U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Stanford Legacy

Two recent news articles I read online and one piece of snail-mail I received from the Office of Admissions at Stanford University have brought home to me, quite literally, the troubled, troubling state of higher education in America.  Something must be done, and, for reasons I will explain below, I think Stanford should help get it done.  Indeed, there are two specific things I would like to see my alma mater do.  memchuMy fond hope is that Stanford University, though a private institution, will take the lead in the effort to salvage public faith and public funding for higher education, and especially for the public university system in its home state and mine.

The first news article I mention above described a new hiring protocol under consideration at Yahoo!.  The idea, apparently favored by CEO Marissa Mayer, is to hire graduates from only the most elite institutions.  Those who do not have a degree from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale and the like need not apply.  As the article points out, this “cream of the crop” strategy might very well backfire.  In a business climate that depends on creativity and innovation, hiring people from a handful of similarly positioned and provisioned schools can lead to a workforce where similar perspectives, with similar blindspots, predominate.  Over the long term, such a policy is more likely to foster conformity than creativity.

But over the short term, such a move by industry leaders would place an additional premium on the importance of getting into a “top” school, and it would further devalue degrees from less elite universities (read: every publicly funded university and state college in America), while at the same time making even more of those public university graduates compete against each other in the Hunger Games of the entry-level job market.  To assume that gifted and promising students graduating from public universities are automatically less qualified than those graduating from Stanford, the Ivies, and their aspirant epigones is to further undermine the role that public higher education once played in helping families move from the working class to the middle class.

In that connection, the second news item I mentioned reports a distressing fact:  many outstanding students from disadvantaged, low-income, and working-class families do not even bother applying to elite schools, even to those schools whose financial aid policies would entirely cover the cost of their education.  Stanford University is one such school.  Under Stanford’s current financial aid policy, implemented in 2008, students from families making less than $60,000 pay nothing at all to attend the university, while those from families making more than $60,000 but less than $100,000 pay only room and board.  Further, Stanford guarantees to meet the gap between student need and yearly cost without resorting to student loans.  The university’s goal is for its students to graduate debt free.

Such a policy is commendable.  In a political climate where public higher education is increasingly devalued and defunded, where more and more of the cost of training the workforce is born neither by employers nor by the state but by those who are themselves in need of employment, turning the nation’s higher education system into one big company town where new employees can look forward to working for their entire professional lives just to pay off the debt they incurred so that they could find work in the first place — in such a climate, at such a time, Stanford and some of its similarly well-endowed sister institutions have planted the flag of opportunity on a tiny patch of elevated ground.

Nevertheless, in the applicant pool at elite institutions, the underrepresentation of low-income or working-class students, including a disproportionate underrepresentation of minority students, will surely continue. It is getting more and more expensive for students to build the kind of dossier that helps them stand out among a sea of highly motivated, highly qualified applicants whose families do have the resources to give their children every advantage.  The more public K-12 education funding is cut, the more budgets are squeezed, the more school-based extracurricular programs disappear and the cost of participation in remaining programs is carried by individual families instead of by the whole taxpayer base — the more that these things happen, the less that students who do not have access to adequate financial resources will be able to meet the ever-higher bar for admission into increasingly exclusive private universities.

How exclusive is exclusive?  This year, the admission rate for Stanford will be about five per cent (5%).  I know the expected admission rate because of a letter I received about a month ago from the Office of Admissions.

Since I have not recently applied for admission to the university, I was surprised to see the return address on the envelope. I was even more surprised when I opened the letter and learned why I had received it: because a relative of mine has applied for admission to Stanford’s 2013-2014 freshman class.  This letter was sent to reassure me that, since Stanford values “family ties to the university,” this applicant’s family connection to me as an alum will be “one of many aspects” taken into consideration in reviewing the application.

I have never been more shocked in my life.

I was the first person in my family to go to a four-year university — maybe even to a four-year college, now that I think of it.  In fact, on one side of my family, I was the first woman to go straight through high school.  So not only did I have no “legacy” at Stanford green_libwhen I got there; I did not even know what a “legacy” was. And even after I graduated, I did not realize that such advantages could accrue to me — or, I guess, through me.  I knew that the name “Stanford” on my diploma could open doors for me; I had no idea it could open doors for other people too.

