the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace

Princeton has $2.86 million in endowment per student, which would yield about $140k per year in interest for every undergraduate. Princeton could charge no tuition if its goal were to maximize accessibility. On the other hand, Princeton received 32,000 applications last year, so it could easily fill a highly-qualified class with people who could pay its full tuition price–or much more than that–if the university’s goal were to maximize tuition income. Princeton could also double or triple its size or create a new campus in another state or country if it wanted to maximize both accessibility and revenue.

Of course, a university sees itself as doing more than providing education. It also generates research, arts and culture, public service, etc. Every dollar that it collects from a student can go to those other purposes. But any endowment money that it spends on those other purposes could have gone to financial aid.

Meanwhile, prospective students also want a bundle of things, including prestige. Prestige comes with selectivity and sticker-price. Imagine you have a choice between paying the basic in-state tuition at UW-Madison ($10,725) or the same amount to Stanford after receiving financial aid. Stanford might look like a better deal, since its tuition sticker price is $55,473. It seems like you are being given $44k. However, it is unlikely that the marginal cost per student at Stanford is really 5.5 times higher than the cost at UW-Madison. More likely, Stanford knows it can charge a base tuition of $55k because many families will pay that much; and asking for less would be leaving cash on the table. Stanford with financial aid is arguably a better deal than UW-Madison’s full price, not because Stanford offers a better (or more costly) education in the classroom but because attending a college that is extremely selective and expensive looks better.

In short, the demand curve rises with price. The more other people pay for a given college, the more valuable it is to you, holding your own costs and the quality of the education constant.

It sounds as if college is a Veblen good, one that rises in perceived value the more it costs. But that logic does not exactly apply. If a college that regularly turns away 94% of its applicants decided to fill its seats with people who could pay full price, it would look less academically selective (as well as less diverse), and it would become less desirable. Many of the people who could pay to attend would now try to go elsewhere. In other words, if you pay full price, you are better off the more of your fellow students do not. Financial aid demonstrates that the college is selecting on criteria other than wealth. This is not typical of a Veblen good, which looks more desirable if only rich people buy it.

As Frank Bruni amusingly postulated, a college could win the prestige sweepstakes by deciding that no one was qualified for admissions. Bruni imagines the day when Stanford finally admits zero applicants:

At first blush, Stanford’s decision would seem to jeopardize its fund-raising. The thousands of rejected applicants included hundreds of children of alumni who’d donated lavishly over the years. …

But over recent years, Stanford administrators noticed that as the school rejected more and more comers, it received bigger and bigger donations, its endowment rising in tandem with its exclusivity, its luster a magnet for Silicon Valley lucre.

In fact just 12 hours after the university’s rejection of all comers, an alumnus stepped forward with a financial gift prodigious enough for Stanford to begin construction on its long-planned Center for Social Justice, a first-ever collaboration of Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the pedestrian bridge that will connect it to the student napping meadows.

One of the anomalies that Bruni is pointing to is that people who attended a college in the past now underwrite it voluntarily with their donations. Usually, you pay in order to obtain a good. Here, you get the good and then you pay for others to get it–in part so that it can be withheld from as many applicants as possible, thus raising its value even more on your own resume.

These are strange incentives ….

46 favorite reads on democracy, civic tech and a few other interesting things

open book lot

I’ve recently been exchanging with some friends on a list of favorite reads from 2020. While I started with a short list, it quickly grew: after all, despite the pandemic, there has been lots of interesting stuff published in the areas that I care about throughout the year. While the final list of reads varies in terms of subjects, breadth, depth and methodological rigor, I picked these 46 for different reasons. These include my personal judgement of their contribution to the field of democracy, or simply a belief that some of these texts deserve more attention than they currently receive. Others are in the list because I find them particularly surprising or amusing.

As the list is long – and probably at this length, unhelpful to my friends – I tried to divide it into three categories: i) participatory and deliberative democracy, ii) civic tech and digital democracy, and iii) and miscellaneous (which is not really a category, let alone a very helpful one, I know). In any case, many of the titles are indicative of what the text is about, which should make it easier to navigate through the list.

These caveats aside, below is the list of some of my favorite books and articles published in 2020:

Participatory and Deliberative Democracy

While I still plan to make a similar list for representative democracy, this section of the list is intentionally focused on democratic innovations, with a certain emphasis on citizens’ assemblies and deliberative modes of democracy. While this reflects my personal interests, it is also in part due to the recent surge of interest in citizens’ assemblies and other modes of deliberative democracy, and the academic production that followed.  

On Civic Tech and Digital Democracy

2020 was the year where the field of civic tech seemed to take a democratic turn, from fixing potholes to fixing democracy.

