Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Higher Education

I sometimes wonder how I managed to become as educated as I am, despite my geographical origins. I was born in Peace River, Alberta which is at the 56th latitude north, a location shared by such places as Riga, Dundee and Yekaterinburg. For much of my youth we lived in a place so isolated that I could walk out the back door and encounter no trace of human occupation for a hundred miles or so. What made the difference for me was my family's move to Vancouver Island in the mid-60s which made it possible for me to attend a real university after I graduated from high school. I owe a great deal to the liberal admission policies of the University of Victoria for they decided, solely on the basis of my maturity--after high school I spent a couple of years working at menial jobs so I was twenty years old when I applied--and a high school transcript that averaged around 53%. I doubt I would get admitted anywhere these days!

I loved university and had an A minus average over my undergraduate years. I transferred to McGill for the latter part of my studies and they generously admitted me even though they had a few doubts about the University of Victoria's standards. But the trick at McGill was not to get admitted, but to graduate! In my Concert Diploma studies I noticed that students in that program and in the master's degree in performance had a high failure rate. In both these programs you had to give public recitals that were marked by a jury of professors. About 50% failed and had to go before a committee to explain why they should be given a second chance. Tough, but that is how it goes in the performing arts. McGill is not too hard to enter, but a lot tougher to get out of with a degree.

This is all inspired by a column in the New York Times by David Brooks in which he reveals some disquieting trends:
Over the past generation, members of the college-educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks. 
Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently published a book called “Dream Hoarders” detailing some of the structural ways the well educated rig the system.
The most important is residential zoning restrictions. Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.
These rules have a devastating effect on economic growth nationwide. Research by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti suggests that zoning restrictions in the nation’s 220 top metro areas lowered aggregate U.S. growth by more than 50 percent from 1964 to 2009. The restrictions also have a crucial role in widening inequality. An analysis by Jonathan Rothwell finds that if the most restrictive cities became like the least restrictive, the inequality between different neighborhoods would be cut in half. 
Reeves’s second structural barrier is the college admissions game. Educated parents live in neighborhoods with the best teachers, they top off their local public school budgets and they benefit from legacy admissions rules, from admissions criteria that reward kids who grow up with lots of enriching travel and from unpaid internships that lead to jobs.
From what I have been reading in other places lately, once you are in one of these colleges, they are so indulgent to the students that you really have no worries about graduating. The average mark in many places is an A. Studies have shown that there is little or no improvement in critical thinking after four years of college. Students are afforded luxury accommodations and  "safe spaces" that shield them from contrary opinions. Indeed, as long as you are careful to parrot all of your professor's ideological positions, you are guaranteed a high mark! Exceptions, of course, for the hard sciences and for music schools that still follow the traditional curriculum.

On the whole, I think that the approach McGill favored, easy admission and difficult graduation, is far superior to the current one: admission so difficult that only the well-connected can manage it, followed by a perfunctory education and guaranteed graduation.

For our envoi, let's listen to a performance from the McGill School of Music.


Anonymous said...

The easy-admission/difficult-graduation model only works for state schools that don't mind spending taxpayer's money. McGill is essentially free for Quebec residents (Harvard's tuition is 20 times bigger!) Why should the government subsidize college dropouts?

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very interesting perspective! I'm not a dropout, at least not from the Bachelors and Concert Diploma programs. I have both those degrees. So I guess the appropriate response would be, why should the government subsidize programs that only let in the well-connected and don't give them much of an education? Or am I missing something?

McGill isn't free, but it sure is cheap!

Will Wilkin said...

I have a smart friend who graduated McGill then got doctorate at Oxford. Yale School of Music is free to anyone who gets in, and they cannot fake or privilege their way through, the musicians there are plainly among the best! Thomas Friedman's latest book, Thanks For Being Late, discusses the relative obsolescence of college/university for many careers, and even collected info on free sources of technical education that qualify for good jobs anybody who completes the trainings. So many college graduates are buried in debt and either unemployed or in a miserable cubicle --I tell my son go to community college cheap, get all your basic courses there, and don't even think about an expensive school unless you show me a serious career plan that requires it.

Anonymous said...

I was not talking about your own education. You stated your preference for the easy-admission/hard-graduation model like the one McGill favored. This implies a high dropout rate. So my question is, Why should the state subsidize college dropouts? Why shouldn't it, instead, screen carefully at admission time so that its subsidies don't get wasted on students who never graduate?

I understand you're trying to make a pro-government case. You tell us that, without the helpful governments of BC and Quebec, you would have been uneducated. You've done very well and you're the poster child of big government. I get that and I support that. I think it's a good use of taxpayer's money to help citizens from every background achieve their potential. What I don't understand is why you would also support state subsidies for unmotivated students who are not college material. To me that's socialism run amok. Why are you supporting it?

Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous, that is a very good point. Philosophically I am more of a libertarian than a supporter of big government, so your critique may have uncovered a serious inconsistency! More proof that we arrive at the truth, or close to it, by debate.

No, really not trying to make a pro-government case, not consciously. Let me try and sort this out. One's own biography can be a barrier to understanding, it seems. Yes, hefty state subsidies for unmotivated students who are not college material seem a poor investment. It turns out that I was not so unmotivated, as my academic career was fairly good. So I guess the question is, how can the admissions officers make a valid judgement. In my case, there was little to show that I would become a good scholar until I actually got to university, when my intellectual life took off. To what extent does performance in a high school environment reveal university potential? Are there statistics on that? The case of a friend of mine comes to mind. He and I went through high school together and he was a high-achiever while I pretty much hated it. He went on to university and flunked out of first year. He tried twice more at different institutions with the same result. I worked for a couple of years then went to university and did very well. Our high school records were contra-indicative of our college performance. So how do admissions officers take that into account?