Live and learn.

So now I have this very gracious letter, which makes no promises about my relative’s status as an applicant, but goes out of its way to emphasize the fact that what is true for “legacy” applicants is true for applicants in general:  the vast majority of them will not be offered admission to the University.  Nevertheless, the letter states that those applicants who do have a Stanford connection will be admitted at a rate that is higher than the applicant pool in general.  The letter also provides a phone number and an email address, in case I have any questions.

For almost a month now, I have been puzzling over this problem:  what am I to do with this letter?  Do people actually ever call this number?  What in the world do they say? Can that do anything to benefit the applicant in question?  Should it?

People have very different views on legacy admissions.  I am sure that applicants without a legacy connection think they are very unfair indeed.  At the same time, letting alumni know that the university values legacy ties no doubt encourages the kind of institutional loyalty and alumni donations that help underwrite the generous financial aid that Stanford and other privately funded institutions can offer.

To be perfectly honest, I learned about this perk so recently that I am still trying to figure out what to think.  So I am not going to make an argument right now either for or against legacy admissions.

However, as I mentioned above, there are two things that I would like to see Stanford do that could result in better educational opportunities for less advantaged students, not only at Stanford but at public universities as well.

Let’s start with the “easy” part…

I would like to see Stanford abandon its need-blind admissions policy in favor of a need-aware admissions policy, instituting an affirmative-action admissions program based on family income.  I want Stanford to actively recruit low-income and financially-needy students. For every legacy student Stanford admits whose family makes more than $100,000 a year, I would like to see them admit a non-legacy student whose family makes less than $100,000 a year.

At this point, my readers might be saying, “Aha! I see where this is going. The author got a ‘legacy letter,’ but her family members don’t have a ‘legacy income’ to match.  She wants the university to start some kind of income-based affirmative action plan so that her non-affluent relatives get a leg up.”

That is absolutely not the case.  (Besides, if I thought Stanford would hop to it and respond to my concerns about The Way Things Are before admissions decisions go out on April 1, I would be coming up with a much longer list of requests, believe you me!)

No.  I’m thinking about the fact that fewer and fewer students with a socioeconomic background similar to mine have access to the kinds of opportunities I was given, never mind students who are facing more difficult financial circumstances than I ever did.  I’m thinking of how much boldness it takes for a working-class kid or a lower-income kid or a kid from a family for whom college seems a luxury, to even apply to Stanford — especially when such students have to compete with those who, all other things being equal (and they never are), have an advantage because someone in their family went to school there first.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m so glad I got to go Stanford. The overwhelming majority of perfectly well-qualified and promising applicants are turned down every year, for no better reason than that there are too many people vying for too few spots. But the university gave me a shot, and I’m enormously grateful for it. I have been indebted for it too.  I finished my undergrad work before 2008, so attending the university placed a significant financial burden on me and my family.  I had tuition waivers and scholarships and grants, I did so many hours of work-study a week, I took out loans, my parents took out loans — and the education was worth the cost, not because of the lucrative career choices it opened up to me as an English major now studying U.S. intellectual history, but because of the rich reservoir of knowledge and wisdom that it made available to me.  lampIn the idea of the University with a capital U, I found something of enduring value — something I care so much about that I will do what I can to keep it alive and to pass it along.  Being at Stanford fed my soul.  I would not trade that for anything, and I would wish the same enriching experience for every student heading off to college in America.

But most students heading off to college this year, whether they are the first in their families to go to school or the latest in a long line of college-educated forebears, will take on a great deal of debt for very little enrichment.  College students, even the inveterate humanists, can’t afford to look for wisdom or explore important questions; they have to look for “transferrable skills” and “marketable majors.” It seems to me that wisdom ought to be prized as the ultimate transferrable skill in any job market.  And maybe that’s what lies behind the Yahoo! CEO’s proposal:  let’s hire students only from those schools that have provided them with the luxury to take risks with their education.  So at the very least, Stanford should change its admissions policy in order to deliberately and consistently extend this risk-taking opportunity to more students from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.  Sure, pass down the legacy, but broaden it as you go.

