Education theater refers to investments made in education designed to provide the appearance of improving learning outcomes for students while doing little or nothing to actually achieve this.
Universities originated based on the principles of “training professionals, scientific investigation, improving society, and teaching critical thinking and research“. The modern research university is sometimes referred to as following the “Germanic tradition”, stressing liberal ideas and the role of research scholars as faculty members. The idea behind this originally was that there was value in learning from the thinkers at the forefront of a field. As well as conveying the content, these scholars could help students learn to think the way scholars in that field do.
After the second world war, the GI Bill provided educational assistance to returning servicemen and flooded universities with potential students. Before this, universities would typically recruit students from wealthy families which naturally limited the tuition pool they could draw from. These new students caused a shift in curriculum to attract and retain veterans. Increasingly the value of a university degree was established, leading to government programs to help fund education. These changes further adjusted the curriculum to capture an ever increasing segment of the population that chose to attend university.
Degree mills arose, which would grant anyone a fake degree in exchange for a one time payment and no educational activity. These are out-and-out scams that attempt to provide the benefits of a university degree without investing time or (as much) money.
For-profit universities also became more common. Whereas universities were typically established as a non-profit for social good, for-profit universities were explicitly money making businesses. Often the underlying philosophies, such as “everyone deserves a university education” are uncontroversial, however as profit seeking businesses there is a relentless push to maximize how much money they make. Admitting students whether or not they are able to benefit from the curriculum, can often happen. Some students who have attended for-profit universities feel they received a worthwhile education and are happy with the experience.
Higher education has entered a consolidation period. Sweet Briar College made headlines when it surprisingly announced plans to shut down after operating for over a hundred years and having an endowment worth almost $100 million at its peak. With fewer students, schools fight to recruit and where I live in central Illinois billboards advertising various schools are a common sight.
Ron Srigley, an adjunct professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, wrote a blistering essay whose central thesis was that universities had developed a bloated administrative level and, by having low expectations of their students, were cheating them out of an education.
Buzzfeed posted an interesting story recently about Northwestern Polytechnic University which has 99% international students. Due to a desire to maximize tuition, the school had explicit policies that no student could fail and grade were artificially inflated. Although operated as a non-profit, the family controlling it has been enriched, through activities such as the school buying houses for them.
When accreditors came for a site inspection, the school had part-time off-site faculty pose as full-time faculty in makeshift offices and hired a librarian from another school to pose as a librarian for them since they didn’t actually employ any librarians.
All three institutions I have worked at have had many international students. For two of these, this was a boon and it was an enriching experience for everyone involved. At the third university, a non-profit, public school, a similar dynamic to Northwester Polytechnic University had developed. The university was facing decreasing enrollment. International students paying higher tuition had proven to be the savior at the school, however the international students that the school was attracting were unprepared for the programs they were accepted to. Unwillingness to lose current students or potential future students led to a continual watering down of the curriculum along with pressure to turn a blind eye to academic dishonesty. This school is on a downwards trajectory. The students ultimately felt they were purchasing a visa to the US which required them to pay this university and put on a show of education rather than actually learn anything.
A local employer told faculty members that they had always had good experiences with students from this school, however recently the graduate program (where these international students were being accepted) students hadn’t been any good and in the future they were only going to hire undergraduates.
In both cases, these schools are cannibalizing their past reputations to squeeze money out of the school. Like a wealthy family that needs to spend their principle to live, each year this will become more difficult for them with the increasingly inevitable destination of ruin.
In my opinion, the employer refusing to hire graduate students is a microcosm for what we’ll see throughout society in coming years. Given the lower quality of education and schools making short sighted decisions about their educational offerings, the value of a university degree will shrink. Low cost alternatives, like improved future versions of free massive open online courses (MOOCs) will put more pressure on schools to fight for students. Some employers have already reduced the value they place on hiring employees with a degree.
University debt has become a common complaint among young adults, further disincentivizing higher education.
I expect in the end, schools such as Harvard or Caltech will remain and thrive as they’ve always done. Third and fourth tier schools are in an incredibly vulnerable position and personally I wouldn’t make any life decisions that depended on their future viability.
Thanks to my wife Dorothy for reading a draft of this post.