Liberal Education

My Favorite Professor, Server IC21: Money Smothering People in Higher Education


The new royal marker for higher education

Somewhere we all learned documentation, whether in laboratories or archives or through ethnographic observation. History is not alone among disciplines in insisting on the use of original sources, but its lessons are most striking in this age of digitally delivered instant reports, scorecards, and analytic flowcharts, along with more painstaking statistical performances, each with a claim to distinctive combinations of controls and methodologies. These activities and their blaring messages are not confined to the research world: foundations, higher education associations, and government agencies are all enthusiastically waving multicolored flowcharts and producing position papers, panel pronouncements, and “summits” at an ever-increasing tempo in a cacophonous symphony. But stop! Remember what you learned about documentation? The symphony may not be so cacophonous, after all. What are they talking about? What does the evidence say? Who owns these pronouncements and conversations? Read the sources, line by line. Listen carefully.

First, the foremost marker of student outcomes in higher education—for the enterprise itself, for the commentariat, and for legislators—has traditionally been institutional graduation rates. Whatever one thinks of the various ways that marker has been produced, and whatever one thinks it means, it has now faded to second place, pushed down in public communication by the marker of how much money graduates make or will make. And however those dollars add up, they are presented as the product of the institutions students attend—not subsequent student behaviors, not labor market conditions, not location(s) of employment. The US Department of Education sets up a scorecard with “how much didja make?” as its governing tone, and the analysts, like lemmings, immediately plunge into the institutional data (whatever its faults and gaps) to judge colleges for this dollar sign or that dollar sign and for each of the standard stale demographic groups (though some are smart enough to include age at entrance to higher education). The economic literature has swelled with this royal outcome variable for higher education for years, and with increasingly sophisticated statistical gymnastics, but now it has burst beyond academic journals and has become an emperor.

The Economist (which should know better, and which scrambles dates so that we don’t know who, precisely, is being assessed) follows the tone with a prediction of earnings ten years after (after something, but we’re not sure after what) by institution, matched against actual earnings ten years later, by institution, and with a standard set of controls.1 The bigger your dollar spread, the bigger your win. The big winners (surprise?) are schools with piles of top SAT scores, and those with high-volume dollar majors (engineering, computer science, pharmacy, business).

Not to be outdone, the American Institutes for Research comes up with another list of dollar-bearing institutions, an “economic success measure” based on earnings and “career progress,” but, defying natural migration, one confined by state borders and with each state writing its own variable boundaries.2 The Brookings Institution goes a step further to demonstrate how much the future dollars attached to degrees produce not merely federal, state, and local taxes, but, more importantly, different weightings of consumption categories (e.g., housing, food, and entertainment).3 Around the edges of this noise dance the “big data,” big analytics, and ever-ready-to-sell micro-firms. We know money, they say, and we’ll give you templates for projections of income to sell to your future students. It has become a whirlwind of twenty-dollar bills. Money is the emperor.

The inevitable follows if the institution is the reference point: rankings games,4 best fit for the sports pages, or what C. Brian Mitchell calls the “college swimsuit edition[s].”5 I’ll leave them alone, other than to note the extent to which “how much didja make?” now colors their presentations and that, to borrow another phrase from Mitchell, they become “data dumps.” Once money is emperor, everything big data can find gets thrown into the rankings machine, and the yowls of college presidents feed it.

I don’t want to sound too ancient about such things, but the fact is that students enter higher education for different reasons, and they continue through to degrees for grounds that they inevitably discover in growing up have nothing to do with floating twenty-dollar bills. It is a forgotten universe called “life.” A student—whether full time, part time, or mixed enrollment intensity—may enter school X because “my girlfriend is going there, and it’s easy to get in”; “I’d rather commute from home and have my own room, than share a room in another city with a couple of weirdos”; “I liked chemistry, and I’m told they have a great chemical engineering program” (which, of course, the student discovers, is not chemistry); “I visited and loved the history professor’s lecture on New Deal agricultural policy (it was really funny, particularly when she got to soy beans)”; “I visited online, and the student projects and conversations in that class on migration and immigration were really neat”; “they’ve got a rock-climbing wall, free bikes, and a fabulous gym”; “I’m gonna major in biopsych, and they have two Nobel Prize winners on the bio faculty”; “the Afro-Am center was the people-warmest place I’d been in for years, and they were demonstrating really cool African dance routines”—and so on.