Stanford could make such a bold move because it sits at the pinnacle of the prestige economy of higher education, which is also — not coincidentally — the pinnacle of financial clout in higher education.  Meanwhile, the public university system of California, once the pride of the nation and the envy of the world, is falling into ruin. One California state legislator wants to propose a bill requiring the state’s public college campuses to grant credit for MOOC coursework offered by third-party / for-profit companies — companies started and staffed by some of those creative, innovative thinkers with Ivy-league connections.

This brings me to my second request…

I would like Stanford to take a principled stand against this widening resource gap between public and private universities, a gap that has become an almost unbridgeable chasm further entrenching a two-tier class system in American higher education.  That’s right:  I want Stanford to challenge the increasingly unjust structure of the very prestige economy which it commands. If MOOCs that include no in-class instructional time would not count for credit at Stanford University or Harvard University, why should they count at Cal State Stanislaus or U. Mass. or Texas Tech?  Stanford and Harvard should be the first institutions to raise such questions.

There is, alas, a ready-made cynical answer:  the more devalued a public university education becomes, the more valuable an elite private university education will be.  But how much “added value” is enough?  With all their prestige, with all their pull, are America’s finest private universities really going to put their institutional weight behind corporations whose business plans are designed to further dilute the quality of education at America’s public institutions of higher learning?  Students in the state of California do not need MOOCs; they need smaller class sizes and more instructors.  Stanford University — not just the experts in the School of Education, but the Board of Trustees — needs to speak up and say so. For the working-class, for minorities, for students from groups who are disproportionately poor and educationally disadvantaged, and, increasingly, for the middle-class as well, what is at stake here is not just the quality of the college experience; what is at stake is the very ability to earn a living wage in a merciless market that will sharply discount degrees from institutions dependent on overenrolled online courses to meet the basic instructional needs of their students.  That’s no way to beat Cal.

So I want Stanford and its sister institutions — Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and any other place that prides itself on the door-opening prestige of its diplomas — to stop being complicit in the dismantling of the post-war project of increased access to a first-rate education for all Americans.  Stanford and its peer institutions need to push back, and push back hard, against the private plundering and public de-funding of the American mind.

I’m not asking for much, really.

I just want Stanford University — that university whose initial wealth was built upon the backs of immigrant laborers blasting rock and laying tracks through the mountain passes of the golden west, that university whose name opens doors that other names can’t open, that university whose students have freedom to grow as people without fearing that their degrees will be looked at as glorified correspondence-school diplomas because they had to take required classes online and study even advanced coursework from adjunct lecturers too overworked and underpaid to contribute to the research project of the academy — I want that university, my university, treasure of my heart, mentor of my mind, mother of my soul, to make a stand athwart the tracks of this runaway train-wreck of higher education in America, and shout “Stop!”

Don’t be a robber baron; be a bull moose.

Well, that’s it.  I think I may have just used up all my legacy credits.

Sorry, kid.

19 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. As a mercy to the reader who knows I have two key points but doesn’t want to wade through 2500 words to find them — though in some places these are pretty dang good words — I have italicized those key points. And I’ll summarize them here: affirmative-action admissions based on income for Stanford (and similarly endowed institutions), and an END to complicity in the creation of MOOCs that are inevitably going to be sold to somebody as a substitute for a real college class.

    Indeed, one of the Stanford news articles linked to in this piece quotes someone — a grad student maybe? — as saying that MOOCs are never going to replace the kind of face-to-face instruction people get at places like Stanford. If they replace anything, they’ll replace community colleges.


  2. L.D.,
    I had the exact same thoughts on Yahoo’s hiring policy. I’ve know enough people who went to “elite” institutions to know that Yahoo’s policy is putting style over substance. The terrible thing is that while its sure to be a long term failure, it may succeed in the short run and then be emulated.

  3. A couple of things:

    1. With the old adage in mind that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, my bet is that your cri de coeur would me more likely—if heard by the right people—to gain your relative special consideration.

