A Dark Side to Residential Education: Sexual Violence

College is ideally a time for exploration and growth–intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.  This is particularly true for traditionally aged students who leave their teens and move toward adulthood during their college years.  For parents and educators there is little more satisfying than to observe the maturation, growth  and blossoming of a young person.  Conversely, for those of us who care deeply about the young women and men who come to our colleges seeking that magical transformative experience, there is little more painful than to see young and immature students make bad decisions that hurt themselves and sometimes others in ways that damage their college careers and even harm their life prospects.

Among the most challenging and painful behaviors on college campus surround sexual violence.  Issues of sexual violence have been in the press recently and even the White House has weighed in on the basis of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  Title IX is most well-known for outlawing discrimination in athletics, but it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all educational programs receiving federal support. The Department of Education has offered guidance on more than one occasion to colleges and universities about how to comply with Title IX guidelines regarding sexual violence.

Sexual violence, particularly date or acquaintance rape, is not a new issue on college campuses.  Wherever young people and alcohol mix, the potential for unwanted sexual activity exists, but in recent years the issue has been given increasing prominence as colleges recognize that the issue has not been given the attention that it deserves and victims’ rights advocates have pressed for more aggressive enforcement of campus policies and laws.  An alum from the early 1980s at Saint John’s, expressing a common sentiment at all institutions from that era, recently said, “I don’t recall this being an issue on campus when I was in college.”  Today it would be the rare graduate of any college or university that could express a similar sentiment.

Each case of sexual violence is painful for the victim, typically has much collateral damage and presents significant challenges for college administrators and student advocates trying to balance protection and support for victims, due process for alleged assailants, and some measure of justice for all.  The adjudication of cases is made all the more complicated because the parties in a case often know each other and live in a small community where many others know and have relationships with those involved.  A long recent New York Times article highlighted the many challenges cases of sexual violence present.  The news story described focuses on a single institution and single case, but could have occurred at almost any of the 2200+ four-year undergraduate institutions in the United States (and probably many other institutions around the world).

Among the issues these cases raise:

  1. The Standard of Justice.  Schools are in a difficult situation as they adjudicate cases in which the student handbook and community standards are being violated yet at the same time there may be a criminal violation, even a felony.  As the New York Times story notes, schools are trying to balance support for victims and due process for alleged perpetrators.  On-campus procedures and hearings, even with good intentions and administered well, can leave all parties feeling victimized and have inevitably brought lawyers into these on-campus cases.  Some have argued that the proper solution is to treat each case as a legal case and let the courts adjudicate.  Others have noted that this model would likely change the standard of evidence from “preponderance of the evidence,” as is used in most on campus procedures, to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as is used in criminal cases.  How would this change balance justice, compassion and education?  Would it lead to fewer cases being brought?  Would it lead to more or less sexual violence?
  2. Alcohol Use.  Almost every case of sexual violence involves the use of alcohol by either the victim or the alleged perpetrator and, most often, both.  Alcohol is a fact of life on most college campuses, and even those purportedly dry campuses typically just push alcohol use underground or off campus.  It is incumbent for college administrators, especially those in student life, to monitor alcohol use by students to try to protect young people from their own worst impulses, but it is also unrealistic to think we could return to the time of in loco parentis where colleges played to role of surrogate parents.  One suggestion is to lower the drinking age back to 18 to allow more direct oversight of alcohol use on campus and possibly decrease the instances of binge drinking. Again this suggestion raises questions.  Would alcohol consumption decrease if it were legally available?  How would the link between alcohol consumption and sexual violence be affected?
  3. Education.  One response of almost every school to these challenges has been to increase the educational activity around alcohol and sexual violence.  Orientation for first year students almost always includes a presentation about alcohol, sexual violence, community standards and expectations of students.  While no panacea, it is a move in the right direction from the era when these issues were rarely if ever discussed.  Of course many young people will still choose to drink and may consume beyond the point where they can make well-considered choices.  In such circumstances these educational programs are not likely to be remembered, but when all students are required to consider these issues, bystanders and friends in small, tight-knit communities may well intervene to prevent sexual violence.  (See for example some of the materials used at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University) .   It is here that the nature of college communities can be used to protect young people who may not be in a position to protect themselves.
  4.  College Culture.  A recent New York Times editorial and Atlantic cover story  noted that college culture can contribute to sexual violence.  Fraternities and big time college athletics are among the influences criticized for the “misogynistic excesses” sometimes seen on campuses.  Ross Douthat in the Times even suggested that “colleges could embrace a more limited version of the old ‘parietal’ system, in which they separated the sexes and supervised social life,” a 21st century version of in loco parentis.

