Maybe you could go to college this fall, but should you?

May 1 is the traditional deadline for paying a deposit for the fall semester’s tuition. These are my thoughts for the students facing the decision about whether to enroll.

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PNCohen photo / Flickr CC / https://flic.kr/p/2iPmJDG

Higher education leaders are in a terrible situation as they plan for the fall. They’re bleeding cash from lost tuition, grants, and state support. With every school facing the prospect of collapsing budgets – and an unknown number on the brink of closing down – presidents, provosts, and deans are trying to make the most important decisions of their careers without the basic information they need even about the very near future. And they’re doing it from home in Zoom meetings with colleagues in their pajamas, apple sauce stuck to their laptop camera lenses, and kids screaming in the background.

Pulling off a 2020-2021 academic school year will take billions of emergency dollars, brilliant logistics, and heroic public health efforts. And most of the public is pulling for them. As Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, wrote the other day, “The reopening of college and university campuses in the fall should be a national priority.”

They may still make it possible for students to at least start the school year this fall. Heck, at the University of Maryland, where I work, they may need to come back in the fall just to get their belongings, which have been locked up since the university abruptly canceled their move-out plans and closed up the dorms after spring break.

But for students, the question isn’t so much will campus be open, but should they go even if it is? Higher education’s famously high opinion of itself (which I sometimes share), is remarkably resilient to assaults from reality. President Paxson wrote, “If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.” To which students might be wise to reply, “And?”

We need to be square with students on some hard questions. First and foremost, will you and your family get your money’s worth attending school this fall? Paxson says universities must maintain “the continuity of their core academic functions.” But a lot of what students get out of college results from social interaction – in labs, classrooms, gyms, stadiums, student groups, and – yes – parties. What is college worth without all that? If it’s reduced to recorded lectures and stilted online seminars, the value starts to fall towards that of a public library card (which is of course very high, but it’s also free). But the price is the same.

Practically speaking, students need to ask, if the contact tracing app beeps and I’m told to spend two weeks isolated in my dorm room because someone in my class is infected, will I get my tuition back? What if it happens more than once? What if classes move back online altogether? What is my protection if I’m kicked out of my dorm and stranded far from home?

And students also should consider their alternatives, which, contrary to the aspirational assertions of some higher education leaders, do exist. What if they stay home this fall?

They could attend a community college, which at a fraction of the cost might provide a smoother online instruction experience (and transfer the credits later).

They could take advantage of the voluminous, and expanding, array of free online lectures and instructional videos (I post the lectures for my students on YouTube, because why not?)

They could do vitally needed local (or remote) volunteer work, helping the members of their communities who are unemployed, homeless, hungry, at risk, or themselves struggling in school.

They could engage in the make-or-break effort to save democracy in the elections this fall, maybe at least slowing the country’s accelerating slide into oligarchy – and increasing the odds that we come out of this crisis moving in the right direction as we confront our health care crisis, climate change, and the rising tide of nationalism. With mandatory social distancing, campus political campaigns might not be where their efforts are best placed.

They might have a better chance of working a paid job to help support their families, including laid off parents and dependent relatives.

The people who make the most of this disastrous year will be disciplined and focused on their own wellbeing as well as the greater good, working in coordination with supportive community members and close social networks. In the best of times, a great college experience helps train people to do just that, and provides the social context in which those skills can blossom. But in the coming disarray, there may well be better, more cost effective, strategies for students.

You will have to be self-disciplined and highly motivated to make it work, but that will probably be the case more than ever at school as well in the coming year. Normally I would extol the virtues of learning together as one of the advantages of attending school, but the comparative advantage of the on-campus experience this year may be drastically reduced.

We all want a successful higher education system, and with luck we may end up with one. But let’s not put this on students, not this year. Saving higher education is not your job.

University paternalism and the outwardly-focused student movement

I’m not going to join  the criticism of the students at Yale, because I don’t know all that they’re going through. From a distance the symbolic things (like emails about Halloween costumes) that spark massive reactions often appear out of scale. Straws that break camels’ backs appear weightless.

So just two thoughts to share inspired by recent events.

Universities shouldn’t be in this business

A lot of people were taken aback by the casual way that Black students refer to Nicholas Christakis as the “master” of Silliman College. That archaic paternalism is not just linguistic.

I’ve previous argued that, although they do have legal and ethical obligations to respond to sexual assault on campus, colleges shouldn’t be in the business of investigating and punishing those crimes. They are terrible at it, their intervention downgrades sexual assault from crime to (student) women’s issue, and the campus system separates sexual assault (and its activists) on campus from the problem in the wider society. It’s a paternalistic system.

I’m equally skeptical about their role in protecting people from racism. One of the Yale students arguing with Nicholas Christakis, the “master” of one of the university’s residential colleges, in a widely shared video, said:

As your position as master it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman. … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!

In fact, when Christakis took the job, he was quoted as saying:

The residential college system is one of the most distinctive features of Yale. Its virtue lies in the way it provides an intellectual, social, and moral home for students, and Yale is remarkable for its commitment to this kind of education.

