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Tear Down The Walls
College in the Digital Age
Hal Plotkin
Monday, August 31, 1998

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/1998/08/31/digitaleduc.DTL

No one could believe it when our high-school buddy, Chip (not his real name) -- easily the most-talented member of our graduating class -- was rejected by the college of his choice. Chip was a brilliant artist and witty writer, our student body president -- the guy we went to when we didn't understand a lecture, a math formula, or an assignment.

On the day Chip got his rejection letter, I went home and ripped up my application to the same school. I didn't want to apply to a university that had so capriciously rejected a person of such great promise. To mangle Groucho Marx, I didn't want to belong to any club that might want me, but not my friend.

Back then, a top-notch higher education was, by necessity, a very limited commodity. Today, off-the-shelf technology has the power to change all that. I'm not talking about pie-in-the-sky devices yet to be invented. I'm talking about the kind of teleconferencing products that will be on exhibit at the Telecon trade show this fall, much of which has been around for years.

Unfortunately, thanks to the disinterest of federal, state, and academic policy makers, distance learning remains largely an industry that is all dressed up with no place to go. A few colleges and universities are, to be sure, making limited use of these technologies and offering some online degrees. But the progress has been painfully slow, with the higher education system still excluding more people than it includes.

Twenty years ago, when Chip and I were applying to college, slots at the best schools were highly coveted, leading to an autocratic testing and admissions bureaucracy that rivals anything ever created by the likes of former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. As scholar Lani Guinier and others have repeatedly pointed out, the tests used to help determine who gets into college are fatally flawed.

Students can increase their SAT scores, for example, if they or -- more likely -- their parents, can pony up for the pricey prep lessons now widely available. Meanwhile, students from poorer districts; or those who had the misfortune to study under incompetent teachers; or students whom, like Chip, had to work while in school, are often tested on specific facts and knowledge that they never had a fair opportunity to learn.

More recently, some colleges have added other factors, such as self-reports of personal hardships, to their admissions procedures. While well-intentioned, this only makes admissions judgments even more a function of chance and happenstance. The applicant who does the best job of conveying a wrenching life history might win admission over someone who, in fact, faced bigger challenges. It is a process that is, at best, arbitrary and subjective.

As a result, the procedures used to determine who gets into a given college, and who does not, teach a lesson in exclusion that undermines everything else the professors might cover. The societal consequences of this system are even more telling than the problems created for students. It's little wonder, for example, that our policy makers -- most of whom were deemed worthy of receiving a good college education -- don't really understand why there are so many homeless on our streets. If you tell some people they are better than others, they eventually start believing it.

The defenders of this archaic system, social Darwinists at heart, tell us they must be very selective, and keep total enrollment capped, in order to maintain high standards. Administrators at top colleges, and their admissions officers in particular, claim the measures used to determine who gets into college accurately predict who will graduate. But, as Guinier discovered when she looked at the numbers, the very best predictor of who will actually finish college is family wealth.

If the current admissions system does exist merely to determine who stands the best chance of making it to graduation, we could save a big pile of money by simply admitting students after weighing the wallets and pocketbooks of their parents. In place of this more honest policy, we rely on a system that fabricates pseudoscientific rationales for the exclusion of otherwise deserving students.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Coupled with the Internet, currently available distance-learning technologies have the power to bring Harvard to every street corner, Stanford to every ghetto, and MIT to every barrio. Since most of the professors at these schools already have little personal contact with their students, distance-learning solutions come very close to replicating the current on-campus experience.

Assisted by a new dispersed and, for once, fairly paid, network of graduate teaching assistants, we could, right now, create an American virtual-university system for the next century that is as revolutionary as the now-outdated model was when it was fashioned in the last century. Already, the Internet is beginning to bring together some of the knowledge base that makes a more accessible new system of higher education possible.

With an inexpensive Internet terminal, students could use teleconferencing technologies to attend classes, see and be seen by instructors on a delayed basis or in real time; ask questions online; form small virtual study groups and interact with classmates and tutors; and submit papers and reports. Exams could be held at local testing centers. The same cable TV lines that now carry endless beer commercials into homes across the nation could instead bring students lectures on everything from anthropology to zoology.

