Published on July 6, 2015
“The Future Of Higher Education”
The Four Seasons Hotel, Washington, D.C.
June 3, 2015
Yuval Levin, Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs
Mitch Daniels, President, Purdue University
Andrew Kelly, Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Peter Lawler, Professor of Political Science, Berry College
Alex Tabarrok, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
YUVAL LEVIN: Well thank you all very much. We did get some diversity there after all.
A wonderful conversation. There is really a lot of rich subjects to pick up on there. A lot of them are connected in ways that I think have a lot to do with this tension around liberal education and technical education and skills education.
But in listening to the four of you I wonder if it might make sense to start from a subject that wasn’t in this conversation that you would often to expect to find in a discussion among people on the right about higher education.
Generally speaking, at any point in the last few decades, if you bring a few conservatives together and talk about college, somebody will say that we push way too many people through college; that the insistence that higher education is essential to middle class life or is essential to being an American is unrealistic since most Americans don’t do that and is unreasonable since most Americans either don’t want to or are unable to do that. And there has been a lot of thinking and writing on the right over the years about the danger of trying to shove too many people through the university system.
Mitch Daniels is that just not something that we are right to worry about or have things changed or has it taken on a different form?
MITCH DANIELS: Well, I can argue with myself about this question Yuval. On the one hand there have been and I think there are today young people trying to make it through traditional higher education who aren’t going to make it — the data keeps telling us that — and who probably may be worse off for the attempt, many are, who had many other options that haven’t been sufficiently made plain to them. We all know that a good electrician or plumber can lead a very substantial life and will enjoy an income higher than the median liberal arts graduates. And so there is that.
On the other hand, each time I am tempted to that thought I think about data like Andrew showed which says that whatever the diminished value, particularly the value related to the rising cost of too much of today’s higher education, there is still a big delta from that to people who didn’t get even that. And here we are in a different subject area which is really the failures of the K-12 system — and ask anybody I’ve met in higher ed what their number one problem is, and for most schools it is the challenges of applicants who aren’t ready.
So no, I think the answer is to continue deploying a variety of tools; many of those Alex talked about are really well suited to people who probably shouldn’t be on our campus or campuses most familiar to people in this room.
I was a board member and very active for a long time in something called WGU, which is a validation of a lot of what Alex talked about including, by the way, individual tutoring. It is possible at scale.
So no, I think we have to encourage young people and those who are not so young but who didn’t catch it the first time around to seek something of a post-secondary nature, but we just have to be pretty broad minded in what that is and make sure they see the full range of their options.
YUVAL LEVIN: Yes. Andrew, I want to come to you on this point too. But let me just say we want to take questions from the audience so if you have a question please line up on that side of the room behind the microphone or along the wall and we will be happy to start questions as soon as we’ve got few people who want to ask them.
But, Andrew, you formulated this general problem as it now being unaffordable to attend college and unaffordable not to attend college. I guess one way of asking the question is: which end of that is the higher priority to address?
ANDREW KELLY: Well, I think what my response to this question — which I get a lot — is that much as we would love to return to simpler times when high school graduates could find a 40-year career in an organization and reach the middle class and/or stay in the middle class, the data suggests that that era is largely in the rear view, for worse in my opinion, obviously. I mean that is a shame.
But I think also we are dealing with a problem of semantics in some sense too, which is when you read some of these texts that almost always have a title like “College Isn’t Worth It” or something like that. When you actually dig in the author often concludes by saying what people should really be doing is go to get associate’s degrees in technical fields or certificates, which, to me, that’s college. And honestly from the federal perspective higher education money pays for that, right. So whether it is considered higher education by the author or not, that is where the money comes from.
And I’ll just say one more thing which is I think part of our problem is we have a system that has artificially constrained the options that are available to people in a way that is problematic. People can’t get the just-in-time kind of education that they need in liberal arts or in a vocational field. They have to sign up for 60 credits, 120 credits. And there are a lot of things that we could do if we were able to bust out of that framework. So I think a lot of this is just honestly, again, a lack of creativity.
YUVAL LEVIN: Why don’t we start with the first question on the side.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you. What has happened to the trade schools here in America? They existed when I was growing up, I thought. And it just seems that in Germany there are ways that as children you go on at a certain level, you are tested and then it is decided where you are going. And so are we not able to do something similar so that we build the talent that will fortify the different businesses we have, the infrastructure with people. I don’t see it happening. I see the energy of children is being wasted somehow.
YUVAL LEVIN: Yes. Andrew, trade schools?
ANDREW KELLY: So you know I think it is not a mystery that the United States does a pretty awful job of exposing people to the world of work prior to graduating from college or graduating from high school — sort of a strange system where you pick a college major before you’ve ever had any experience in terms of thinking what you might want to do for a living.
I also think it is tempting to look at a country like Germany and say, well, we should just adopt that system or borrow from it. But it is important to remember the German system actually tracks students very heavily from an early age, which, you know, we should have a conversation about whether that is a reasonable system.
My suspicion is that Americans won’t tolerate it. We’ve always resisted that for cultural reasons. And so I think that is where we sit.
I do think that efforts to tout and really sort of raise up some pathways that are not the bachelor’s degree would be wise. And I just don’t think we do it enough.