MISCELANEOUS

Finally, a section as random as 2020.

As mentioned before, the list is already too long. But if there’s anything anyone thinks should absolutely be on this list, please do let me know.

navigating the disciplines

In a year of virtual orientations, I made a video to help inform Tufts undergraduates who may be thinking about what disciplines to explore as they choose courses and–later on–majors. I addressed “civically engaged” students: those who want to improve their communities, nations, and the world and are trying to decide what academic disciplines might help them to do that.

My presentation is not argumentative or judgmental in the sense that I advocate some disciplines over others. But I do impose an organizational scheme with classifications and generalizations that would probably be controversial. For example, I say what I think a “science” is and why the social sciences are scientific. I acknowledge that these definitions are personal and contentious, but they might make the video interesting for some people beyond Tufts.

my thoughts for students as we move online

Like many other universities, Tufts has decided to close physically for the semester and switch to online education. I am sure my colleagues across the country are discussing this shift with their students as they meet for the last time this week–or virtually, if students have already dispersed.

This is what I’m saying. The text is “open source” in case anyone wants to copy some of it, although I’m sure my colleagues will want to say different things or make similar points better.

First, I am disappointed that we will not meet again in person. I thought the conversations were fascinating and compelling. I have been impressed by your commitment and intellectual and emotional investment.

For my part, I was committed to continuously improving the class. We recently made a shift to more small-group discussions, and I would have sought to make more such changes. My goal would have been to end the semester very strong, better than we began it. It frustrates me to have to move into a kind of triage mode.

But we need to do the best we can. The point is to give you the best learning experience possible under the circumstances, which will vary from person to person and over time. Of course, that’s always supposed to be the point. A college class is not a transaction, with you doing what the professor wants in order to get a grade. It’s always supposed to be a joint creation with the objective of learning. Now we’ll really have to accomplish that together.

Usually, students want predictability. A syllabus nowadays looks almost like a contract: you do this, I will do that, and the results are guaranteed. I don’t think we can be predictable this semester. Who knows how many of us (if any) will be directly affected by the disease? Or whether videoconferencing platforms will hold up under the strain? On the bright side, I assume that professors and teachers will invent successful new strategies that will go viral. We don’t know now how we’ll teach and learn in April.

In the absence of predictability, we need communication. It’s your responsibility to share feedback and ideas with me–especially since we will not be meeting face-to-face. I can’t know what you are experiencing or how you assess the course unless you tell me.

I assume that your circumstances and responses will vary. Some may find it hard–for practical and/or emotional reasons–to participate in various ways. But some may be bored and frustrated that they’re not learning enough during one of only eight semesters of a conventional undergraduate education. I need to hear from you, wherever you stand.

I cannot customize perfectly because I have more than 50 students and more than 20 advisees, plus other responsibilities beyond teaching. However, we can differentiate the experience to some extent. We can add optional activities for students who want more and make accommodations for those who are struggling to keep up.

As always, assigning grades is an inevitable task, and I’m not saying that everyone will get an A because of the circumstances. Still, I am hoping that, even more than usual, we can put the assignment of grades somewhat aside and focus on maximizing the learning for everyone. Your responsibility is not only to try to learn but also, to the extent possible, to help others to learn. Those are the two overarching criteria of assessment. We will succeed if we co-produce this class and fail if we give up on it.

With all that being said, my current plan is to form you into groups of 4-5, with changing membership each time. Those groups will hold videoconferences during each of the scheduled class times. I will provide detailed discussion questions with suggested allocations of time for each topic. Each group will write succinct overview notes on a shared document. I will comment substantively on that document when I see places to weigh in. Individual writing assignments will remain the same as on the syllabus.

Now and throughout the semester, suggestions and critiques of this plan are not only welcome, but expected.

how have political science and k-12 civics diverged?

It’s risky to generalize about k-12 civics. In the USA, there are no national standards for civics, state standards tend to be incoherent and not firmly enforced, and textbooks divide the market. Some teachers in some classrooms present highly critical accounts of US politics. Others are committed to American exceptionalism and celebratory narratives. The whole woke-to-MAGA spectrum is represented.

Many k-12 teachers try to avoid adopting positions in the classroom by presenting only hard facts about the constitutional process or by organizing deliberative discussions in which many perspectives are honored. Yet even an ostensibly neutral approach must reflect choices about the most important questions, topics and themes.

It is also risky to generalize about the discipline of political science, which encompasses more heterogeneous subfields than most disciplines. Whole subcultures of political scientists strike me as pro-regime, while others are radical. (See this post for some observations about the balkanized profession.)