What's more, the economies of scale created when 10,000 people attend a class instead of 200 allow substantial reductions in cost per student and could help subsidize the purchase or lending of the inexpensive equipment required. Knowledge is not a limited commodity that, once shared, is depleted. It's like software: you can give it away -- and still have it to give to someone else.

When networking equipment-maker Cisco Systems, Inc. put its knowledge base online to help educate customers, vendors, and partners, the company saved more than $200 million dollars a year while simultaneously increasing customer satisfaction. It's hard to imagine how much could be saved, and how many more educational opportunities could be provided, if academicians would simply follow Cisco's lead.

However, rather than seize this moment of incredible opportunity, our federal and state policy makers continue to pump billions of dollars, more than $105 billion last year alone, into a higher-education system designed for a reality that no longer exists. Led by our almost invisible Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, an ivory-tower infestation in Washington and Sacramento is intent on preserving the old exclusionary model of higher education without ever stopping to consider how available technology alters what is possible.

Someone has to get these folks to spend some time in Silicon Valley, where we now have the teleconferencing and software tools that can provide every willing student online access to the very best schools of higher education, the very best professors, and the most compelling curricula.

You want more doctors (which, by the way, the AMA does not)? We can help more people become doctors. You want computer programmers? We can grow more computer programmers. All we need to do is tear down the walls of today's colleges and universities and liberate the knowledge, created largely with taxpayer funds, that is currently shared with only a chosen few.

When the government began doling out millions of dollars to institutions of higher education after World War II, it represented our nation's best hope for producing an educated society, with all its attendant benefits. The colleges who won that support were like the lifeboats on the Titanic -- able to save some, but not all. Today, we don't have to throw millions overboard anymore. But we do have to throw our current exclusionary system of higher education overboard.

We can't count on the schools to reform themselves. The turf-guarding bureaucrats who run our colleges and universities are unlikely to voluntarily change the structure of a system that serves them, but not us, so well. No group within academe has become more encrusted with privilege than the administrative aristocracy.

The average university president, for example, routinely enjoys a presidential mansion, personal cooks, and salaries well in excess of $200,000 per year. That might be OK if these were the moral and intellectual leaders of our day. But clearly, they are not. Quick, can you even name three of them? How about two? And yet, universities continue to raise presidential salaries, escalating a bidding war that robs ordinary people of the resources needed to attend college. The rationale, of course, is that good college presidents raise more money than they cost.

That might make sense were it not for the endowment schemes in place at these institutions that minimize the real-world impact of money raised by even the most-effective college president. Under current practices, colleges build endowments, not student ranks. These cash hoards, which exceeded $75 billion dollars in the U.S. last year, continue to grow without any requirement that the institutions receiving the tax-deductible funds use the money to increase the number of students served. The students are useful on the college fundraising brochures, of course, but when it comes to actually spending the money they get in the way.

Instead, endowment funds are invested in real estate, oil and gas leases, and stocks and bonds, where they build financial security for the universities. Who can possibly defend a system where there is no relationship between how much money is put in and how many educational opportunities are created?

We can give the colleges all the money we have and in return, administrators seeking to protect the status quo will design some kind of test or process that rationalizes their unwillingness to more freely share knowledge with the people, average taxpayers, who have actually paid most of the bills.

Meanwhile, thousands of accomplished individuals have already discovered they can get along just fine without a degree from an elite college. Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, and Matt Damon are just a few of the people who opted out of the higher-education system, as did my high school friend Chip, the author of several successful novels, who now divides his time between homes in California and Europe.

Maybe, when the day of reckoning finally does come for academic administrators, college presidents, and admission's officers, and they stand nervously before the pearly gates, an undereducated angel will hand them all a blue-book essay question: "Why did you use the talents God gave you to exclude eager students rather than use available tools to increase the number of opportunities you could provide?"

As they stumble around formulating some kind of inept sesquipedalian response, the heavenly gatekeeper will likely do the only thing she can do to maintain high standards: Put them all on the waiting list.




Hal Plotkin

Silicon Valley writer and broadcaster Hal Plotkin earned degrees from Foothill Community College and San Jose State University. He has nothing against people who went to Ivy League colleges. He just doesn't want them running the country.
hplotkin@plotkin.com

 

     

 

 

 

 

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