A Bad Idea That Doesn’t Get Better by Analogy


In “The Path to Debt Free College: More School Choice,” an article written for U.S. News and World Report, Wesley Coopersmith argues that “to solve the debt crisis in higher education, lawmakers should let students have many more options.”

Brushing aside proposals to increase Pell Grants, to reduce interest rates on student loans, and to provide free community college, Coopersmith asserts: “Rather than focus on how students pay for their education, these policymakers need to ask why they’re paying so much, and what they’re paying for.”

He addresses the second of these issues first, asserting: “Traditional college degrees are not only increasingly costly but also increasingly less valuable. More than 43 million Americans have taken on debt to pay for college, yet one recent survey showed that over 40 percent of graduates at ‘top’ schools could not find careers in their chosen field.” This passage sets the rhetorical pattern for the essay: Coopersmith make a very straightforward assertion about a broad and very complex issue and then points to a single piece of evidence that seems to support his assertion, which in his view allows him to close that part of the discussion and to move on to the next assertion.

So, having perfunctorily established that postsecondary education is over-valued as well as over-priced, Coopersmith circles back to the inefficacy of focusing on how students pay for college by arguing: “It’s a well-documented fact that pumping more federal money into college just inflates costs. In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently determined that every dollar of Pell Grants raises tuition by 55 cents.”

Then he asks rhetorically, “So what’s the alternative?”—as if there is some single answer very readily available.

His answer is that higher education should take as its model the “school-choice” or charter-school movement. Very notably, he simply accepts that charter schools have been successful and does not address any of the multitude of issues associated with charter schools—specifically, the high administrative costs, the reliance on tenuously credentialed teachers and Teach for America graduates, the low teacher salaries and high turnover rate among teachers, the generally low academic performance of students at such schools, the expulsion of many at-risk students who would further reduce standardized test scores and the recruitment of physically disabled students and other categories of students who generate higher federal and state subsidies, and the widespread investigations of dubious corporate scams and political corruption.

Ignoring all of these issues, Coopersmith also blithely ignores the very prominent and prevalent parallel failures of the for-profit colleges and universities in arguing against the necessity of accreditation: “It begins with reforming the accreditation process by decoupling federal financial aid from accreditation requirements. As it is now, colleges follow federally regulated accreditation standards, which are intended to guarantee quality and allow students to transfer credits from one school to another. Yet accreditation has done little to guarantee quality: Nearly 40 percent of students showed no learning improvement after four years at accredited institutions. What current accreditations standards do well, however, is keep innovation out of higher education. Accreditors admit the process is ‘increasingly granular, narrowly focused on compliance,’ and often fails to accommodate newer, alternative methods of education. And students who rely on federal aid can only apply that aid at accredited institutions, establishing a pseudo-monopoly for established schools.”

In asserting that a post-secondary equivalent to charter schools might be a mechanism for breaking this monopoly, Coopersmith again completely ignores that corporate charter schools are dominated by a few corporations that operate in multiple states, that the largest for-profit colleges and universities have actually been “systems” and have had enrollments all out of proportion to their academic capacities, and that the major corporate educational providers, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, are not only huge conglomerates but also dominate the “industry” at an arguably monopolistic level.

All of this brings us to the main “innovations” and student-friendly options that Coopersmith is offering: MOOCs and competency-based education.

He asserts that “they are widely supported by college provosts, and traditional institutions are starting to provide them, helping their students attain a more affordable education.”

First, this assertion very dubious because there are now many surveys that have indicated not just very low faculty support for MOOCs but also very low institutional or administrative enthusiasm for them. Second, that skepticism about MOOCs is largely the result of the manifold evidence of the extreme, if not simply insurmountable, problems with student engagement with and completion of MOOCs. Lastly, like most digital “innovations” and educational “reforms,” the MOOC industry is dominated by a very few major providers; so, they are hardly a way to mitigate any concerns about “monopolistic” tendencies in higher education.

Coopersmith’s complete article is available at: http://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2016-01-27/more-school-choice-in-higher-education-can-lead-to-debt-free-college.



2 thoughts on “A Bad Idea That Doesn’t Get Better by Analogy

  1. The interesting point in the article is that the author notes that he is a “millennial” searching for an alternative. The ideas he raises seem to be examples that he is reaching for to indicate that there are alternatives,(some may have merit; others may be questionable) not that he is advocating them as a path or The Path. On the other hand, Martin’s response, here, is to pick up on the examples as problematic, seemingly to discredit the author’s questioning but not offering a clear alternative to what many would agree that there is a crisis.

    What is emerging is that the intent when post secondary institutions were created was to educate an individual to become a participant in civic discourse as well as gain skills to contribute to the community economic well being. The balance between these has shifted well towards the economic dimension largely because of the significant investments that have been made by many parties from governments to students to many organizations who now see that the HEI’s are a designated economic pathway.

    If one looks at the current demands of the labor market, globally, and one looks towards an increasingly AI and ICT delivered future, it seems most likely that there are alternatives to rebalance those founding goals and that there are many more options for the economic well being of the individual and society that do not necessarily require the traditional linear path to a college/university education for either of these goals- at least in the current embodiment.

    The unspoken “plea” in the article may be pointing to the fact that the traditional institutions are facing a Christensen “disruptive” moment as institutions and for those who inhabit the Ivory Tower. Perhaps that is the issue that needs addressment where a seasoned academic can offer a creative response to a millennial and to colleagues?

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