But I’d still tentatively hypothesize that the center of gravity in political science stands apart from the center of gravity for k-12 civics, especially if we look at mass-market textbooks and state standards documents for evidence about civics. And I’d suggest that these are the three main gaps:

  1. Political science has haltingly recognized a wider range of perspectives on American political history and institutions, giving more attention to women and people of color as political thinkers and critics. That has meant more attention to critiques of the US system, but also alternative ideals and visions of progress. Again, this generalization ignores woke high school teachers and conservative or traditionalist political science professors, but I’d still venture the generalization.
  2. Political science has widely embraced versions of the New Institutionalism. I have written a primer on that movement, but in essence, it finds that institutions rarely operate as intended because they have their own logics and incentives. This means that it is unlikely that the US government would work as its authors planned. James Madison was an early and brilliant institutionalist who designed constitutional provisions to prevent certain kinds of corruption and failure. But the New Institutionalism has vastly expanded the list of threats, and few political scientists would argue that the US Constitution’s design addresses all these threats in a satisfactory way. Much of the high school curriculum is designed to teach students why the framers designed our system to work as it does. Many political scientists would emphasize that it does not, and could not, work as intended but rather faces serious perils. By the way, here I am not referring to intended “features” of the original Constitution, such as white-male dominance. I am referring to unforeseen “bugs.”
  3. Political science has experienced the behavioral revolution. Human beings evolved to make decisions without full consideration of relevant facts and information, employing heuristics and biases and rationalizing our biases with cherry-picked reasons. It’s common in civics curricula to present a model of the citizen as an independent thinker who decides on the best policy and chooses the candidates who come closest to those views. At least according to political scientists like Achen & Bartels (Democracy for Realists, 2016), this model is a myth. Citizens inevitably join up with large groups and vote to demonstrate loyalty to their groups.

The solution to this gap is not to move k-12 civics all the way to the center of gravity of professional political science. For my taste, the professional discipline is too cynical, not sufficiently normative or interested in problem-solving. Exposing students to cutting-edge political science is unlikely to make them more active and efficacious citizens. A big dose of New Institutionalism plus Behaviorism could kill anyone’s interest in politics unless the insights of those movements can be combined with some creativity and optimism.

At the same time, to ignore the findings of modern political science is increasingly untenable. We need new combinations.

See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right; on teaching the US Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; and constitutional piety.

the Oberlin cultural appropriation controversy, revisited

(Washington, DC) In 2016, I began a blog post:

The Oberlin College Cultural Appropriation Controversy is almost certainly getting more attention than it deserves because it reinforces critiques of political correctness in higher education. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting case to consider the general questions: What is cultural appropriation, and when is it bad?

Some Oberlin students criticized Oberlin’s dining hall’s bánh mì and General Tso’s chicken as cultural appropriations. …

I tried to offer a nuanced response to the general topic of cultural appropriation. Although I see some legitimacy in some critiques of appropriation, I am worried about the stance that cultural products belong to ethno-cultural groups and cannot be borrowed. I find that view empirically untenable, because culture is always borrowed and shared. And I can think of unsavory examples–like Richard Wagner’s decrying classical music composed by European Jews, partly on the ground that music belonged to Germans and not Jews. I start with enthusiasm for a global cultural commons and opposition to all forms of “enclosure.”

However, we now know that I shouldn’t have been writing about the Oberlin episode at all. No Oberlin students organized to criticize the campus food on political grounds. Instead, the college newspaper asked some individuals their opinions of the college bánh mì and sushi. A majority of those interviewed thought these dishes were poor examples of their genres. The bánh mì was made with ciabatta, and the “chicken sushi” wasn’t sushi at all. It’s not clear that even the individuals who were quoted had political or ethical objections to the food. And even if they did, they were responding to a question. There was no student movement against cultural appropriation.

This story fit some people’s prior assumptions and went viral without being fact-checked. In this case, it was about allegedly spoiled PC students on a liberal campus, but we are all subject to being fooled by virally contagious anecdotes. This phenomenon can happen accidentally, but it can also be made to happen by people with nefarious motives. An example is the shadowy Twitter account that “posted a minute-long video showing the now-iconic confrontation between a Native American elder and the high school students.” This misleading video was carefully designed to play on the ideological priors of liberals.

