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Education and Inequality

Education and Inequality

Let me make it clear in advance: I fully recognize that higher ed will be discussing major changes (though not everything will change), and I’m looking forward to that conversation. We’ll need to think about new uses for technology, some different pricing structures—all sorts of things. I do think some of the current faddish assumptions are off the mark, but I also recognize that education leaders must not simply object and resist.

But of course I have concerns. I’ve noted in an earlier blog the need to keep liberal education goals alive; in a climate which looks increasingly to technology, we must also remember that technology works better in some areas than others, but by the same token should not be allowed to set the full agenda.

Here, however, is an even bigger concern. We will hear still more talk about the need to keep tuition down, and, up to a point, I fully agree. But if tuition is kept down while certain other costs continue to rise, or additional sources of conventional support are withdrawn, the result will, almost surely, be a reduction of educational quality. Maybe we can figure out ways to reduce the quality less than the cost, but there surely will be an impact.

The result, in turn, will be a growing divide between students who can afford more conventional education, or are so clearly good that the wealthy private universities will pay the freight, and the rest of the student population. Even at individual institutions, the idea of different tracks, at different costs, might have this impact.

Let me use a specific example. If many public universities are forced to lower per student funding in order to accommodate tuition constraints along with some unavoidable new costs, they will inevitably start expanding class size, whether in conventional classrooms or online. This in turn will progressively inhibit the capacity to train in, and evaluate, student writing, which is simply labor intensive. (Remember, just a couple of years back before the United States became impoverished, how we were being urged to invest more in good writing—by employers of our graduates, among others.) The result again: a growing divide between wealthy or unusually able students, who still get writing training, and the larger mass of students.

A crucial measure, as I’ve said before: if and as we are prodded to alter our educational programs significantly, will the politicians and businesspeople send their offspring to us as a matter of preference, or will they be looking for more conventional options still?

None of this, again, is intended to prevent discussion or innovation. But, in a society where inequality is growing anyway, let’s be aware of social consequences. Let’s not jettison some programs, like private giving for financial aid, that have helped in the past. And let’s be honest with ourselves, and with the wider society, about measures that do jeopardize quality, even if we end up having to adopt some of them.