CHRIS LONG: So, Chris Long with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. So Andrew you touched on this concept of unbundling and a number of folks have talked about the kind of Schumpeterian Creative Destruction. To what extent is the situation we are all getting to is this sense of disaggregating? And so if a consumer and parents want a student to get a true interdisciplinary degree in philosophy, politics, and economics and study Plato and Cicero then they should go to a place like Berry and sit in a small class with Peter Lawler. But if they want to get a degree in aeronautics or nanotechnology or something like this then you go to a place like Purdue that’s got, you know, multi-billion dollar budget. If you just want to learn about price ceilings or you want to learn to code you go to coding school. And to what extent are we just kind of really moving in that direction where different institutions are focusing on what they can really do effectively? And you can just really avoid this whole amenity arms race as Peter pointed to. Is that the direction we are all moving to where people can focus on really where they add the most value and maybe Purdue decides that, listen, here’s 15 areas where we can be number one or number two or number three player and maybe we don’t need to have a philosophy department at Purdue?
ANDREW KELLY: Well, I’ll defer to Governor or President Daniels as to whether he wants to do away with the philosophy department at Purdue, but I think that is where we are heading for some segments of the market. I think there will always be people that want to invest in and spend time on a small college campus; you know, ivy covered buildings, learning in small seminars.
But I also think, I really do think, that this distinction between innovation and the liberal arts and liberal education is really false and problematic for me. And, in fact, I think what has happened is students — what has happened is college has gotten so expensive and the risk of investing in that has gotten so high that students wrongly, I think, believe that they have to take pre-professional programs that will lead them to a job in order to pay off the debt they have to take on to get access to a college campus.
So this is all part of the same question and, in fact, the kind of innovation that allows people to pick and choose the option that fits their needs best and lowers cost as a result, I think, is actually critical to the survival of liberal education. I think without it liberal education is in much bigger trouble.
YUVAL LEVIN: Peter, how do you look at that? Is specialization really ultimately the way to save liberal education? Isn’t specialization really —
PETER LAWLER: Well, I mean no — So specialization, disaggregation. Okay, negative disaggregation that will be in the next textbook. Negative disaggregation is when you take the thing, the course and divide it up into parts so no one is personally in charge of it. But disaggregation in the sense of different campuses would have different missions and different specialties this has been the greatness of America which is threatened in fact by promiscuous forces of standardization. This is really so.
So here is the — and not only that, the cost problem is a real problem which has been addressed and students do pick their major too early because 18-year-olds do not know what the bleep they are doing. Not because they don’t have job experience, but because, especially, an 18-year-old young man these days is a very young man. So we should think seriously about making them literate, that is giving them real general education whether they like it or not. And the next step is to make them like it.
Which I think is not so hard to do. But at my college there is tremendous pressure to do away with general education and to make students pick “techno-light” majors. So the kid is going to be a doctor, that is fine, we have a big vet program, but the most — I hope I am not offending anyone, well, I don’t really care.
The dumbest majors in the country are not women’s studies or film studies or whatever, although they are really dumb.
The dumbest majors are stuff like public relations, exercise science, beverage management.
These techno-light majors which, in fact, you don’t learn anything and they are too specific to give you any kind of career focus in a world where people aren’t really going to have careers. Where there is a certain sense which your very specific techno-light major will be about something that won’t be around in ten years.
So we read this book that all conservatives like, Academically Adrift, if you actually look at the data in it traditional liberal arts majors do not take a big hit here. The big hit is taken by the techno-light majors where you don’t pick up anything. So the worse thing in the world you can do is have a college where students are encouraged to get right down to this before any general education, before any process reflection.
So the scandal over college is that so many students are taking really stupid majors. And I am not talking about the STEM majors, I’m not talking about the traditional liberal arts majors, I’m not even — I mean everyone knows the studies majors are dumb. It is these techno-light majors; these students are getting ripped off, anyone who borrows for a techno-light major, right.
In the same way we should look very carefully on the truth that is the best model in America is still the liberal arts undergraduate major and the technical graduate degree. And the reason you need both is even the high-end technical graduate degrees are questioned now. Only an idiot would go to law school now. And law school now has financial aid like college. I tell my students don’t go to law school unless they comp it. And they will comp it today. And I read that what lawyers used to do can now pretty much be done by machines and can be done by basically contract laborers. But the same thing with even doctors, physicians; I read a lot of what they do can be done by brilliant diagnostic robots with the personal attention of the nurse. So, actually, we are going to need fewer and fewer general practitioners, internists over the years. So don’t go to medical school unless they comp it.
And so what do you learn from this? That most of the valuable technical knowledge you need in life will change for you over time. You are not going to be in a settled career. And that means you just have to be really smart. And some people are gifted by nature being real smart. But in real life almost everyone in this room, almost all smart alecks, the ones I know, you really do know what you’re talking about. You know how to read, you know when people are shooting the bull. And the thing I notice about students today is they take everything so literally. They can’t read with any discernment, any irony, and that’s the kind of political correctness [inaudible], there is political correctness from the left, there is political correctness from libertarians, political correctness from everyone. You don’t want students buying into any of that stuff.
So it is to me that if you want disruptive innovation, change of character of the marketplace, no more settled careers, your liberal education argument is actually stronger than ever. The argument for physics and engineering is actually strong but that is really — at least physics really is liberal education.