Looking back at my post, I am relieved that I hedged my opening and I didn’t criticize any students. But I did file away the memory that Oberlin undergraduates had mobilized against the bánh mì, which did not happen. And my post, despite its caveats, played its small role in spreading that misperception. We all need to pay more attention to the reliability of the alleged facts that we use as opportunities for arguments.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?; notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding; when is cultural appropriation good or bad?; V.S. Naipaul’s view of culture; cultural mixing and power; a political defense of Hamilton; Maoist chic as Orientalism; and “a different Shakespeare from the one I love”

community engagement and student success in college

You can now get the recording and associated slides for the AAC&U webinar entitled “The Confounding Promise of Community: Why It Matters More Than Ever for Student Success.” I was a bit of an outlier because I talked about college students’ learning in social movements, taking as my text a 1961 article by Martin Luther King, Jr. on that topic. My comments were based on my article, “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.” For me, “community” meant social movements that may target institutions for change.

The excellent other presenters mainly discussed projects that are based in their colleges and engage the communities around them: Ventura County, CA, San Diego, Newark, NJ, and Queens, NY. I thought they demonstrated that their institutions are components (or even “anchors”) of those communities. So instead of saying that their students “go into” communities, we might conclude that their students belong to communities and learn beyond the classroom.

we should be debating the big social and political paradigms

[The following post is inspired by Rogers Smith’s recent APSA presidential address, and I believe is consistent with it, but I incorporate some additional elements.]

Consider a sample of articles about politics, or society more generally. One might be an interpretation of some remarks by Thomas Jefferson. Another reports an experiment in which people are more likely to vote when contacted one way rather than another. A third is a critique of a prevalent word (say, “security”) from the perspective of Michel Foucault. A fourth shows that rational agents in a certain situation are better off when rules are externally imposed on them.

Each of these articles presumes, and contributes to, a larger paradigm that combines values, causal theories, and methods. Perhaps the interpreter of Jefferson believes that the United States is still founded on its written Constitution and that the intentions of the founders matter today. The experimentalist presumes that voting in a regime like the modern USA is a consequential act, and it would be good to increase voting by several percentage points if possible. The critic of “security” sees a world of pervasive injustice sustained by ideology, in the sense of distorting views that preserve the status quo. The rational-choice modeler thinks that all (or many) institutions can be analyzed as the interactions of utility-maximizing individuals.

(For the sake of space, I have omitted a classical Marxist, a deep feminist, a post-colonial theorist, a Prospect Theorist, a radical environmentalist, and many others who deserve places on the list.)

In these articles, you will not see much about their larger paradigms, worldviews or schemata. Their paradigms may not even be mentioned. Instead, you will see evidence in support of the specific claims of each article (whether in the form of statistics, quotations, or equations).

Of course, journals offer limited space, and there may not be room to present a whole paradigm. In addition, citing your scheme may only hurt you in the review process. Reviewers who happen to oppose your overall paradigm may be alienated, when they would have been persuaded by your detailed findings if presented alone.

For instance, imagine that you discover that texting people increases their turnout more than emailing them. That is more persuasive as a bare finding than as part of an argument for the significance and value of voting in a mass democracy within a capitalist market economy.

A certain form of positivism (or verificationism, or empiricism) is still widely influential. It holds that facts can be verified directly. Larger mental constructs are fashioned by us and are only valid to the extent that they match all the facts. If big, general ideas influence our beliefs, they are sources of bias. Therefore, we may need to disclose our paradigms as caveats, but we don’t want to focus on them.

Some people would hate to be described as positivists but end up in a similar place for a different reason. They presume that they have a right to their fundamental views as a matter of identity. “As a migrant from the global south, I explore the colonization of indigenous spaces …” This is not a disclosure of bias, nor a defense of a thesis; it is a claim to be recognized as a member of the scholarly community. To disagree is to deny the author’s place in the community.

I believe that the really important task is to select our worldviews, our big normative/conceptual schemes. It matters which of the available choices we adopt, and maybe we can create better ones. Therefore–as I think Rogers Smith argued–it is a real weakness in any intellectual community if the paradigms are implicit or merely stated, rather than explained, justified, and put into competition.

Within political science, many contrasting worldviews are available. You can walk down the hall of the APSA Annual Meeting past rooms in which everyone accepts the basic normative principles of contemporary electoral democracy, and other rooms in which people are quoting Slavoj Žižek about ideology.

It is hard to compare such worldviews or paradigms, because they have different normative, epistemic, and sometimes metaphysical premises. A finding within one paradigm does not disprove a different paradigm. A certain kind of relativism interferes with comparative assessment.

However, we can consider a whole body of specific findings along with their shared overall claims. We can ask whether this whole literature is coherent, whether it generates persuasive specific findings by its own lights, whether it informs practice in any useful way, whether it makes sense of other literatures, how it handles criticisms and rival views, whether it is responsive to new evidence and events, and whether its normative implications are defensible when fully articulated. Each paradigm has points of relative strength and weaknesses.