Conversations about sexual violence are active among college administrators, conversations that were not part of their jobs a generation ago.  There is no silver bullet that will end sexual violence on campus.  The current focus on education and encouraging bystanders and friends to help protect the vulnerable by thoughtfully enforcing well-known community standards is probably the most hopeful course and is part of the national conversation.

Over time, and with continual reinforcement, college communities can change their cultures and make the residential experience the positive, transformational educational experience we would hope for all of our students.

Starbucks and MOOCs: A Natural Experiment

starbucksMassive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have gotten lots of press in recent years.  The New York Times boldly (and foolishly) declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”

A recent Economist cover story touted the “creative destruction” they will bring.

The only problem with all this hype is that it has not only been slow to come to pass but the MOOC model has seen significant set-backs.  Student engagement and performance in MOOCs has been very disappointing and some of the early market leaders have moved away from this educational market.  Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who founded Udacity, said in a recent interview, “”We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.”

At the risk of simplifying a complicated model in the even more complicated business of higher education, MOOCs have three major challenges that have not been overcome to date:

  1.  The Quality of the Education.  As any educator or even parent knows, it takes more than just a great lecturer to provide an excellent education.  The MOOC model, at its most basic, is to get a great (and often famous) professor and a good internet connection and let the educational magic happen.  It just does not work that way.  While lots of students may sign up, very few persist in their completion of course—10% is a common number. Furthermore, those who stay in the classes do not necessarily have successful outcomes.  In something of a controlled experiment at San Jose State University, noted above, researchers found that online learners in introductory classes like statistics did less well than those in traditional classrooms.  So in terms of educational outcomes, MOOCs have a very long way to go.
  2. The Business Model.  Like the publishing industry before them, online education had struggled to make the economic model work.  Lots of courses are available, but getting individuals to pay for them is much harder.  One of the early entrants in the market, Udacity, has moved away from online courses for undergraduate in traditional academic disciplines “in favor of more vocational-focused learning.”  Even a single internet professor requires technological backup and some compensation.  It is not yet clear who will pay those costs.
  3. The Credential Problem.  The third challenge is getting the marketplace to accept the online credential.  Education is, in important ways, about signaling—a degree from Yale or Saint John’s University says something about the degree holder—intelligence, persistence, character, etc.  It is not yet clear what an online degree signals and therefore employers and grad schools are not yet willing to take a chance on the online credentialed applicant when the traditional applicant has a degree from a known entity.  This could change, but the quality of the education has to improve, as noted above, and the relative importance of the non-classroom experience has to be considered.  Even if the online classroom could perfectly replicate the residential classroom, there may still be a significant advantage to having a residential experience.  Will employers view online and residential education as close substitutes or different “products”?

Starbucks has recently announced a new employee benefit that might provide some interesting empirical evidence about the MOOC model. Starbucks has famously offered its employees health insurance for a number of years and now has added an educational plan to its generous benefits package.  As they say on their website:

Starbucks believes in the promise and pursuit of the American Dream. This fall, we’re making it possible for thousands of part- and full-time U.S. partners to complete a college degree. In a first of its kind collaboration with Arizona State University, we’re offering partners the opportunity to finish their bachelor’s degree with full tuition reimbursement. Partners may choose from 40 undergraduate degree programs through ASU’s research driven and top-ranked program, delivered online.

So Starbucks has solved challenge #2, as least for ASU, by providing many thousands of paying students to the Sun Devils’ online program.  What will be interesting to see is how the quality of the education online compares to that received by other Starbucks employees who pursue or pursued traditional bachelor’s degree, and whether the online credential will become accepted by employers in the market place.

One way to assess the quality will be to follow the career paths of these two different groups of employees.  Will online degree recipients advance as fast within the Starbucks organization as those with residential degrees?  Will outside organizations hire away online credentialed Starbucks employees as readily as those with traditional educational backgrounds?  One anomalous outcome might be the ghettoization of online bachelor’s degree holders within Starbucks.  If other firms do not readily accept the online credential, those who earned their degrees from ASU online might find the only organization who “recognizes” their bachelor’s degree is Starbucks.  You’d have a fascinating example of job lock not caused by health insurance but by “credential” immobility.

An even more troubling possibility, if online educational quality does not turn out to be as high as students and Starbucks hope, is that online degree holders might be locked into working at Starbucks but not even able to move up in that organization because their online degree is perceived as inferior even by the organization that paid for it.

