Freeman

ANYTHING PEACEFUL

You Don't Have To Learn Like a Refugee

A new university puts faculty and students together [gasp] specifically to learn

JANUARY 17, 2014 by MICHAEL NOLAN

George Leef, former book review editor for The Freeman, has a fascinating article at Forbes.com. He writes about a new university that is, like they all seem to be these days, innovating around the barnacle-encrusted education establishment. 
 
But it’s also a different take on innovation in higher education. The University of Minnesota–Rochester (UMR) is deriving value from the old idea of bringing students and professors together specifically to learn
 
There’s also another aspect to the discussion that doesn’t get quite as much ink as it probably should: Who really benefits from the standard higher education arrangements? 
 
Here’s Leef: 
 
That isn’t either a “right” or a “left” critique. Honest observers from all over the political landscape realize that to a great extent, colleges and universities are run more for the benefit of their faculty, than for the benefit of their students.
 
We’ve covered a lot of educational innovation here; mostly, these examples look at new ways to deliver the goods. That means discarding the idea of place even mattering and viewing education as a group of modules assembled as students see fit. And that view is great to have: For one thing, it corrects the confusion of a credential with actual skills. 
 
But then there’s something to be said for “the experience.” Sure, it’s not difficult to find cases in which “the experience” can be read, quite fairly, to mean “keg stands.” But that’s by no means universal. It might not even represent the majority. 
 
In fact, clustering together with other people with the same or similar goals is particularly useful. It might not always be necessary. But if you don't know what you don't know, and that's why you're seeking an education, it really can’t be beat. And now the market is serving your segment. 
 
What's more, says Leef, the tuition is pretty reasonable: Every student pays $13,000 annually. 
 
My instinct is to say this shouldn’t be a radical innovation. After all, it’s not like this arrangement died out completely; at the risk of sounding like the rah-rah type, I chose my alma mater, Hillsdale College, mainly because it put teachers in classrooms and kept classes small. I figured I wasn’t going to go that deep in debt to find out what some overworked TA had to say.
 
There were other schools with a similar profile, but they're the exception, and most of them were a lot more expensive (Hillsdale wound up being mostly a bargain). So if the modular, decentralized, tech-centered approach isn't for you, and there isn't a place that skips the publish-or-perish stuff and that suits your personality or budget, you might wind up stuck in a succession of lecture halls populated by hungover folks mostly just putting in their time. 
 
All those conditions I just mentioned might mean we're talking about a very small market. Even so: It's being served. 
 
This isn't to say I know what higher education should look like. Some of the features of higher education now must have had their reasons at some point—and at least here, we know that contact with the State tends to corrode. Tenure, for example, seems to me a reasonable response to the threat of professors being browbeaten to toe the party line. Not to mention it’s the kind of compensation that might make the risk of pursuing postgraduate degrees seem worthwhile (a pursuit that not only has steep opportunity costs, but from what I see in friends of mine, takes a psychological toll as well). But somehow we wound up with something so expensive, inefficient, and unseemly that it spawned the NCAA. 
 
Whatever it should look like, higher ed probably shouldn’t look like it does. It seems impossible to me that it should look like any one thing, in fact. There are too many different disciplines, and different students with different ends in mind, for any one-size-fits-all approach to really do the trick.
 
Fitting, then, that UMR’s “campus” is a shopping mall.

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MICHAEL NOLAN

Michael Nolan is the managing editor of The Freeman

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