It would be helpful if people had that discussion in print, instead of always only writing within paradigms (at least for journal articles.)

See also trying to keep myself honest, how philosophy is supposed to work

AAC&U Webinar: Sept 19 2019

“The Confounding Promise of Community: Why It Matters More Than Ever for Student Success,” September 19, 2019; Online, 2:00-3:00 p.m. (ET)

In this webinar, I’ll be discussing my recent article in Liberal Education entitled, “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.” Other authors in the same special issue of Liberal Education will also share their work.

Webinar Registration
Cost: Free for AAC&U members; $99 for nonmembers
Check your institution’s membership status here

What is the role of community—as a concept, an outcome, and an entity—in a liberal education, and how can community contribute to student success? How do students experience community, on and off campus? This webinar will examine emerging definitions of community, ongoing efforts to create inclusive pathways for engagement, and ways community-based practices can advance inclusive excellence. From multiple institutional perspectives, presenters will explore how a collective understanding of community can shape a commitment to equity and student success.

All webinar registrants will be eligible for a 20% discount on copies of the new issue of Liberal Education, which fully explores the webinar topic. In this issue, authors—many of whom are webinar presenters—share research findings, commentary, and recommendations on the confounding promise of community. 

Moderator

Ashley Finley
Senior Advisor to the President and Vice President for Strategic Planning and Partnerships
AAC&U

Presenters

Geoffrey Buhl
Professor, Mathematics and General Education Chair
California State University Channel Islands

Leeva Chung
Professor, Communication Studies
University of San Diego

Marta Elena Esquilin
Associate Dean, Honors Living-Learning Community
Rutgers University-Newark

Jason Leggett
Assistant Professor of Politcal Science and Criminal Justice
Kingsborough Community College

Peter Levine
Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor for Citizenship & Public Affairs
Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life

conservative engaged scholarship

For the sake of argument, let’s define “engaged scholarship” as …

The organized production of knowledge by groups that include some professional academic researchers and some people who are not academics and belong to the communities, populations, or organizations being studied.

I don’t have a representative sample of projects of engaged scholarship, but I would venture these generalizations:

  1. Often the topics are issues that are priorities on the left or center-left, such as health disparities, access to government services, or environmental damage.
  2. Often the communities that participate in the research lean left: low-income urban neighborhoods, migrant farmworkers, etc. (In 2004, I met with Penn State faculty interested in community-based research and observed that most did not work in their surrounding communities–conservative central Pennsylvania–but drove to Philadelphia to do their engaged research.)
  3. Yet some of the underlying values of this approach can be seen as conservative: a preference for the local and the nonprofit/voluntary sector over Big Government, deep appreciation for local traditions, and a tendency to do something directly about problems rather than trying to win elections to change laws. I’ve even argued that the most authentically Burkean conservative field in the US today is the field that connects universities with communities through service, community-based research, and other partnerships.

Especially given the third point, you’d expect to see conservative engaged scholarship. The academic researchers might vote Republican instead of Democratic or Green, they would work in and with communities that preferred Trump over Clinton, and they would study issues like taxes, regulation, zoning, and abortion (as problems).

But I am hard pressed to find any examples. There are cases in which conservative adolescents conduct research on issues of their choice and scholars support them. But in those cases, the scholars’ focus is usually on the kids and their learning, not the issue that the students have chosen to address.

Why the dearth of conservative engaged scholarship? I can imagine five answers:

  1. It’s not missing; I just haven’t found it. Here is one program at Ashland University that might qualify, and maybe there are more.
  2. Conservatives are simply scarce in the social sciences and relevant humanities (especially in fields like public health and education, in which applied work is most common), and this scarcity explains why not many conservatives do engaged scholarship.
  3. Conservatives have found other rich veins to mine: quantitative economic modeling, Austrian School economics (which is not at all quantitative but is favorable to libertarian principles), constitutional law, and some domains of intellectual history. They’re busy there.
  4. Despite not liking government as much as (some) liberals do, conservatives are more aware of its power, including at the local level. Therefore, they are skeptical that working with a local nonprofit on a research study will make nearly as much difference as, say, running for office or advocating ideas that win elections.
  5. Principled conservatives haven’t yet figured out that they should embrace engaged scholarship. They should develop experience and exemplary cases that strengthen conservative voices in engaged scholarship.

I hope that the last point is true, because it would be good for the gatherings and networks of engaged scholars if they included more conservative concerns, populations, and thinkers.

See also: America’s authentic conservative movement; the left has become Burkean; ideology in academia and elsewhere; trying to keep myself honest; scholarship on engaged scholarship; engaged political science; loyalty in intellectual work; the state humanities councils, connecting the public to scholarship;