You have two kinds: Tyler Cowen is right — average is over — which means 20% of our high schools are better than ever and 80% really stink. That means students come to college incompetent, which is why we are counting on college doing for them what high school should have done for them. Employers know this, which is why they don’t trust high school degrees.
So you want to make students competent. What did they not get in high school? It is not public relations or marketing or group projects or internships or civic engagement, all this other stuff that is a complete waste of time because you don’t actually learn anything in terms of content. They don’t have any of the contents of life.
And so it seems to me we ought to really push — so all you philanthropists out there, here is what you should be funding: honors programs at community colleges. The thing we have that Germany doesn’t have is the community college that gives everyone a shot. Well, let’s make that a good shot for those that —
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: — in high school — almost community college level.
PETER LAWLER: Well, that is true and so the truth is our high schools are like the worst. And despite all the criticisms we heard today our colleges are like the best. We have to make up for how much —
YUVAL LEVIN: So Peter let me push back a little bit, even though I basically agree with that. You are making a very democratic case for liberal education, and you might say the top priority of the tomato growers in America is to make sure that everybody has a tomato because they are good for you. And they are good for you. But surely the top priority of liberal arts professors should be that everybody has a liberal arts education. But to push back on specialization, the kind of classic case for liberal arts in a democracy, if you think about Tocqueville’s case for liberal arts in democracy, it is a case for a few people finding themselves drawn to the classics in ways that could counterbalance the general inclinations of a democratic society and, as Tocqueville says, a few excellent universities that are there to help them. In the context of a society that is understandably and probably rightly much more interested in the practical sciences do you want to suggest that really to be a good citizen in America everybody ought to have access to liberal education?
PETER LAWLER: Yeah, everyone doesn’t have to have access to theoretical physics or the highest levels of philosophy or anything like that. But Tocqueville also praises the Puritans, and here is what the Puritans said: “Public education for everyone to a fairly high level,” like high schools that were really better than our colleges now, right. And why is this; why does everyone need this? Everyone needs to read the Bible for him or herself, otherwise you will be seduced by those lying priests about what is in there.
So there is a certain sense in which in America, the greatness of America has been techno-vocational rule of education with the religious add-on and what Tocqueville didn’t know about is these great schools that would be started by our immigrants which are amazingly liberal education for everyone. So we go to Philadelphia where there are giant high schools, they are actually pretty good. All the guys took Latin. There is no particular reason why we couldn’t do this again except lack of wealth.
So I mean, if our high schools were good then we could have European colleges, we’d get right down to specialization. But, in fact, they are not. For example competency is not an issue in the Ivy League because those kids that go to the Ivy League schools have done so much in high school, are so smart, kill the tests, have these huge teenage resumes of accomplishment.
They could skip college and enter the work force. And they have been blessed with great parents and great high schools and all that.
But the average kid in America is stuck with a warehouse high school now, has not learned anything much in high school and it is typically not his fault, particularly, which is why you need the college add-on. It would be better to make the average high school better.
The Common Core ain’t going to do that. In fact, I’m going to tell you the truth: no one knows how to do that right now. So given that, the greatness of America is something like the community college which allows you to make up for it later. And a lot of our ordinary liberal arts colleges who can’t fill themselves up, they kind of have to function like community colleges because there are so many of their kids who don’t know anything; I mean just don’t know how to write a paragraph even.
On the other hand I do agree in fact, well, here, if you guys will buy this I would be able to [inaudible]. Which Tocqueville says that those Americans who are destined to a literary career would then have to study the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages. And that means not only people who are going to write novels but people who write influential blogs like Marginal Revolution. They should really have read the Greek and Roman authors in their original language because in classical education, everyone might not work, but you need someone elevating American language so it isn’t taken over by techno-cliches. So we stop saying stuff like “input” when we mean “opinion.”
So if we have people out there constantly elevating the language for most folks then I’d be okay with that. So our leading colleges, if you guys will buy this, our leading colleges should require reading the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages for anyone, for any kind of literary career, including blogging, then I’ll write off everyone.
YUVAL LEVIN: All right. Done. Let’s take another question and please tell us who you are. Arnold go ahead.
ARNOLD KLING: Okay. Arnold Kling. All right. Well, Peter I have to give you some input.
So my input of what critical thinking is is that it is the ability to ask “how do you know that?” And I want to ask all of you: how do we know that about education? I want to cite something particularly; I want to push back at Andrew Kelly’s statistics about the college premium.
I don’t think we know what the college premium is. All we have found is the premium for the people with the ability to graduate college over the people who didn’t for whatever reason. And that may have nothing to do with what goes on in college. We just don’t know.
And Alex gave another illustration of what I call the Null Hypothesis in Education which was that the people taking the MOOC and the control group taking the real course had as I heard it no statistically significant difference in terms of outcome. That is often the case in any comparative educational study. So how do we know what works in education?
ANDREW KELLY: You go first, you haven’t spoken yet.
ALEX TABARROK: Okay. So let me say a little bit about online and one of the advantages of online is I think we will be able to learn much much more. I tend to agree with you that we actually know very little especially about what works in the classroom. But the advantage of online in this regard is that you can do A/B testing, you can do very easily randomized testing.
