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Big Education Is Not Better Education

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

An article in Forbes, from a few days back:

“The University of Florida announced this past week that it was dropping its computer science department… The school is eliminating all funding for teaching assistants in computer science, cutting the graduate and research programs entirely, and moving the tattered remnants into other departments. Let’s get this straight: in the midst of a technology revolution, with a shortage of engineers and computer scientists, UF decides to cut computer science completely?”

All jokes about Florida aside, it does seem strange, and the response from the University doesn’t really make it any clearer. I don’t think the issue has anything to do with computer science. Instead, it seems like a typical, and poor, financial decision made by administrators of a public university who have the operational luxury (in most cases, mandate) to extract themselves from the reality of those their decisions affect. It’s actually quite similar to the recent move by California State University to completely eradicate financial aid that was already promised to close to 20,000 students: a decision that seems made with a cold focus on numbers and budgets, rather than “the right thing to do.”

It’s strange that we’ve allowed ourselves into a situation where “cold logic” and “the right thing to do” don’t align. But I see this sort of thing – seemingly arbitrary decisions based on an unsustainable financial model – happening in nearly every public campus across the country. It’s all a flavor of the same unsustainable economic model borrowed from the Fortune 500, a byproduct of a goal to scale, where somehow “bigger” has been equated with “better”. There’s been no meaningful reflection on the repercussions of growth for growth sake. I get that, at a mission-level, public universities may feel the need to offer their services to as many as possible, but a thin education for many at the expense of depth for a few seems a particularly bad decision in an economic environment that’s drifting towards a service economy and trying desperately to find broad sources of innovation. Not everyone needs to go to college right after high school, and it’s time we acknowledged that skipping college does not equate to failure.

I’m skeptical of the amount of the buzz around “disrupting higher education”, because I haven’t actually seen any examples of true disruption occurring. Moving your existing curriculum online, providing videos of fact-based learning, or making education free are all nice, but are only tiny examples of change. We’re still stuck with a factory system that has thousands of students sitting through introductory classes in chemistry or statistics, learning little from the professor who doesn’t want to be teaching in the first place.

And, I’m not entirely convinced that the academic focus of higher education needs to be disrupted, because there are many, many things that work well about Universities. At its best, attending a University is a time for boundless cross-disciplinary exploration, personal reflection, and, perhaps most importantly, mentorship. This isn’t some fake nostalgia; there are many of us that were truly changed by our experiences at school. I had the opportunity to learn from both Herb Simon and Richard Buchanan in one place, and that’s something that, without the existence of a formalized research institution, would never have been possible.

But I have a feeling that what attracted them to CMU, and what continues to attract people like them to great schools all over the world, is not the size or scale of the institution. Instead, it’s the promise of doing meaningful work with brilliant people. It isn’t the content of the University that needs to be disrupted, or even the delivery mechanism, at least in the upper levels of specialization (where class sizes are small and the focus is on depth). Instead, disruption needs to occur in the operational areas of higher education. Reconsider the core assumption of growth, and you begin to question if freshman should act as a subsidy for the upper levels, or if massive operational budgets, coordinated by faceless administrators, are needed, or if massive high-school recruitment efforts are worthwhile, or if standardized testing is actually necessary. Instead, offer a commitment towards affordable education, and a commitment towards small and focused schools. A school that is small and 100% operationalized around tuition can eliminate overhead, lower the cost of attendance, allow teachers to teach, allow researchers to research, change quickly to adapt to changes in the world, be selective in admissions, and act as a self-sufficient entity. It’s not nirvana; it’s just a simple model that makes sense.

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