I am sure many teachers have had the following experience. There is a kind of student who seems to go to an enormous amount of effort to avoid doing any work. Although this student has been rare in my teaching career, I can’t say he’s been non-existent. The excuses. The plagiarism. The various visits to the office to butter me up so I will be better disposed toward his failure, once again, to turn in a paper on time. The furious work between semesters to turn that “incomplete” into a letter grade. It’s at this point I usually opine, “If you put as much effort into your school work as you put into avoiding your school work, you’d be a really good student!”
The same thought occurred to me when I first heard about the Varsity Blues college scandal. As readers are no doubt aware, this indignity involves various parents, most of them very wealthy, going through considerable effort and spending considerable amounts of money to finagle their child’s entrance into one of our nations more elite institutions of “higher learning” (quotes very much intended to indicate irony). With all of that struggle and money, couldn’t they have achieved success the way most elite parents do? Get your kid into the college prep high school, pay for all sorts of extra-curriculars, spend massive amounts on test prep, and then see Johnny or Jane off to Stanford, Harvard, or at least Williams. That is the honest way our elite engage in graft. If they had put as much effort into gaming the system legally as they put into gaming the system illegally, they likely would have achieved the same results.
The parents seem to have been motivated by status anxiety. One reason behind the scandal’s notoriety is that it caught a couple B-list Hollywood celebrities in its net, namely actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Loughlin, whose biggest crime up to now has been her role in the situation “comedy” Full House (again, quotes fully intended to indicate irony), was faced with the horror of her daughter having to attend, get this, Arizona State. Blech! The rich and famous do not send their kids to schools with the word “state” in the name. Imagine being at the country club and having to admit your progeny attends a university most famous for its sports teams. It’s like having to admit you once shopped at Wal-Mart or ate at Chili’s. So Loughlin and her husband used their money and influence to bribe their kid’s entry into USC. Now that school is also famous for sports, but at least it is a private school famous for sports.
It is clear that most of the parents involved in this affair care little about education. On the whole, smart, hardworking students are successful pretty much wherever they go. Indeed, there is every indication that often non-selective, non-elite schools provide as good if not better classroom educations as do the elite institutions. I have a good friend and colleague who went to Stanford. He insists that the classroom experience at Stanford was worse than most of our students get at our non-descript public regional university. This I do not doubt. Unlike at many elite institutions (but not all), our classes are almost universally taught by tenure-track full-time faculty with a terminal degree in their field. Few instructors or lecturers, even fewer adjuncts, and almost no graduate students. Most of our colleagues are at our institution because they actually like teaching undergraduates. Also, we have less pressure to publish, with the institutional culture valuing quality teaching over research production. We are also pretty small, allowing for personal relationships with students that are the exception in “higher education.” I suspect the experience at most regional institutions is similar. When you compare the price between regional institutions and high-priced elite schools, it is a wonder why more parents of high-performing students don’t choose the less-renowned public option.
And yet there are real differences. As my Stanford alum friend says, simply being around a bunch of really smart, really motivated students made up for the lack of rigor in the classroom. My own experience at a moderately elite liberal arts school (St. John’s in Minnesota) confirms this. Precisely because they are selective, elite institutions tend to have a better student body. Also, going to an elite institution opens doors. For one thing, the alumni base consists of more highly-successful people than does that of a non-selective school. And it must be admitted that having a degree from a prestigious institution is itself often a ticket to success. I understand that some financial firms in New York will not even consider applicants from outside the Ivy League. Even as a faculty member, I am aware that nobody’s eyes light up when I say “I teach at Northern State University.” More typically there is the dumb stare of incomprehension followed by the indifference that arises due to the knowledge that associating with me is unlikely to help your career. I know that I have lost opportunities because my pedigree is insufficiently elite to further the interests of other academics. After all, various programs, publishers, and institutions wish to associate themselves with the most elite institutions. If all this is true for a faculty member, much the same must be true for students.
It is frequently noted that in the almost inevitable bursting of the “higher education” bubble, the schools least well positioned to weather the storm are the regional public institutions. We don’t have the reputation that the more elite schools have. We don’t have the big-time sports or campus amenities that the large state universities have. All we offer is a sound education at a reasonable price. But that isn’t what it’s about, is it? Often for the big state universities it is precisely about making college four years of fun. At elite schools it is the status, the bragging rights, the ability of not just students but especially parents to associate themselves with prestige. Charles Murray has documented that our elites more and more segregate themselves into various institutions of life, our colleges and universities not excepted. This is a way for the elite to perpetuate themselves, all the while claiming that it is all the result of “meritocracy.” But the often sketchy quality of actual education at our biggest and/or most elite institutions belies the notion that it’s about merit. As Patrick Deneen has noted, the elite flatter themselves that they have earned their success, mouthing the platitudes of identity politics as a kind of penance for their privilege.