One of the reasons we don’t know what is going on in education is that you have these studies, you know, 30 people at a time, which tells you nothing. When you’ve got 100,000 people you can give, you know, 50,000 of them one version of the video or whatever it happens to be, you give 50,000 of them the other version completely random, right. One day some of them get one, some of them get the other. And you can actually see what works.
So I do think that another advantage of these online technologies is that it is much easier to test these types of things.
And I’ll just give you one example which we don’t know. So in the video that you saw that I showed you there is music in the background; right. And we went back and forth with our designer: should we have the music or not and how much, right. And there is argument — well it keeps you going, it is motivating, right. It pushes you forward, the music. And, oh, but it can also reduce attention on the words which is what actually matters. We don’t know. So that is one of the things that we hope to test. You know we hope to do two versions of the video, pretty easy to do; one with the music, one without and then let’s look at their test results three months later when they actually come to write the exam and let’s actually see which version worked better. We are going to do a lot more of that.
ANDREW KELLY: Two quick responses. I absolutely agree with you that a lot of the wage premium is due to selection. There are carefully designed studies that show that it still exists even after you sort of control for all sorts of differences across people including unobservables.
But your main point is actually correct, and I argue against myself; I often write that exact point and the other thing we do is we look at graduates. But if your rate of graduating is only 60% or 40% from a community college we shouldn’t look at just the return we should weight the return by your likelihood of graduating. So I totally agree with you.
I think in parallel though to what Dr. Tabarrok said, we need to actually learn what it is that happens on a college campus, some of them, that leads people to live long productive lives as members of the economy and citizens.
ALEX TABARROK: And following up just briefly on what Peter said: what he said is absolutely correct is that one of the worst degrees is the so-called practical business degrees. They are terrible. And one of the best degrees in terms of improving critical thinking is, like, a philosophy degree.
So — and we only found that out, Peter maybe knew it all along, but we only can find that out if you actually go and you test people. And that is what Academically Adrift did. It tested people. How can you evaluate this argument? What is this person saying? Actually testing critical thinking skills or thinking skills and what you found out hey, philosophy turned out to be pretty good. And you found that out with testing.
YUVAL LEVIN: Do you think that the kind of online teaching that you talked about has an application in those areas in the same way that it might in economics or more technical fields? Can you teach philosophy that way?
ALEX TABARROK: So it is clearly the case that it is great for mathematics, it is great for statistics, for economics, anything visual works very well. Is it good for philosophy? It’s definitely good for replacing a lecture if that is the alternative, is chalk and talk, right. Yes you can do better lectures online, more interesting, less repetition, just better lectures. Can it replace discussion groups? You know, that is harder to do. People are working on those types of technologies. We are going to find out. But definitely there is a lot of low hanging fruit before we get to “can we do the Plato seminar online?”
YUVAL LEVIN: Mitch, is this something you thing about? I mean, Purdue teaches technical skills and also teaches more sophisticated fields in science and technology, engineering. Are you drawn to the online model as part of the way of teaching in school, or is the pajama test really something you think of as an alternative to a four-year university like Purdue? How do you pass that test given what this can achieve?
MITCH DANIELS: Well, it is a central question. You know the most knowledgeable people about creative destruction a lot of them say forget about it, it is impossible, once the incumbent model is being challenged in this way, it is just a matter of time. And they might be right. You know, that is the central, I think, question facing anybody with my job now. Can we do what we’ve been doing in a way that decades from now still unimpeachably adds value beyond whatever can be done through the wizardry that is advancing real fast right now?
To our knowledge we have already modified more courses than any other university we can find. We’ve got, I should send it to you Alex, we’ve got some very parallel studies. We are studying all along the way. One of our first ones happened to be statistics, but it was three-way not two-way because the third way in addition to the pure tradition and the pure online was a so-called hybrid model which seemed to do the best of all. And it had the virtues that Alex talked about: student watches the lecture on his or her own time as often as need be, all that. But there is a classroom experience with the personal attention of a professor who knows a little about what Yuval got that Mitch didn’t, has structured some exercises to see if students can apply what was talked about, all that business. So we’ll see. If we are going to succeed, I think it will have to be by embracing and adopting as much of this, and seeing if there is not a way that in the end to which we are adding a lot of value.
Just one or two other quick things.
YUVAL LEVIN: Yep.
MITCH DANIELS: We did a lot of research; you’ll be seeing more of it for the next few years with the Gallup organization about what produces successful adults. Not just in material outcomes — how much money did you make — but in other realms of, as they say, well-being. And there is, at least historically, those college graduates who had the more personal attention, the more personal contact they had with faculty members, the better they tended to do.
There are other aspects of a residential experience that may be hard to replicate. We will see. Undergraduate research is one. We are emphasizing that; we want every one of our students to have a research experience in proximity to a tenured, by the way, faculty member if we can.
And likewise there appears to be some premium for organizational leadership experiences of the kind that are countless on our campus, and somehow our students seem to find time for, that may be another example of something that, properly emphasized, can add value that will still attract students when many are home in their pajamas.
YUVAL LEVIN: Let’s take another question.
KIERAN REVAL: Thank you. My name is Kieran Raval. I’m with American Philanthropic. Yuval, you actually took my question but I am glad you basically did because I was struck for the better part of our morning panel that the liberal arts were really not mentioned until Professor Lawler came up, and I was expecting him to do so and I am glad he did.