Colleges have ethical and legal obligations to prevent and respond to racist discrimination and harassment on their institutional terrain. But everyone deserves a safe space where they can develop their social and moral foundations, in which to build communities and from which to launch their interventions into the wider society. Should universities be the ones to provide it — do only those admitted to Ivy League schools need this? Aren’t students adults, capable of waging the struggles to create their own social spaces? Some people offer a similar argument about the college athletes that make billions of dollars for their universities and the entertainment industry. The university is providing them with moral uplift and team spirit (so paying them would only undermine the pure motives of that effort). But left to their own devices, couldn’t student athletes negotiate a better deal for themselves?

Living in dorms and university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities is bad enough. (When I showed up to the University of Michigan — three years out of high school — it was my great fortune to have a dog, my excuse for never living in a dorm.) A system of houses staffed by faculty moral overseers is a structural mechanism for the prolonging of adolescence. This retards students’ development as adults and sets them further apart from the wider community, people who don’t have paternalistic institutions devoted to the construction of their moral selves in safe spaces — people who build civic institutions, and rely on the law and politics to safeguard their interests. Students rely on the cloistered campus system at their own risk, and its a shame that this social isolation (for better and worse) is concentrated among elite students.

Turning outward

It’s possible this system also encourages students to turn their activism inward, toward themselves, rather than outward to the wider social world. Here I am speaking generally, and explicitly not talking about the Yale students currently in the news, the most visible of whom (as in the video I linked) may or may not be involved in organized politics, I don’t know.

I’m old enough to remember documentaries about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That was a protest movement that grew out of student civil rights activists who wanted to promote political causes on campus. In the most famous incident, Jack Weinberg – fresh off a summer trip to support the civil rights movement in the South – was arrested as he staffed a table on campus for the Congress of Racial Equality, and students blocked the police car he was in for 32 hours.

That student movement was inspiring partly because it seemed to represent the selfless attempt by college students to use their privileges – and the education they were receiving – to intervene progressively in the wider society, on issues like civil rights, war, labor, feminism, and the environment. They were fighting for their right to carry that outside work onto the campus. (In my day at Michigan, leftists opposed the deputization of campus police, and the implementation of a non-academic code of conduct, for fear they would be used to squelch student activism.)

One way to think about that distinction in today’s terms is adult versus adolescent. It was students’ engagement in those adult politics that germinated the alliances that were so threatening to the powers that were.

One of my favorite speeches is Mario Savio’s from that movement, in 1964 (he starts at 0:22):

Savio was a Freedom Summer veteran who wanted to organize for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the Berkeley campus. In that speech, he’s objecting to the production by the university of students as commodities for future employers — objecting, in one sense, to the success of the university’s mission if it means severing the ties between student activists and their work in the wider world. That’s one movement at one moment, but it’s an important one.

Of course students need to advocate for themselves. The Free Speech Movement advocated their right to political activism. In contemporary activism, Black Lives Matter unites the struggles of college students with the plight of the Blacks facing police everywhere.

USA Today
USA Today

The argument for outward facing connects to the paternalism question, because the more students are integrated with the real world off campus for their social and moral community-building needs, the more their politics might be drawn outward as well — and the public might be more supportive of them in return.

The less things change, the more they stay the same: Michigan edition

The Black Student Union at the University of Michigan is protesting against the campus administration. One of their demands is 10% Black representation on campus.

The story in the Michigan Daily brought me back to my freshman January in Ann Arbor, in 1989, 25 years ago this week! It was the university’s first “Diversity Day,” a ham-handed response to student demands that the university celebrate Martin Luther King Day by canceling classes. At the time, the United Coalition Against Racism was demanding 12% Black representation.

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What a great photo, by Robin Loznak.*

The story of Black representation at Michigan is long and rather sad, in the intervening decades involving multiple Supreme Court cases (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003), and then a ballot measure that banned affirmative action, which is before the court now.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ IPEDS Data Center (which has this useful tool), the University of Michigan’s full-time undergraduate student population was 4.4% Black in 2012. The states’ 18-24 year-old population is 18.9% Black.

How does that compare to other big state universities? Using that NCES tool, and IPUMS.org’s 2012 American Community Survey data tool, I made the same comparison for the 30 largest 4-year state universities in the country (just enough to include my own, UMD). Those below the red line have higher Black representation in the state 18-24 year-old population than in the university. Those above the line… just kidding (click to enlarge).

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Percent Black among 18-24 year-olds in the state, and among full-time undergraduate students in the university (30 largest 4-year state universities, 2012).

The three schools piled on top of each other are Cal State Fullerton, UC Davis and UC Berkeley.

Here’s the data in a table:

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Michigan trend addendum

Dan Hirschman has provided data on the trend for Michigan from 1975 to 2009. Here is his note (from the comments), followed by my graph of the trend:

Black students at the University of MIchigan have been demanding – and needed to demand – 10% enrollment all the way back to the late 1960s (for a an overly detailed history, see here, starting on page 23). In the mid-1960s, after the first affirmative action programs were initiated, black enrollment rose from less than 1% to a bit more than 3%. At that point, there were actually enough black students to effectively organize and make demands (like increased minority enrollment). By the early 2000s, black enrollment actually approached 10%. Then the Supreme Court decision restricted the undergraduate race-based affirmative action program and the 2006 ban gutted it entirely, and we’re where we are now. So, the overall similarity of present and historical demands masks significant variability, and gains that have been lost.

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* A few days earlier, January 13, 1989, I wrote an op-ed for the paper in support of a proposed mandatory course on racism for arts college majors which never came to pass — the essay is actually here in the Google News archive of the Michigan Daily, where I got this screen shot.