As the student moves through the drama of undergraduate education, the girlfriend dumps him and he takes up with someone else in the theater program, discovers he can play Roger in the college production of “Rent,” and is off and running toward that continuous employment market called Broadway. The chemical engineering major becomes a computer science major (loved programming, created all kinds of game apps, and game apps were the end of chemistry). Biopsych was boring, but getting out in the woods and developing templates for recording bird behavior in ethology was really neat (besides, the internship with the state environmental commission showed the student where she could work). The Afro-Am center pushed the student into a study abroad semester in Senegal, and with it, decent fluency in French, and toward work with the World Health Organization.

One hears very little of this in our national conversations. The more the foundations, government agencies, and think tanks promote monetary dominance, the more forgotten will everything else become, and the less these little pieces called “life” and learning will play any role in students’ futures. The powers that be have created the language of public understanding: costs, loans, debt loads, repayments, earnings, multiplier effects, family income (not socioeconomic status), and, of course, payoff, cost/benefit analysis, and its accounting cousin, productivity.

Once money dominates outcomes, employers become higher education’s board of directors

With money comes a combination of job skills and corporate definitions of discrete occupational training competencies; if students learn anything else, it’s serendipitous. The corporate magnet determines a set of reference points toward which institutional pathways and propaganda flow. Student outcomes must be “what employers want.” Student learning must be driven by “workforce needs.” Curricula must be changed to fill the gaps that employers identify in college graduates. The banging of the drums of the new credential hustlers is incessant:

  • “Employers are searching for specific skills to fit their business needs.”
  • Your capabilities must be described “in ways that employers find relevant.”
  • Choose programs in light of “employment demand for related skills.”
  • These nanodegrees are “credentials to prove to potential employers.”
  • We’ve got “industry-led, career-oriented, online certification programs.”
  • “They work with industry to deliver people the skills to do a job that industry needs.”

Such statements run the semantic gamut from declarative (this is the way it is), to the subjunctive (this is the way it should be), to the imperative (this is what must happen). But regardless of voice, it’s all referenced to business/industry.

To be sure, not all employers are corporations, but the proxy will suffice. And there is nothing wrong with asking the appropriate representatives of major and minor employers what they look for in hiring, and whether it is produced by formal education institutions or whether it is more likely to be produced elsewhere. There are, however, at least four problems with how this is done. The first lies in whom we ask. Few CEOs have any idea beyond clichés, front-line human resources professionals have radar screens limited to appearance and mannerism and recording devices programmed to judge the grammatical and the articulate, and rarely do we see a vice president of operations or research among the respondents.

The second problem is that what those we ask know of what colleges, community colleges, and universities do and do not do is rather limited, even though (or maybe despite the fact that) they are almost all college graduates. Do they know what their mantra of “teamwork” really means (negotiations, feedback, division of tasks, critiques and counter-critiques, rotating roles, consultations, adjustment, modulation) or how some (though hardly all) higher education institutions elicit these behaviors from students? I doubt it. The third problem concerns what they value and don’t value. Think, for example, of punching sign-in cards by 9:00 versus 9:10 or of the multinational that doesn’t care about bilingualism or how it was acquired and used. The fourth problem lies in the extent to which their ideal world holds higher education institutions to be little more than training divisions that save corporate cash.

Again, step back! Listen! Ask what the rhetoric says about who owns higher education. Ask who it implies compose the principal judicial panel ruling on higher education’s purposes, successes, and (more often) failures.