But maybe I’ll take it in a little bit of a different direction. If I can assert this, and if you quibble with me we can have lunch afterwards and discuss it, but as conservatives if I can say that, small “c” conservatives, maybe we should be interested in the liberal arts as a sort of basic foundational thing of our republic; to quote some line from the Bradley website, we’re interested, or Bradley is interested, in responsible self government depends on enlightened citizens. It seems the liberal arts might have something to do with that sort thing.
Are we willing to state that as a sort of basic premise when we have these conversations and put forth proposals about education reform that hey, the liberal arts need to be there and it is really not up for argument. How we deliver the liberal arts, I’d love to hear more discussion on that, but to make that assertion the importance of liberal arts for the health of our republic and just for the human good. Even take it down from the political level for a second, that men and women for their own inherent dignity should think about the great and ultimate important questions. And so I would love to hear more discussion on that.
YUVAL LEVIN: Mitch Daniels.
MITCH DANIELS: No, I would like to say a word about that now. Our university is presently the third most, you would say, “STEM-centric” university in the country, and it will be more so after some investments we are making right now. We think there is a duty and an assignment and an opportunity to train more engineers and computer scientists and physicists, things we are really good at.
That said, we try — I try never to miss an opportunity to stress that it is citizens that we were chartered to produce, and we have the following challenge I believe. I asked the question last year, the data has been hard to get, but what it seems to tell us is that a very low percentage of our grads, and I should stress that our graduates do extremely well coming out of school and later in life. We’ve now measured this and they are doing well. However, of today’s graduates a distressingly small percentage report that they took even one history course, great literature course, philosophy course, economic course, the core of what we thought of as liberal arts. And so we see this as something that needs addressing.
My contention is that you can’t be a great engineer in today’s world if you can’t communicate effectively, if you don’t have that body of understanding that helps you understand the implications of the work you may do. So we have work to do, but I wouldn’t want to leave it implicit that we don’t agree with that question and the thread of some of the previous comments about the importance of this.
YUVAL LEVIN: Do you think that it is students aren’t interested or that the demands of their majors are such that they can’t afford to take the time or what liberal arts classes do they take when they do?
MITCH DANIELS: Yeah. I worry about that question sometimes.
YUVAL LEVIN: Yeah.
MITCH DANIELS: I think it is in our case it is primarily, I believe, the very high demands, curricular demands; you know, if you are going to be a Purdue mechanical engineer you are going to spend a lot of time doing that. I taught a liberal arts course the last two semesters, history course, and had a high percentage, very high percentage of science and engineering and computer students who took it. It was their break from the rigor of what they were doing.
They thought it was until I gave out the grades.
But I do think that’s the biggest challenge where we are. I also believe that they probably have not on arrival or after arrival been — they don’t know what they are missing. They haven’t had Peter Lawler’s introductory something, philosophy course, they might become incredibly excited by it, but we need to do more as an institution to make certain — who said it, “whether they like it or not” — that they get that exposure.
YUVAL LEVIN: Andrew, how can policymakers prioritize that? You talk policy in higher ed in a way that suggests the government is basically a lender and has to look out for the value of its investment and return on its loans. How can policymakers prioritize the formation of citizens if that is an important part of what higher ed needs to do? How does that interact with the rest of the ways we expect them to think about higher education?
ANDREW KELLY: I think a few things. Number one, we don’t want the federal government involved in decision about academic quality and curricular focus and so on. That should be up to the institutions themselves and providers themselves.
So for me, part of the disconnect here occurs — at some point somewhere parents and students and administrators, I agree with Peter on this, decided somehow that the way to be sure you found a good job was to do these techno-light majors and they proliferated and there is a reason why business is the most popular major but, in fact, when you do look at people’s trajectories over time people who were “liberal arts” graduates tend to do really, really well in their labor market outcomes.
But part of the problem is we have never actually measured any of that with any sophistication or systematically. And so you wouldn’t know it as a consumer. You look through the course catalog and you say, “oh, gosh how would I ever get a job with a philosophy degree? Business — I can get a job in a business if I get a business degree,” which, there is nothing further from the truth in many cases.
So I think in terms of the federal government promoting some of this, I think part of it is a basic measurement question and a transparency question around insuring that people recognize the value of different options. I do not disagree in any sense that the liberal arts and the things that you get from a liberal arts education are valuable.
I’ll just say one more thing, which is the surveys of employers always fascinate me because they do these surveys of employers and every time there is one they say we value all these things that the liberal arts education is supposed to do. And all the colleges say see, look, they don’t want technical skills, they want liberal arts, but in the same survey they are saying we are colossally dissatisfied with the graduates who are being produced, they don’t have these skills. So the ideal of the liberal arts education is not being translated down to the ground level for a lot of students based on what employers say.
YUVAL LEVIN: Let’s take another question.
MONA CHAREN: I’m Mona Charen. I’m a syndicated columnist and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Podcaster on Ricochet. I recommend the Podcast “Need to Know.”
My question is first to Andrew Kelly because I noticed in your statistics — and by the way, thank you all for a fantastic panel, highly stimulating, even entertaining, very informative. I thank you all. It has been terrific.