    2. No offense, but you hadn’t heard of legacy admissions until now? My bet is that your relative knew about them, and probably has for several years if he’s applying to schools like Stanford. I’m not berating you for ignorance of legacy admits, but rather am surprised that there was not a box to be checked on your own application in this regard. For my part, I recall a box on that subject for most of my college applications sent in the late 1980s. And I think there was even a box on my application to the University of Missouri—a state school (oh, the irony!). Perhaps I’m wrong, but the point is that the subject came up enough that I’d be surprised if it HAD been omitted from my state-school app.

    3. In my humble opinion, the only way to get across the main points of your essay—the two you underscored—would be to present some kind of a *devastating argument* against meritocracy. And that’s precisely the problem: I haven’t seen a devastating argument with a universal ring to it. Most arguments point out the (correctable) failings of such-and-such university. Plus, for the ruling class to admit that meritocracy wasn’t the ruling paradigm in their own rise would be to admit that their own positions were illegitimate. So there are two uphill battles to wage against the one thing that will show higher edu leadership that the current system truly isn’t fair. – TL

    • Correction: Point #2, sentence #2: “…several years if she/he is applying…” – TL

  4. No offense taken.

    1. But I’m really troubled by point #1. I agonized over this post, for lots of reasons — the biggest reason was not the fate of my relative’s admission status, but the fate of my dissertation. My dissertation will require extensive archival research, much of it conducted at Stanford itself. But if calling attention to the issue of legacy admissions creates any negative publicity for the university, or makes me an “alumna non grata” at the institution, how will I get my work done?

    However, I had another problem — if I wait to post about this until AFTER admissions decisions, then it’s either a case of sour grapes (relative didn’t get in; NOW she complains) or hypocrisy (sure, make a big deal of legacy admissions now that your relative is in). I felt like I had a very narrow window of time in which I could legitimately link my own experience as a non-legacy student, the preferential policies of legacy admissions, and preferential policies for low-income students. I’m glad you think this post could “help” somebody (meaning my relative), but I don’t see that as a possibility, and I sure didn’t see that as a possibility as I wrestled with this essay all weekend long. I’m mostly worried about the whole dance of “objectivity is not neutrality,” and linking (or NOT linking) my view of the past with my passions in the present.

    2. I learned about legacy admissions two years ago from my PhD advisor. We were discussing issues in higher ed in relation to my dissertation, and he said something about legacy admissions. I said, “What’s that?” And he explained what it was. I said, “Get OUT of here! Are you *serious*?” He laughed and said, “Of course. You know this. Wasn’t there a little checkbox on your application asking you if a family member had gone to Stanford?” I said, “Yeah, but I didn’t know it was for anything like that. I thought it was demographic survey or something.” And then he laughed again. And THAT’S how I learned about legacy admissions. However, I still did not actually believe that it was an official policy until I got that letter, which I brought in and showed to my advisor and to my graduate dean saying, “Can you believe this?!” And they both could.

    I guess the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club — nobody I went to college with ever said the word “legacy admission,” or ever remotely suggested “I got in because of my sister/dad/grandma/uncle went here.” So, yes, having The Way Higher Education Works explained to me by my grad school profs was my first insight into legacy admissions. This may actually be a sign that while I attended Fight Club, I was never initiated into its mysteries. If you know me, you know there are many such signs! As to my relative, I have no idea what my relatives thoughts were on legacy admissions. Stanford was not the only elite school s/he applied to, so apparently s/he has some expectation of being competitive.

    3. The reason that I didn’t make a devastating argument against meritocracy is probably because I don’t know if I have one. Probably because I may be still (unwisely? self-contradictorily?) trying to believe in it in some sense. So I’m conflicted there, and I guess that came through in my post.

    Now, I wasn’t a math major (like that was ever even a risk!), but it seems to me that a policy of admitting the same percentage of legacy students as needy students every year would eventually result in a statistical situation where all the legacy spots could theoretically be filled with the relatives of the (formerly?) needy students. Or it could be a quota of letting so many poor kids into school every year, with no intention of ever initiating them into the club. But even if it were just that — and I don’t think it would be, because I know some college admissions officers at other schools, and I feel like they are generally rooting for the kids who don’t take opportunities for granted — even if it were just that, it would still have the effect of moving those alums themselves into the highly-employable class. So even if the social mobility is for them only, rather than a generational / family thing, I would think that’s better than not opening the door at all.