Part of the dissonance here is that today’s “workforce needs,” which corporations/employers want students to match, are not tomorrow’s needs. The case of parallel programming is instructive: the code emerged from hardware (parallel processors) and will be used almost universally by 2020. Who is teaching it—the corporations that will need it? Of course not. Similar observations could be made about carbon fibre applications and large-scale 3-D printing. If we have idea and tech observatories out there—loaded with science journalists, demographers, and folks who can put together political movements, agricultural technologies, and melting glaciers—they will identify trends that lead to trends. The heavyweight employers before whom higher education now bows can’t tell you what an observatory is, let alone imagine the configurations of knowledge and skills of integrating knowledge that future workers really will need—not only as workers, but as citizens. Does it surprise anyone that this type of citizenship—indeed, any type of citizenship—is nowhere to be heard on the “employer” agenda?

Again, there is nothing wrong with corporate–higher education interaction, but the elevation of money as the lingua franca of higher education positions venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, old-fashioned CEOs, and outright hustlers as the de facto board of directors of US higher education. Institutions of higher education have to function as businesses, to be sure, and some of them exhibit downright entrepreneurial behaviors with varying degrees of success. But rhetorical control now lies in other hands, and the rhetoric has consequences.

Once employers’ needs dominate, so do technology and digital services

With corporate magnets come tech dominance and the selling of digital services; people fade into the woodwork. An extreme statement, to be sure, but consider: if we pass over teaching to prepackaged online programs training discrete skills, we have a residual academic workforce composed of

  • a few folks who write the programs;
  • folks in the entrepreneurial service firms that translate the basic course/module content to interactive digital form;
  • a few folks, detached from the course creators, who monitor what students enrolled in those programs do (and who respond to e-mail questions from students);
  • folks (more likely tenured than not) who teach upper-division courses that are not easily packaged for digital delivery;
  • technicians who fix student computer/server connections;
  • advisors who conduct telephone or Internet conversations with students on sequences of modules and finance issues;
  • managers and facilitators of whatever is left of libraries and library-type services;
  • nonteaching research professors and their assistants who deal with nanotechnologies or historical archives or macroeconomic data and analysis;
  • a few deans of schools or program chairs who oversee all of this.

The folks in the entrepreneurial service firms are not college employees. Everyone else is, but there are fewer of them, hence improving productivity and reducing costs. (Whether tuition and fees are reduced is another story.) Bravo, right?

In this future scenario, who will be able to respond to a reunion questionnaire item, “My favorite professor was . . . [and why]”? Chances are, the only reunions will be held at elite or public ivy institutions, and the favorite professor anywhere else will be Server IC21. More of life gets washed away, but everyone’s thumbs will become a lot more muscular. In this future, don’t expect any college theater productions or musical groups or (some would say, serendipitously) sports teams with throngs of fans filling stadiums. In other words, don’t expect anything that normally requires person-to-person teamwork, something employer surveys say is high on the list of their desires for future workers and that higher education does not provide. Art exhibits? Not really, if 3-D and texture are included. You don’t get your hands dirty in digital space.

Sure, this is an extreme scenario. Rest easy! It ain’t gonna happen.

The “disruption” song

Try selling this much-ballyhooed “disruption” to the African American students seeking more personal contact, group space, and minority faculty on our campuses. If disruption has its way,6 they will be sent home and told to do their work in nano-certificate programs through Server IC21 and to get their badges. That’s not to say that MOOCs (some of which can boast distinguished university sources and providers) or online microprograms in Android design, for example, are dead ends with empty returns. In fact, these putative “disruptors” have shown their worth; they also have simply been added to the delivery portfolios of higher education. The only “disruption,” if you can call it that, is setting up the technical infrastructure, and for that we now have a bevy of “online program management” firms.7 It is a multibillion-dollar business, and when money rules, it doesn’t sound like disruption to me.