Now Andrew, I do have a question about your statistics because when you were talking about the return to the degree being flat or declining, your stats were just for men.
ANDREW KELLY: Yep.
MONA CHAREN: And as we know, women are now outpacing men in higher education at every level pretty much, except in some of the fields like physics and math and so forth. So I’d like Andrew for you to talk about whether your stats would have been the same if you had included returns to women’s wages because women’s wages have been going up vis-a-vis men’s in our society in general.
And then for the whole panel, I’d like to hear a little bit of discussion about this sexual imbalance that we now see in higher education; what you think it means, and whether you think it is a problem.
ANDREW KELLY: So quick answer is: I should look at the returns for women. Part of the reason that people tend to look at men especially among younger workers is that women’s patterns in and out of the work force when they are of that age group don’t actually necessarily reflect the returns to their credentials. It may reflect the fact that they’ve decided to have families or take a time out from the work force.
I should look at it. My sense though, I have looked at it in the past, my recollection is that it looks largely the same. So you are right: wages for women have gone up relative to men, but that wages across the board since about 2000s have been stagnant or declining for all groups. It is just there hasn’t been much income growth in the country.
YUVAL LEVIN: And what about men and women in higher ed? Peter?
PETER LAWLER: What people worry about — I mean, they worry about the gender imbalance, it is huge and the worry is simply consumerist; that women will be unhappy.
And so at my college we introduced DIII football which, because this might on TV, I am not going to criticize all that much, except I will say there are just as many concussions in DIII football as you have in DI football and you are not paid for it.
So you have to wonder about the thinking of the young man who would play DIII football in college.
But the gender imbalance is something worried about; the cause of it I’m not that sure, because if you were a young man, a young heterosexual man, as most young men are, why wouldn’t you go to a liberal arts college full of smart and pretty girls?
So we once had on the Berry brochure, we had this guy Ric Sedlak who majored in Political Science and is now a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt showing you don’t need to have a scientific undergraduate degree. He is there reading some dialogue of Plato surrounded by eight admiring women. And so any young man at Berry who is relatively manly in the nonsexist sense and actually can read a real book, this guy is a babe magnet beyond belief.
And so why is it that more young men don’t know this?
So why would you go to Georgia Tech and hang out with those nerds when you come to Berry? We have pre-engineering, you can transfer to Tech later and hang out with women and women who are better looking and smarter than you are because all liberal arts colleges except very selective ones have closet affirmative action for men. The standards for admission for men are easier, although the data is not transparent enough that anyone could pick up on that.
And so in order to answer — this question is above my pay grade in many ways because you have to talk about what happens to men in high school, you have to talk about men in society in general becoming superfluous, decline of the family and all that, which is not really my job. But you wonder why liberal arts colleges couldn’t make what they do more attractive to men. Some people blame the political correctness and all that stuff, but no 17-year-old kid knows about political correctness.
ALEX TABARROK: It is boring. A lot of these classes for men are boring. Look I think it is just a fact that not everyone does really well with book learning. Some people like to work more with their hands and we’ve disvalued that in society partly for economic reasons. You know manufacturing is down. The service sector is up. And this type of learning for everyone, and particularly for a group of men, is just — they don’t like it, they are not built for it and they don’t like it.
PETER LAWLER: No, I actually agree with that to this point. So we’ve devalued manual labor, we’ve overvalued the scripted service industry where women do much better than men because women can fake it, wink wink, better than men can.
And we can draw it out but you know I am right on that. But given that men have to come to college now, like it or not, it is not clear to me why liberal arts college is more boring; there is nothing more infantile in college, we are going to agree on this, than a marketing class or a management class. Women kill those because it is eight weeks of power point, eight weeks of group presentation. You don’t learn a blinking thing.
YUVAL LEVIN: Yes.
PETER LAWLER: But men sit through that because they think it will get them jobs and that is not true at all. It will get women jobs; that is the irony of it. It won’t get men jobs. So actually my own experience which is, of course, very limited and not backed up by studies, my own experience is men are fine in liberal arts classes once they get there, and here is why: because 18-year-old men are much vainer than 18-year-old women on the average — and studies back me up on that — and so even if the men don’t do the reading, which they do the reading less than women on the average, and that is the truth, they still like talking about the issues of the liberal arts class. So a liberal arts class is boring it is because of the delivery system. So I mean the strongest argument for online is it is not that different from the huge lecture hall. But we shouldn’t have huge lecture halls. It would be cheaper not to. But don’t get me started on that.
So I will agree that the mode of delivery of the liberal education course is pretty bad often. The political correctness is a problem once you actually get to college, but this doesn’t quite answer the question that, given men have to go to college for reasons that have been well explained, why they wouldn’t prefer a liberal arts college to the other possibilities.
YUVAL LEVIN: Socrates knew that the secret to teaching young men is that they like to hear themselves talk.
PETER LAWLER: Yeah that is true.
YUVAL LEVIN: If you give them a way in, they’ll stick with it.
PETER LAWLER: And the challenge is to leave their vanity in tact a little bit.
YUVAL LEVIN: Mitch, do you see this at Purdue? Is it as heavily female in its incoming freshmen as other places, or are the subjects that you teach so different that that is different?
MITCH DANIELS: We are the exception. We are 58% male, something like that. It is by virtue of the subjects we teach we’re, I guess, throwbacks. We are still working frantically to raise the percentage. We are happy about it, I think we got to 28% of our engineering freshmen this year women, that is an all time high by several percent. But no, we are the exception that proves the rule and I know that Mona’s question is so important and yet it is so little discussed. It is the thing no one wants to talk about. But when I encounter my new colleagues most of them are desperately seeking, you know, Sam instead of Susan these days. And I don’t know what is happening to standards in the pursuit of that but I know a lot of schools as they sink down to sort of near the 40% level it becomes so apparent to everyone that it’s an issue. But no, for the moment, we are still in the other situation.
And I just have to say that I’m incredibly impressed with the seriousness of most of our students. Most of them don’t come necessarily from the most entitled backgrounds. That has probably something to do with it. But, men or women, they are time on task and most of us would love to say we were that serious at that age.
YUVAL LEVIN: Let’s take another question.
CHRISTINA BARELLI (ph): Christina Barelli (ph). So I’ll be very frank. I am pretty biased. I graduated from Cambridge University where I did my undergrad so I am always thrilled and not surprised to see that Cambridge and Oxford usually come up in the first three or five in the world rankings of universities. And we all know it is not because of the endowment. It is not because of the amenities. So what is it? I believe that it is the tutorial system and I take exception to the comment that the Oxbridge system is outdated. So my question is if that is the differentiating element with Oxbridge that consistently brings it up in the top five, isn’t there a case for a hybrid where online is definitely here to stay but we start exploring the possibility of having tutorials, not AI tutors because I don’t believe AI tutors can teach discernment and critical thinking and debating, but real live tutors that would combine with the new high-tech model.
YUVAL LEVIN: Alex?
ANDREW KELLY: So I think what makes Oxbridge special is it takes less than one percent of one percent of all the students. And if you take a very small minority of students you are going to get very high quality, or you can get very high quality.
On the particular model, I tend to agree: I think you could certainly use hybrid techniques, but the basic story here is when we think about universities, yeah, we think about Oxford and we think about Harvard and Cambridge and Yale but these are tiny, tiny and they are not going to get bigger. So online technologies and these new technologies — it actually puts Harvard and places like that in a conundrum because they don’t want to lose their reputation for elitism. And so they are not going to pioneer these technologies because they don’t want more students. They could have more students any time. They don’t want more students. You know Harvard hasn’t had more students more or less in 400 years. They don’t want more.
So I think the actual opportunity is for sort of mid-ranked schools where they have some reputation particularly on the world stage but they are very willing to have more students.
This is something which we haven’t talked about very much. But think about China and India. They are not going to go on the old university model. Certainly not on the tutorial model. But they are not even going to go on the classroom model. Just like the same way Africa has skipped over landlines and gone straight to cell phones. You know China and India they are going to go straight to an online model. And they are looking right now to the United States and places like that for a curriculum that they can adopt and put a stamp on and say this is an American certified curriculum which you can now get at much lower prices here in China or here in India.
This by the way, and President Daniels I’m sure knows all about this, but this is going to freak out university presidents over the next several years because they have completely gotten used to the subsidization of American education by Chinese students. We’ve hundreds of thousands of Chinese students paying full fare in the United States. And as quality improves back in China, they are going to say, “why should I come to the United States? I’m going to stay in China. I’m going to stay in India and get a much cheaper education at American quality levels because they are going to adopt an online model.”
YUVAL LEVIN: Let’s take another question.
SCOTT WALTER: Scott Walter, Capital Research Center. I have a question I guess especially for Mitch Daniels and Andrew Kelly. We heard earlier that the dreadful quality of K-12 education is one of the greatest challenges in colleges. Are there public policies or policies that administrations at colleges could adapt that could put serious pressure on that?
ANDREW KELLY: Absolutely. In fact one of my worries — and I apologize that I had to step out, I have a ten month old daughter so I drink way too much coffee than is healthy for any individual. One of the problems I see with the push for the Common Core standards is, there are lots of problems with it, but number one they were defined originally as college- and career-ready and they were going to define different things for each. Now they’ve sort of said, “oh well, the career-ready standards are the same as the college-ready.” They are all the same. And so my concern is that we are sort of going to start defining people as college-ready whether or not the colleges actually accept them as college-ready or not, which I think is going to happen. I think colleges are going to say: your high school told you you are college ready, congratulations, now you test into three semesters of remediation in math and English, right.
The point being that one of the things we don’t do enough of actually is report back to the high schools how many of their students placed in remediation. They don’t really know. They sort of know by anecdote. But I think that would be a really straightforward thing to do that a state could do in particular to just let a high school know hey, you know, 60% of your kids who showed up at a local community college tested in remedial math. You might want to think about making some adjustments.
I think that is one piece that is low hanging fruit.
MITCH DANIELS: We don’t do remedial work anymore. We got out of that at the state’s insistence, actually, not so long ago. So that part I agree with and that part’s done.
I do think more careful measurement backwards, though, of the performance — forget remediation for a minute. How many actually graduated? What sort of records did they achieve and, at least by way of transparency, if we don’t become more limiting in our admissions. Hard problem, we are even considering in order to improve our recruitment or capture of certain populations, first-generation students and so forth, going into the high school business at least in a limited way.
