Arthur Brooks is Wrong on Cheaper Higher Ed

American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times defending online higher education by appealing to his own experience with distance-learning and correspondence schools. As a nontraditional student, he enrolled in Thomas Edison State College, a distance learning university, and he also received college credits through correspondence schools. As a result of his hard work and initiative, he received a B.A. without stepping foot onto a college campus and paying a fraction of what students at “brick-and-mortar” colleges fork over every year.

Brooks has led an interesting life. His parents were academics. He spent his early life working as a professional musician and, later, a music teacher at a college conservatory. He left music, cobbled together a bachelor’s degree of his own design, and then moved into more conventional education for his graduate work in behavioral economics.

Presumably, Brooks learned in his graduate education the importance of generalizing from too small or self-selected sample. Too small a sample increases the possibility of erroneous results, while a self-selected sample suffers from being unrepresentative of those with an equal chance of selection. Yet Brooks commits both errors in extremis. He is his self-selected sample of one, specifically the sample with the highest degree of error and most likely to be unrepresentative of the broader reality. Brooks is not a typical result but the exception.

Brooks grew up in an academic home, practiced the fine arts, and acquired adult skill sets necessary to organize, participate, and succeed in an otherwise very difficult learning environment. Most nontraditional students are not so well situated. What do we know about these students? Well, mostly nothing. What little we do know is that what Brooks accomplished is uncommon because the situation is far more complex than he makes it out to be. Brooks should know that he was on the very extreme of the right tail of the bell curve, when X = Upbringing + Skill sets + Exposure to Academic Life. Most nontraditional students work full or part-time jobs, raising a family (often on their own), come from academically modest homes, and lack the intellectual foundations for academic work. Worse, they are usually unfamiliar with the academic system, since they do not have regular contact with all the norms and practices someone raised in an academic home might take for granted.

Since nontraditional students will struggle in these courses, the universities will feel pressured to reduce standards for students in order to meet bottom-lines. Additionally, they will enroll new students just as unlikely to finish in order to replace the ones who dropped out. In other words, Brooks inadvertently advocates debasing the B.A. as a signal into an arbitrary transaction. The B.A. simply means that a person paid $10,000 and four years of their life to open up job opportunities, not that a student spent hours a week engaging in difficult intellectual work, thus securing both personal discipline and a maturing perspective of the world. 

James Patterson

James Patterson is a visiting assistant professor at Duke.

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