All fascinating stuff for economists and other social scientists who love these kinds of natural experiments and, in this case, educators, students and the public might learn some important things about MOOCs and the future of higher education.


By |August 11th, 2014|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments

Technological Determinism in Education?

economist-coverIn a recent cover story, The Economist explores the future of higher education.  Taking their title from the famous term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter, “Creative Destruction” asserts that in higher education “a revolution has begun, thanks to three forces: rising costs, changing demand and disruptive technology. The result will be the reinvention of the university.”

This claim is not new nor are the external forces identified.  What is interesting and surprising for The Economist, normally among the most thoughtful and analytically rigorous of the major mainstream publications, is the shallow analysis of the impact of technology on education and the simplistic characterization of higher education.

On the impact of technology, the magazine focuses on the role of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and asserts, with little supporting evidence, that the mere existence of such an educational option guarantees a certain future path for education.  “By themselves, these two forces [rising costs and the demand for ongoing education throughout a lifetime] would be pushing change. A third—technology—ensures it. The internet, which has turned businesses from newspapers through music to book retailing upside down, will upend higher education.”  They ignore the challenges that MOOCs have seen both in terms of student performance at places like San Jose State University and the movement of providers like Udacity away from this educational market.  They also engage in a kind of technological determinism that would embarrass a college sophomore.  A magazine based in the home of the Industrial Revolution should be more careful and modest when making assertions about the future impacts of technology!

The weakness of their analysis comes significantly from their simplistic model of higher education.  Among the problems:

  1. Return on Investment.  They start their analysis by appropriately noting that college remains a great investment.  “For most students university remains a great deal; by one count the boost to lifetime income from obtaining a college degree, in net-present-value terms, is as much as $590,000.”  An article later in the magazine provides the details.  Yet despite the high returns, the magazine assumes that because of rising costs, students will shift to lower cost options.  That, of course, depends.  If the lower cost option is a close substitute for the higher cost option, like Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for Starbucks, many consumers may switch.  But are MOOCs good substitutes for a residential experience?  The evidence, as noted above, is not persuasive at this point.
  2. Residential Benefits.  The second weakness is to assume that education is all about the classroom or online experience.  Educators, students and parents all know that a tremendous amount of learning takes place outside the classroom—on athletic fields, in music practice rooms, working on student publications, and on and on.  This is rarely mentioned in discussions of online education.  The article makes a superficial nod to the networking benefits of a residential experience (“Ambitious people will always want to go to the best universities to meet each other.”), but completely ignores all the other benefits.  American universities probably place more emphasis on the residential experience than other institutions around the world, but Cambridge and Oxford certainly value their debating societies and crew competitions.
  3. Product DifferentiationThe Economist story tries to make generalizations about education across the world, an overly ambitious goal, and in doing so takes the large, state sponsored university as the model.  They ignore important differences across countries and within countries.  Most importantly, they ignore the significant pedagogical differences between the broader liberal arts curriculum used by the vast majority of United States institutions and the more focused and often vocational model used in the rest of the world.  The liberal arts curriculum that attempts to provide tools for learning across a lifetime may be better suited for a changing economy than a more vocational focus.  If so, the American model may be better prepared to offer students what they need in the 21st century.  Furthermore, the story largely blurs the public versus private distinction and completely ignores the small but important residential liberal arts model.  The point is to simply note that we already have a very differentiated educational system.  It is a plausible hypothesis that online education can be an additional offering to that rich menu without destroying all the other options.
  4. Flipped classroom.  Finally, The Economist ignores the possibility that current institutions will use the technology to change and improve their offerings in a way that will make them more attractive to students and potentially more cost efficient.  Most institutions of higher education are well aware of the challenges and opportunities offered by new technology and are working to use technology to improve the education they offer their students.

In the end, the future of higher education is an empirical question for which the data will be provided by the market in the years ahead.  Some think that there will be “mass bankruptcies within two decades,” as technology drives traditional institutions out of business (as found here and here ).

Others argue that the world will move to a skills and test-based university system as is currently used in the Brazilian model and is touted in the same magazine by The Economist.

I suspect that the future will offer an even richer, more differentiated array of options for students and parents to choose from—including online options for continuing education and narrowly focused topics, large public options that are less expensive than the privates, but still offer a residential experience and private, residential liberal arts schools that are expensive but viewed as worth the cost by many parents and students, as well as models that have not been dreamed up yet.

What I can say with great confidence is that the future is uncertain and those who claim to know otherwise should be viewed with skepticism.

By |August 4th, 2014|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments