyone from outside stakeholders (assessment!). Further, he seems to think that the content that would be delivered electronically in the University of Everywhere is free as in “free beer,” that that work just magically happens.

But the reason why Carey’s argument matters is the same reason why the MOOC business got traction a few years ago: Carey is playing off the popular (and largely uninformed) view of college, that it’s far too expensive because professors don’t do anything to teach and they are getting paid too much to do something that appears to most people outside of academia to not actually be a job. Write a book about how higher ed needs to be reformed by improving government funding, eliminating administrative bloat,  and by streamlining extracurriculars gets zero discussion and it sells 200 copies [and as an aside: I am afraid this is the book I am writing]. Write a book about how higher ed ought be run like Google and it gets covered by the New York Times and Fresh Air and lots of other places and it sells thousands. So even though the future of Carey’s “University of Everywhere” seems like an even more “risky business,” it’s similar to MOOCs in that we need to engage in the conversation.

The second (and more important and counter-intuitive) thing is about the “college costs too much” argument. Much of Carey’s book argues college as we know it needs to be completely retooled because it costs too much money, which is of course the conventional wisdom from most about higher education (including me). This is a rational observation. But here’s the thing: it seems to me most would be students and their parents don’t actually care that much about the costs.  It certainly isn’t driving most decisions students make about where to go to college.


Here’s what I mean:

The Higher Education Research Institute has been polling incoming first year students for 50 years about why they decide on a particular school.  For 2014 (and these trends have remained fairly steady), the cost of attendance comes in fourth place in reasons that were “very important” in deciding on where to go to college, well-behind “the college has a very good academic reputation” and “the college’s graduates get good jobs,” and almost tied with “I was offered financial assistance” and “the college has a good reputation for its social activities.”

Let me use my own local and family experiences to illustrate my point. In the county I live in– really, within about 10 miles of each other– there are four post-secondary institutions: my own (EMU), Washtenaw Community College, Concordia University, and the University of Michigan. Here’s a primer about these places for my argument here:

  • EMU is a regional comprehensive university that comes out of the normal school tradition. I think it’s fair to describe it as an “opportunity-granting” institution (the 2012 acceptance rate was 64%) that works very hard at keeping costs down. We have about 18,000 undergraduates and maybe another 5,000 graduate students, mostly from Michigan. EMU estimates the costs for on-campus students (tuition, room and board, etc., etc.) to be about $20K a year, and $14K a year for commuters (those living with a parent, I presume).
  • WCC has somewhere around 13,000 students (mostly locals and I think the accept everyone, but I’m not sure) and has a pretty good rep in the area– we get a lot good students who finish their associate degrees there before transferring to EMU. There’s no on-campus living there, but tuition for 30 credits at WCC is somewhere around $4K a year.
  • Concordia is very small (only 668 students with a 2010 acceptance rate of 56%) and religious, which is to say that it is attracting a different kind of student body, but they say the cost of attendance is about $35,000 a year. Though like most private schools, that’s the “sticker price” that most students probably don’t actually pay after financial aid.
  • And then there’s the University of Michigan, which generally shows up in the “top 20” or so rankings of the “great universities in the world.” It has about 44,000 students from all over the planet and an acceptance rate in 2014 of 32.2%. The cost of attendance varies a lot based on what kind of student you are and where you’re from. For in-state first year students (and full disclosure– my son will be one of those people next year), it’s about $27K, and for out of state freshmen (and there are a lot of them at U of M) over $55K.

My point is this: these stats suggest that the cost of attendance is not the driving decision for students deciding between these schools. I realize this flies in the face of logic and what we read everywhere about runaway tuition, parental anxiety about paying the bill, and enormous student loans. And this logic is reasonably accurate: college is too expensive, paying for it is stressful. But how people are actually making decisions about deciding on a college doesn’t synch with this logic.

Let’s set aside Concordia for a moment because it is so small and religious and just compare WCC, EMU, and U of M. If cost of attendance was the main factor for most students in deciding on where to go to college, then WCC would be bursting at the seams because it make extremely good financial sense to get that associate degree first and then transfer. EMU’s acceptance rate (which is obviously a factor of how many students apply in the first place) would also be lower than or at least on par with U of M’s since it’s over $8K a year cheaper to attend. Why purposefully pay that much more?

In fact, if costs really mattered that much, the really smart money would be a combination of WCC and EMU over U of M: that is, 2 years for the associates degree at WCC and transfer into EMU right down the street as a junior. Roughly speaking, a student could get a four year degree with the WCC/EMU combo for less than half of what it would cost at U of M for an in-state student. Sure, there are some programs of study where this wouldn’t be possible– U of M has engineering and EMU doesn’t, for example– but for that student who is majoring in something like English, Communications, Psychology, Business, etc., etc., a bachelor’s degree is a bachelor’s degree is a bachelor’s degree.

So why does anyone pay the higher price at Michigan? In fact, why are so many more people applying/fighting for the chance to pay that higher price at Michigan– again, based on the acceptance rates?

I think it’s because of what that HERI survey tells us: at best, the cost of attendance is in fourth place. For most people, the significantly lower costs of the WCC/EMU combo does not outweigh U of M’s excellent reputation and the assumption that U of M graduates get good (better than EMU graduates at least) jobs.  The social activities offered at U of M probably figure into that as well (they occasionally have a good football team).

I’ve seen this in my own house. Costs have been a factor in thinking about where our son ought to go to college, but it’s been a fairly small factor. It’s been more about ruling out applying to very expensive schools– the Sarah Lawrence Colleges and the University of Chicagos of the world that all come in just north of $60K a year. My son, who is a pretty academically-inclined kid interested in things like medical research, put a premium on U of M’s reputation and the success of its graduates; whether or not he finds any interest in the football team and such remains to be seen.

Don’t get me wrong. College is too expensive, and affordability is clearly a factor, and for a lot of the students I have at EMU, I think cost of attendance as a factor ranks higher than fourth. I have lots of traditionally aged students who are doing the WCC/EMU combo because they’re paying the whole bill themselves out of pocket and with loans, and I also have a lot of students who are “returning adults” (the older than about 25 student who has a family/job/life and they’re coming back to college to finish what they started in their late teens) who are coming to EMU because it makes good financial sense. And of course, we have lots of students at EMU who would have gone to U of M or Michigan State or what-have-you who didn’t get into those schools. But again, as overpriced as college is in this country, the facts on the ground make it pretty clear that the high costs are not keeping students from attending those more expensive schools.

Which, to circle back to Carey and his vision of the “University of Everywhere,”  suggests one of the key weaknesses to Carey (et al)’s argument. He’s saying “One of the great things about the University of Everywhere is it will be free.” Students and parents are saying “We don’t want it to be free. In fact, we’re willing to pay more money for a degree based on assumptions about reputation and prestige, even when those assumptions are based on a fuzzy logic.” In other words, if the “University of Everywhere” can’t offer students academic excellence and job prospects, “free” just doesn’t matter.


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