Kevin Carey’s new book, “The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere” has legs. It has been in the New York Times, on NPR and has an active Twitter hashtag (#endofcollege). Carey’s thesis is that technology can make learning happen anywhere. Rather than go to college once or twice, people will go to college forever. Colleges have grown greedy and short-sighted in their quest for prestige. Online degrees and short-term credentials of various sorts can, should, and probably will be the death of traditional higher education. The thesis should sound familiar. It’s been made enough times. But the thesis is better at describing than prescribing because it ignores the faultlines that created the problem: the politics of race, class, gender and inequality.
Carey’s take on higher education disruption is not unique for ignoring politics some people would rather not deal with. Many technological solutions to social problems have a blind spot for politics. And I don’t just mean electoral politics and public policy (although both are major). I mean the politics of how we choose where we live, how we live, and who we are. Fundamentally, most architects of the end of college want an apolitical solution to a political problem. Like Carey, they provide solutions for problems as we wished they worked and not the problems as they actually work.
Education is like the Super Bowl. Everybody thinks they can call the plays better than the players on the field. And everyone wants to call the plays but very few commit to the training required to make the team. Carey has that training. He heads up higher education policy for the New America Foundation and writes for The New York Times’ Upshot vertical. I think that is where the sense of easy solutions that do not bother with politics comes from. When you’re really smart and really well trained, the solutions are pretty easy in the abstract.
There are several good things about this book. Carey is a really fine writer. His writing is direct, clean and smart. His opening chapter uses the example of George Washington University’s rise in the rankings to weave together the intersecting pressures on U.S. higher education: shifting demographics, changing funding structure, consumer student models, and competition for resources. It is a great selection of a case study and a nimble deployment of characters. In it, Carey describes what sociologists would call status competition. I said as much when I read the chapter ran as a New York Times essay weeks ago. Status competition is, with some extreme flattening of nuances, essentially what it sounds like. People want to get ahead and when education is The Way to get ahead, people compete for education like it is going out of style. Carey nails how that process heats up and how colleges respond.
I also appreciate Carey’s enthusiasm for meritocracy in his imagined higher education future. I am only half joking when I tell friends that no one wants meritocracies more than oppressed folks. We trust that we would hold our own in a fair race. And Carey acknowledges that gatekeepers to jobs are pretty important to the value of a degree, even if the treatment is thin. But compared to how studiously most technological solutions for higher education ignore the importance of jobs, I will take it.
If “The End of College” gives a little love to jobs, it does not give much love to inequality. There isn’t a single discussion of any of higher education’s well-documentated fault lines in the entire book. That ommission undermines the arguments chosen to advance the major claim of what technology can do. Take for instance, Carey’s framing of higher education’s skyrocketing cost. He talks about high student loan debt and tuition. But debt and cost are relative. Despite impressive sounding aggregrate numbers about student loan debt the most vulnerable students are struggling with objectively small debt burdens. Making college cheaper by cutting out the expensive campus real estate arms race does not address the fact that cheap is not an absolute value. That is why race, class, gender, and citizenship status are ways to understand how much college costs: they map onto the relative nature of debt. If you don’t talk about why skyrocketing tuition is relative then you aren’t really talking about skyrocketing tuition. And if your argument is built on the claim that it counters skyrocketing tuition, then the slightest tug of the thread unravels the whole thing.
Let’s take another example of how the “End of College” argument talks about jobs. For Carey, the key to changing higher education is employers seeing online degrees as “official”. Becoming official could, indeed, change the game. We call it legitimacy and it is hard to earn, hard to keep but worth trying because legitimacy can turn a piece of paper into currency. If Mozilla badges become the preferred degree for jobs, we may be talking about a big deal. But, again, the challenge is not about quality of teaching or the skills people learn at online colleges. Colleges aren’t even the problem for online degrees’ quest to become official. The problem is that easy access to skills training is precisely what employers do not want. A labor market of all creeds and colors and cultures with objective skills is actually a nightmare for employers. Employers benefit when they can hire for fit and disguise it as skill. If the private sector were interested in skills over racism, sexism, and classism, it need not end college to end wage disparities. Employers could start by ending inequalities among the people they already employ. They don’t because politics makes it so they don’t have to. Carey overstates the private sector’s interest in skills and understates its interest in hiring for who we are as much as for what we know.
I confirmed my read of Carey’s treatment of the pink inequality elephant in the room by searching the text for racial and ethnic categories. The word “race” doesn’t make a single appearance. The term “African American” appears twice to describe the market share an inspirational Ukrainian immigrant cultivates in his entrepreneurial fervor. But that is better representation than Asians or Hispanics get; neither group is ever mentioned in any context. “Ethnicity” appears only once in one of those liberal clauses designed to capture all identity groups:
“Some live in societies that deny or discourage educational opportunities to members of certain genders, religions, ethnicities, and castes.”
Carey is talking about inequality in global societies but he ignores domestic inequality. When the global is local, that slieght of hand is akin to solving for x without y. The problems of high tuition; selective admissions that choose on privilege instead of merit; and how we judge which institutions are prestigious are all functions of who we deny educational opportunities in this country. If it is a problem out there, then it is a problem in here first. Cheap online degrees do not change that. Carey parses data on higher education problems in the New York Times. His writing is strong enough to extrapoliate data to imagined futures. That makes the erasure of inequality in his various examples a disappointment. It also feels intentional.
I understand wanting to avoid those debates. They are numerous and complex and wieldy. Those debates are often contentious because race and ethnicity and gender and class are involved. They are also necessarily political. And, the End of College argument is crafted to ignore politics. Do not confuse that for Carey not understanding the importance of politics:
“The political and regulatory protections surrounding the hybrid university are functions of politics, which always oscillate on the edges of luck, personality, the business cycle, and majority coalition building.”
The argument is well aware that political priorities and coalitions produce higher education crises. But what are those politics? The book never says. Of course, other books do say but there aren’t many references of them. A reader who picks up just this one book is going to know a lot more about technology and very little about the politics of how we live with technology.
Just once I would like a technological disruption to be tuned for the most fragile institutions, rather than the most well-heeled. Carey seems to aim for just that. Less well-funded colleges, especially those without the prestige to justify their tuition are squarely in Carey’s sights. The argument is that these schools cannot compete for the best; subsidizing them is throwing good money after bad; and, individuals are better left to their own devices. But even Carey’s choice of George Washington University does not represent the typical college in the U.S. or the diversity of colleges. There is no treatment of historically black colleges, Hispanic-serving colleges, or for-profit colleges. They are in the status competition race, too, with different stakes and different traditions with different importance for different reasons than Harvard or even George Washington University. The institutions, like the students they serve, just disappear in the future. The book is about the end of college but Carey’s higher education future only describes the end of some colleges.
All of that is also fine. Really, it is. Imagined futures can be useful thought experiments, although I admit a preference for those that do not erase people who look like me. But I’m selfish that way.
Thought experiments can be fun and edifying and useful abstractions. I like that about the tech sector’s approach to problem-solving. But in reality, these arguments can also suck the air out of the room precisely when we must make hard, political choices.