    I don’t know. I struggled with this post like you would not believe. You can see my sentences straining at the seams. I’ve never worked so hard on a piece of writing and been so unsatisfied with it. But it’s the best I could do for now, and I thought I ought to say something now, rather than waiting until speaking up carried no risks.

    (But if I’ve effed up my dissertation research, I’m gonna curl up and die!)

    • And I should mention, on my point #1, that I wanted to link non-legacy/legacy/affirmative action to the larger issue of class in the academy. This post is aimed at Stanford, not because I imagine that Stanford is the causal agent of the move in California (and Texas) to peddle online instruction as the equivalent of face-to-face instruction. If I have learned anything from my dissertation research, I have learned that “Stanford” can serve as a stand-in or a label for Much Bigger Issues. In this case, it stands for class/privilege in the prestige economy of academe. What Stanford “really” stands for — i.e., what its institutional mission is, what its faculty value, what its board hopes to accomplish — is not at all reducible to class/privilege in academe. But it can serve as a marker. And, to be fair, I called out Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, et. al. here. But I can’t speak to their policies or their “class demographics,” nor can I speak to what kind of “idea of the University” I might have picked up there. But I trust it would have been different — particular to context, as everything else is.

      I just tried to find the best rhetorical vantage point from which to make a larger argument about class in the academy, and how the “opening up” of access via MOOCs is also a way of shutting down / cutting off the resources of all those students who don’t even hope to get into an elite institution.

  5. Thanks for this. I’ve been writing about this two-tiered system of higher education for quite some time now. The problem, though, is that the Yahoo! way of thinking has been embedded in every institution in our country, and has been so for nearly a century. With online education, MOOCs and for-profit/quasi-for-profit institutions, it will only get worse before it gets better. And, even if Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, et al. decided TODAY to make MOOC courses credit-bearing, we’d still have the two-tiered problem. You could create a virtual world of education equivalent to Star Trek: TNG’s holodeck, and it would still be a far cry from attending an elite or Ivy League institution in-person. For most employers — indeed, most of us period — there’s no substitute for those connections, that elite experience, those four+ years of undergraduate training. So, you’re right, of course, that schools like Stanford can and should do better. But even their best maintains a system not much different than the economic inequality that elite higher education institutions duplicate year after year.

  6. Donald, of course you are right. Thorstein Veblen was beating this dead horse 100 years ago.

    And it’s pretty tough to be a credible moral scold about privilege in academe when I *have* a Stanford degree. I mean, there’s just no ground anywhere to stand on — “none righteous, no, not one” — because we *all* participate in this economy.

    There’s an almost embarrassing idealism behind this post. I joke about channeling my inner Garrison — not to make light of his cause, but to make light of how prone I am to Take Up Noble Causes of one kind and another — and that’s exactly what I’ve done here: an immediatist demand for action. This is a “come-outer” plea to the elites — “Come out from among the MOOCs and be ye separate!”

    But as I suggested in the Facebook thread on this post, these institutions are competing with each other. It’s like a new market has opened — or a new territory — and they’re all scrambling to position themselves in order to be able to profit (in dollars and/or prestige) if the venture in fact proves profitable. None of these schools are closing the door on jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, and their biggest concern — as is the case with *any* institution — is self-preservation.

    There are good reasons to be concerned with self-preservation — you might in fact be the guardian of some tradition worth preserving. But if you’re not careful about the stability of everyone’s foundations, you might end up undermining your own.

    Anyway, this is my Quixotic outburst for the year. I hope it doesn’t undermine the research I’m trying to do, or the historical perspective I’m trying to bring to the task.

  7. Note — I just edited this post. I had written that I did “20 hours of work study a week” but I thought back over my schedule and I just don’t think that can be right. I think the university-sponsored WS added up to 10-12, or maybe 12-15. (This is why historians should not rely on memory). However, I did do work outside of my work study hours. Anyhow, bottom line is that it wasn’t easy financially, but it was worth the effort. Whether that would have been true for any university I attended, I can’t say.