Besides, human beings are too attached and oriented to physical space to expunge it from their lives. I think we learned that from the architectural historians, community planners, and environmental analysts. Or, maybe we didn’t. Ask people who expect there to be an Esplanade, a Golden Gate Bridge, an Empire State building, or a Grant Park, people who expect these physical places and spaces, along with all college quadrangles, to be part of their lives. Likewise, as all learning involves relationships, we are more likely to identify it with reference to breathing human beings, as in “my favorite” or “my least favorite” instructor, or with images of specific students in “my learning work group” (course, seminar, field project, etc.). As the Gallup-Purdue survey of college alumni demonstrates, individual faculty reference points are the strongest fulcrums of learning, and you don’t have to scratch your memory too hard for those images to arise.8 If Server IC21 and its half-nameless online tutors were at issue, the image wouldn’t register. It’s like your customary tech support person, in online conversation or phone: “Hello! My name is Allison, and I’m here to help you solve your problem!” Allison may be very cheerful and efficient, but she’s not what we expect in organic chemistry or Latin American history or ethology courses.

Further, in the face of its advocates’ arrogant utopias, the disembodied Android world of MOOCs and online degrees won’t have a chance of disrupting higher education until that point—perhaps three hundred or four hundred years from now—when a generation of human resources officers and other employer personnel recruiters is willing to accept degrees from the likes of Coursera, edEx, Udacity, FutureLearn, Miriada X, and StraighterLine in the same breath as those from Cornell and Chapel Hill. Again, it ain’t gonna happen. We do not abandon familiar reference points any more easily than we would abandon orientation to Grant Park.

Where do we go?

It’s time to step back from the symphony of hype that governs discussions of higher education.

Write a screed on “how much didja make?” and somebody will make sure it goes viral. Write an op-ed on “disruption,” and somebody will pay you to say something similar to an adoring crowd at a higher education conference. Put a dutifully growling and sad face on your latest crisis paper on workforce gaps, and you will have an instant saleable face. Play the “blended learning” game (even if it’s not really learning, but rather an instructional/delivery-mode genre), and you have a guaranteed full workshop with paying customers. All of this is a byproduct of dollar dominance. Let money rule, and that’s what you will get.

What, at the end of the day, can the leadership of US higher education do to move away from the money game and to extricate itself from the single-purpose vision of employer control?

First, with a unified voice, reject any interpretation of the outcomes of higher education in terms of future earnings. Just say, “It’s so full of holes and is such a distortion of what any educational program seeks to do that we won’t endorse it.” Second, as a corollary to this, with a unified voice, demand that the US Department of Education remove the variable of future mean earnings from its “college scorecard.”

Third, to focus attention on the true outcomes of higher education, every higher education institution should issue a “diploma supplement” to accompany the degree for each qualifying student. Such a US diploma supplement, unlike the European versions, would be about what the individual student did, not about the legal status and organizational memberships of the institution. It would be a maximum of two pages and would consist of

  • a half dozen statements of generic student proficiencies, modeled on the Degree Qualifications Profile (i.e., a sample of what the student demonstrated in order to qualify for the degree);9
  • half a dozen statements of disciplinary-specific student proficiencies in the student’s major or majors (i.e., a sample of what the student demonstrated in his or her major);
  • a one-paragraph description of the student’s summative project or summative activity;
  • a one-paragraph description of the student’s contributions to the institution, its community, and/or a wider field of national and/or international voluntary activities;
  • an optional statement of what the student can do in a language other than English, how well, and where those proficiencies were acquired;
  • where applicable, and even if the transcript already marks them, a list of the courses the student completed through either MOOC or other online delivery method, with an indication of the provider for each.

If that isn’t a student-centered outcomes statement, with all its markers tied to the institution (and not something else), I don’t know what is. Any institution of higher education that issues such diploma supplements to all its graduates will simultaneously be setting down a statement of the quality of learning it provides.