YUVAL LEVIN: Well, we’ve got just a couple of minutes left and we’ve got two more people to ask questions so why don’t you go ahead and we’ll finish up with that.
EDWARD ROEDER: I’ll try to be brief. I am Edward Roeder with Sunshine Press. And what I wanted to ask is primarily for Dr. Tabarrok and President Mitchell Daniels but also for Doctor Lawler. I went to FSU, a school not too different from Purdue and was appalled to read last year that the Koch brothers in endowing a chair of economics at FSU managed to get not only to endow the chair and the subject to be taught but to influence the selection of the professor to teach it. Now your whole discussion today is focused on the role of higher ed in making people better earners. And it seems to me that if you’re changing education to make it more like a trade school and the primary measure you use of academic success is earnings later in life and you are allowing the wealthy donors to pick your faculty, you get away from the whole mission of education as creating the citizen. Has anybody done any kind of measurement of the success of academia in producing good citizens, citizens who make a major contribution that is much harder to measure than their income?
YUVAL LEVIN: Well, that would be hard to measure.
MITCH DANIELS: Well, we know a high percentage of college graduates don’t know when the Civil War was or can’t name three of the ten amendments to the Bill of Rights, so you know we know we’ve got some ground to make up on the citizenship front.
ANDREW KELLY: Yeah, there is an interesting paper; I think it is by a guy named Psacharopoulos about the non-monetary returns to higher ed. And he looks at the general social survey which is questions about all sorts of things — parenting, satisfaction with life, civic engagement, health, mental health — and finds — it is mostly descriptive as I recall, he controls for income a little bit in some of the analyses. But, yeah, finds that there is a gap between college grads and non-college grads on all those measures. So it is worth looking up and reading because I do think it is a deeply important question. And we don’t know enough about it.
MITCH DANIELS: I do refer you to — I referred to, I mentioned it earlier, The Gallup-Purdue Index it is called. It is the biggest study ever done of college grads, done about a year ago now, 30,000, going to be repeated for a few years. But it absolutely, and this is Gallup’s work for decades, financial success is only one of five domains that they look at.
Now this is all derived from work they’ve done mainly for businesses trying to understand why their best employees, those who make everyone else more productive and not less productive, where they came from. But there is a whole lot in there and we can all learn a lot from it.
And it absolutely buttresses a lot of the things that were said here today about what people studied and particularly how they studied. One thing as an FSU graduate you ought to like: it says it matters a whole lot less where you went to school than how you went, which bears on how much money you spend to get there and so forth.
YUVAL LEVIN: Let’s take the last question and then since it is 11:30 and we need to close up. Why don’t we take the last question.
LUKE PHILLIPS: Hi, my name is Luke Phillips. I work for the American Interest Magazine and I actually have as free copy for each of you guys after this.
So now in this latest edition of the American Interest there is an essay arguing that the increasing amount of screens and the increasing use of iPods, iPads, iPhones, computer use that that is doing stuff to the brain, that that has unseen health effects and the illustration here is actually a scrambled egg on a television screen and it says “your brain on screens.”
So now in the world where MOOEC, Massive Online Open Education Courses, are going to be more prevalent in the educational system, if that does have a bad health effect on people’s mental states, will MOOEC be able to make up for that in terms of how good the quality of the education is and if not, how are we going to deal with a world in which screens might potentially have negative health effects on people?
YUVAL LEVIN: Alex? Ruining our health?
ALEX TABRROK: Thanks a lot. Look, everything has a negative health effect. We are all going to go sooner or later.
YUVAL LEVIN: Words to live by … for a while.
ALEX TABARROK: Very briefly. I mean, historically we’ve seen these about every single educational innovation. So when books came about people said, well, this is terrible because people won’t know how to use their memory anymore. You know, we used to have much better memories when we had to remember Homer, now we can just look him up.
And then TV, of course, came and you know TV is the dumb box and so forth.
I think screens, in terms of computers, I think they are much more active, much more involved than television. For my kids, I’d much rather have them on the computer on Reddit or something like that, even on YouTube, than I would just on television. It seems much more engaging rather than just soporific.
So I think we see these worries about new technologies all the time. I’m not particularly bothered about the technology. The medium is not the message. That’s, I think, the thing. It is not the medium, right, that matters, it actually is the message.
YUVAL LEVIN: Peter, why don’t you close us out, are screens killing our brains?
PETER LAWLER: Well, I mean it was a clever article —
YUVAL LEVIN: The online version is especially good.
PETER LAWLER: The only thing that trumps freedom in America today is health and safety.
And they come together in Transhumanism.
But having said that, the medium is part of the message, of course. There are studies that show that students learn more when they take notes by hand than when they take notes on laptops. You should ban laptops from your classroom. And in class I say the reason I don’t use PowerPoint or anything like that: there are three beautiful things in this room. One, of course, is me.
The second is each other. And the third is the great or at least decent text, in the case of a Supreme Court opinion or study. And so I’m looking for a brand to close out. Here it is. Teachers, leave those screens alone.
YUVAL LEVIN: Let me thank this wonderful panel, all of you for joining us. Thank you, the four of you for being here. Thank all of you for being here. And thank the Bradley Foundation for all that it does and for bringing us together this morning.