  8. Thanks for this excellent post, LD. I loved every word of it. I especially liked your point about how many working-class or low-income students do not even apply to elite schools like Stanford. There are a lot of smart kids out there who make decisions about college for reasons that have nothing to do with U.S. News and World Report rankings–but much to do with social class. For example, sociologists have documented that working-class families often do not understand college rankings–they think that all four-year colleges are more or less alike–or they pressure their first-generation students into attending colleges geographically close to home. This was my experience. I had good grades and very high standardized test scores (I was a National Merit Finalist), and several Ivy League schools sent me unsolicited *applications* (not just letters) in the mail. However, I didn’t understand that people like me could actually go to those schools, and all of them were too far away for my parents. We also didn’t realize just how valuable a degree from one of those schools could be, so we ignored them. Instead, I only applied to two small liberal arts colleges 30 miles away from home and ultimately ended up attending the one that was smaller (and ranked lower by USNWR), for reasons that I won’t go into here. I got a good education there and I am still the same fairly intelligent person that got the very high test scores, but that wouldn’t matter to the Yahoo! CEO. Because I didn’t know at age 17 that I should go to an elite school, I would be doomed to never be good enough to work for her company. Not only would such a policy be unfair to people like me, but it is also stupid–stupid for any company that wants to hire creative or innovative people who don’t come from an upper-class or highly educated background.

  9. Brian, thank you SO MUCH for this comment. You are so right on the money. This is where being a native Californian really helped me. My parents did not understand college admissions or the process of financial aid. So they forbade me from applying to an out of state school. All they knew was that if I stayed in state, I could qualify for a Cal Grant (that is still the case for Stanford students, btw, though a law was recently passed to phase out Cal Grants for institutions without a sufficient graduation rate — i.e., for-profit schools.)

    I don’t hold that against my parents at all. They had never dealt with the process / idea of college applications, of trying to be “competitive,” getting into elite schools, etc. My mom went back to finish high school — a good example, certainly, but also a fairly good indicator of where I fit on the education/privilege matrix. So my folks couldn’t have been expected to know that moneyed private institutions will always find a way to bridge the gap between student need and “retail price.”

    It was an accident of geography that Stanford and I both hail from California. If I had been in any other state, I would have applied to the “known” private schools in that state — whatever schools my parents knew of and thought well of — as well as to that state’s university system.

    I guess this is why some people think Californians lead a charmed life!

    Yes, the Yahoo! policy is as stupid as stupid can be. You want somebody who will bust their ass to do a good job? Hire a kid from a working class background. We never miss a deadline, we’re never late for an appointment, we never take a damn thing for granted.

  10. many outstanding students from disadvantaged, low-income, and working-class families do not even bother applying to elite schools

    Excellent work, LD. And the comments noting our two-tiered K-12 system are even more poignant.

    However, some sort of numerical abstract on this is necessary for a number of reasons–a high school grad [even or especially one of un-privileged status] with the grades and SATs to get into Stanford still has many attractive options and avenues—either at other elite schools or by becoming a top grad from a more modest one. IOW, anyone who could make the cut at Stanford could and will succeed elsewhere just the same.

    See also Sander and Taylor’s work on “Mismatch,” a sort of Peter Principle where able “un-privileged” students are promoted “over their heads” to the point where mediocrity and even failure become more likely.

    So we might be looking at not just the bookend of Head Start, another well-intentioned failure, but unlike Head Start, one that does palpable harm.

    As for the “legacy” problem, that of perpetuating generations of privilege, killing the sense of community at educational institutions isn’t desirable either, and I say this as one who like you, Mr. Ingrassia and no doubt others here gathered had no access to that intergenerational higher ed privilege. “Legacy” may have injured me somehow in the abstract, but I wouldn’t want to spoil a family’s fun at Homecoming.

  11. Yeah, I’m not happy with this post as it is, and if someone could read this as me suggesting that legacy admissions should be ended at Stanford (or anywhere else), then I’m *really* not happy. Every school has to build an alumni base, and every tradition needs people who are eager to carry it on and pass it down.