Fourth, ironies, ironies, ironies. We love them. We have the best system data in the world on all the issues of employment and earnings we presumably wring our hands about. It’s called “Baccalaureate and Beyond,” a longitudinal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).10 It does not cover community college graduates, but when folks talk about college degrees, the bachelor’s degree is usually what they mean. The study runs for ten years following a given year of bachelor’s award. It’s slow; it’s expensive. But it’s unassailable. So far, one study has been completed (1993–2003). A second, begun in 2008, will conclude in 2018.

The Europeans are planning something similar, and they know just how expensive the undertaking will be, even with sampling, across thirty countries and twenty-five languages. But they also know its value. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have been the only non-European on the “scientific advisory board” of this project). But foundations, higher education associations, higher education administrators, the media commentariat, employers, and legislators alike don’t want to use “Baccalaureate and Beyond.” They don’t want system data unless it suits their proclivities for telling bad stories about the United States. They want individual institutions’ outcomes data. They want “my school,” and you don’t get “my school” from national samples, however scientifically drawn they may be.

So, if higher education wants its own leadership, the commentariat, employers, legislators, prospective students of all ages, and the general public to grasp meaningful long-term outcomes that may be linked to the experience of various forms and combinations of postsecondary education, then it must team up with the National Student Clearinghouse in order to turn the national-sample “Baccalaureate and Beyond” survey run by NCES into a true population survey—that is, to go from twenty-five thousand to six hundred thousand (at a 35 percent response rate).11 Do a single shot, ten years after 2008 graduation, including both associate and bachelor’s degree populations. That would not be cheap, and it would mean convincing the foundations to fund the effort. But what everyone would get are categories other than “how much didja make?”: civic participation, cultural participation, continuity of employment, contiguity of employment, family formation, further learning (formal and informal), intercultural perspectives, geo-mobility within the United States, life and travel in other nations, second and third language fluencies and expansion, reflective assessment of the relation between higher education and the varied categories of economic and civic life. And we would get them for every institution whose 2008 graduates produce a 35 percent response rate in 2018.

That would be a very rich portrait indeed. But if we want it, there ain’t no free lunch. Ironically, earnings are the free lunch.


1. “Where’s Best?” The Economist, October 30, 2015.

2. Mark Schneider, Measuring the Economic Success of College Graduates. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research, June 2014.

3. Jonathan Rothwell, “What Colleges Do for Local Economies: A Direct Measure Based on Consumption,” Brookings Research, November 17, 2015,

4. See, for example, Matthew Chingos and Kristin Blagg, “Toward an Economic Mobility Ranking of U.S. Colleges,” Evidence Speaks Reports 1, no. 6, November 12, 2015,

5. Brian C. Mitchell, “The College Swimsuit Edition: Making Sense of the College Ranking Wars,” Huffington Post, November 30, 2015,

6. The future scenario sketched here is made up of developments that are often cheered as “disruptive.” See, for example, Michael Horn, “Match Beyond: No Excuses Meets Disruption in Higher Education,” Forbes, April 30, 2015,; Jonathan Blake Huer, “Higher Ed Disruption in Context,” Educause Review, October 12, 2015,; John K. Waters, “How Nanodegrees Are Disrupting Higher Education,” August 5, 2015,; Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Louis Caldera, and Louis Soares, Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2011).

7. See Steven R. Strahler, “The Cluster of Chicago Companies behind All These New Online Courses,” Crain’s Chicago Business, September 26, 2015, 309269992/the-cluster-of-chicago-companies-behind-all-these-new-online-courses.

8. See Gallup, Gallup-Purdue Index 2015 Report (Washington, DC: Gallup, 2015).

9. The Degree Qualifications Profile outlines a set of reference points for what students should know and be able to do upon completion of associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees—in any field of study. For more information, see

10. For more information about “Baccalaureate and Beyond,” see

11. For more information about the National Student Clearinghouse, see

Clifford Adelman is senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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