Regional institutions have done themselves no favors. Given the dire demographics and economics of “higher education,” what most regional institutions do is try to ape the most successful schools, success defined purely by enrollment and money. Small, non-elite institutions have two options. Let’s call the first the “comparative advantage” option. In international political economy, the doctrine of comparative advantage says that as a nation engages in international trade it should trade in what it does best. So a nation like Japan doesn’t say “Saudi Arabia makes a lot of money off of oil, so we should start drilling for oil” because Japan doesn’t have any oil of its own. Applying the concept to “higher education,” institutions should find what they do best, what makes them distinctive, and apply their limited resources accordingly. A second approach is what we can call the market approach, namely the university should do market research on what students, parents, and businesses need and then adjust to the results regardless of where current institutional strengths are.
Universities, small regional ones not excepted, nearly always choose the second option. Herein lies the problem. Nearly every institution does market research. Those institutions that occupy the same market will then collect the same data. They will then simply duplicate efforts. There is nothing distinctive about each institution’s approach as they are all operating under the same market research. They act like Japan in the above example, putting money into oil despite not having any. Smaller institutions think that if large institutions spend money on athletics, so we should, too. Big school have nice big student centers, so we should, too. The trends in higher education are to reduce graduation requirements and to gut general education, so we should, too. History, language, and literature aren’t selling, so we should deemphasize what was once the center of university education. We should internationalize the curriculum and recruit more international students. Create masters programs. Create new programs to meet current employment needs. There is nothing per se wrong about any of these strategies other than the fact that they are the strategies of nearly every regional public institution.
As the term suggests, regional public institutions were created to serve a region. What these institutions seldom consider is that it is an effective strategy to make serving that region the core of its mission. This makes each institution regionally distinct. Each institution resides in a place, with a culture and history. One can include in a curriculum a place for regional literature, regional history, regional politics, regional ecology, etc. My own institution is looking to revivify a Native American Studies program as the various iterations of the Sioux tribe are an important part of regional history and culture. Our library has a collection of letters and artifacts of Germans from Russia, many of whom (including my father’s own family) settled in the Dakotas. These are the kinds of things institutions can do to make them distinct, but too seldom do. Pushed by various economic, philanthropic, and accreditor interests, even regional institutions are under pressure to “globalize” and educate students to “change the world” rather than their neighborhood.
In this sense, regional public institutions are often their own worst enemy. Not surprisingly, the faculty and administration of these institutions are themselves a kind of elite, having obtained an education level far above the typical American. As such, they have often imbibed the globalist, cosmopolitan ethos of elites. The assumption is that if a local smart kid goes to the local college, that’s a failure. If the smartest kids at the local college stay in the local community, that’s a failure. It is taken for granted that success means getting to the nearest big city or, if lucky, to New York, Washington D.C., or some other global city. There is no regional loyalty because success is defined by credentials that earn one worldly success, rather than by the contributions one makes to one’s home. A Midwesterner cannot help but think of Jim Burden in Willa Cather’s My Àntonia who starts his studies at University of Nebraska hoping to, like Virgil, be the “muse to his country,” but then leaves for Harvard, eventually becoming a New York corporate lawyer.
What the regional university strategies and the Varsity Blues scandal have in common is a lack of concern with quality and a strong emphasis on credentialing. The Varsity Blues parents didn’t really care if their children learned anything; they were concerned that they got their ticket to success stamped by the right institution. Often non-selective institutions, with enrollment concerns paramount, leave standards of excellence aside. Finding the correct “market” is more important than doing something well. The dominant theme in “higher education” is get them in and get them out—and if they happen to learn something along the way so much the better. Then ship them off to our economic centers, leaving the local community bereft of its best and brightest. My own South Dakota is one of the leaders in this game, as a recent study shows that South Dakota ranks near the top in “brain drain” of its brightest, most talented to other states.
It reflects the bias of our elites that media coverage of higher education focuses almost exclusively on a handful of exclusive institutions, the kinds of institutions where the rich and powerful send their children, who can then become powerful journalists writing about higher education. You’d hardly know from national media that the nation is peppered by countless high quality schools, public and private, that aren’t “prestigious” enough for Hollywood celebrities to commit crimes in order to get their kids admitted. Parents of high performing students should rethink their bias against regional institutions. These really are the hidden jewels of American “higher education.” They are typically smaller, allowing for strong community and personal relationships. They don’t have the distractions of large state schools. And they have an educational quality that would surprise most people. While the size of the typical regional university means it usually isn’t comprehensive enough to offer every program, they usually have a handful of programs that are particularly strong. For example, my own institution has one of the finest music programs in the upper-Midwest, and I’d stack our History and English faculty up against anyone. If we are dedicated to building local communities, we need to be dedicated to building our local institutions of higher education—this time with no ironic quotation marks.