    The University with a capital U is an idea I picked up at Stanford that I’ll spend my life upholding, but that ideal depends on the real existence of real universities, including the Farm. However, I fear that Stanford is undermining its own foundation by working with for-profit companies that are going to provide courses on the cheap to public universities or community colleges.

    Here in Texas, our governor is pushing for a bachelor’s degree that can be earned all or mostly online, and that costs $10,000 or less, total. $2500 a year for four years. How much face-to-face instruction are those students going to get? Who is going to take advantage of that plan but the poorest, the most disadvantaged?

    If UT starts issuing $10,000 online degrees, they either have to designate them as such (thus signifying that the degree holder has received a lesser education than someone with a “traditional” degree, creating a two-tier system of value), or it has to leave employers / grad schools to guess which degrees were earned online and which weren’t, which devalues the degree of every graduate of the University of Texas.

    I mean, who would have thought the day would come when a degree from UC Berkeley or UCLA or UT Austin might be considered second-rate. How does that possibly help universities, big U or little u?

    I would hate to see my alma mater have anything to do with bringing such a day about. The Ivies need to put their pointy heads together and figure out how to shore up the University with a capital u, and that means caring about the universities that are out of their league.

    If I go much longer on this, I’m gonna leave off channeling William Lloyd Garrison and get in touch with my inner John Winthrop.

    • FTR, LDB, I didn’t read your essay as a call to end legacy admissions. At this point, we can only hope that 50 years after the ’60s, the degree they are the perpetuation of [rich white, let’s face it] privilege isn’t as acute, and you do acknowledge their value in building continuity and community.

      The Ivies need to put their pointy heads together and figure out how to shore up the University with a capital u, and that means caring about the universities that are out of their league.

      Having attended one of the latter out of financial necessity [and admittedly indifferent grades], I’m all for it. If we cannot teach the Great Thoughts without making a hash of it, we might as well teach something useful instead.

    • Good to keep in mind that not all online programs are created the same.


      Also, check out Jeremy Adelman’s essay on MOOCs in this month’s perspectives–especially on the whole face-to-face issue.

      If our provost is right, the greatest challenge facing higher ed in the future is not from online or MOOCs, but from the growing number of nontraditionals wanting the face-to-face setting on Saturdays and other nontraditional times–times that we full-time faculty don’t necessarily want to be teaching.

  12. My university serves a lot of non-traditional students. This is also true of the graduate programs in my school. For example, we have a terminal M.A. degree in history designed for schoolteachers and those who want to teach in community college. So a lot of our history classes are offered at night in order to serve those students who are full-time K-12 teachers. Indeed, some of our most senior tenured faculty in every discipline within our school (history, literary studies, etc.) regularly teach both graduate and undergraduate classes at night. I am guessing they’re not crazy about it, but that’s the student population our university serves. And this means that our non-traditional students are taught by profs with degrees from Harvard, Brandeis, Yale, Chicago, UCLA, Columbia. That’s no small thing. And you never know when a non-traditional student will end up becoming a first-rate academic. Just like the Yahoo! hiring policy, if we write that population off to begin with, we might miss out on some really needed scholarship.

    Frankly, if the biggest problem facing higher ed in the future is an increased demand for more face-to-face instruction, then we don’t have a problem. Lots of PhDs in the pipeline to meet that demand. However, if we meet that demand with underpaid adjuncts with no benefits and no job security, then we have a problem. And if we meet that demand with online instruction, then we have just hacked away at the foundation of everything we do and we have self-selected for extinction — not just for the extinction of the professoriate, but of the academy as a whole.

    Oooh, I’m getting my Jeremiah on today!

    • “And you never know when a non-traditional student will end up becoming a first-rate academic. Just like the Yahoo! hiring policy, if we write that population off to begin with, we might miss out on some really needed scholarship.”

      Never any disagreement here on that point.

    • As an adjunct to your observation about non-traditional students. It is now fairly well accepted, I thought, that diversity studies have shown that a mix of employees both in terms of experience, performance, gender, race etc. makes for a more creative and productive workforce, at least in fields where creative ideas matter. It would seem that Yahoo’s decision flies in the face of these studies.

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