Wednesday’s Book Review: “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education”

Anya-Kamenetz-DIYUDIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. By Anya Kamenetz. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010.

For anyone even remotely cognizant of the economics and the politics of higher education, it is obvious that this venerable bulwark of modern American society is in crisis. Rising costs, escalating at rates well above the rise in annual inflation, as well as depressed capabilities all suggest that major changes must take place or the system will collapse. So what will happen? Author Anya Kamenetz, who gained acclaim for the path-breaking Generation Debt study of student loans and what they do to young people, focuses in DIY U. The result is a powerfully evocative and devastating indictment of the high education industry in the United States.

The beginning point of the discussion is that higher education as traditionally envisioned in the United States, the four-year college degree, is fast becoming too expensive for the majority of those seeking it. The result is massive debt that weighs down the graduate for decades after completion of a degree. That, coupled with the failure of many graduates to find employment that will enable them to pay off these debts, prompts Kamenetz to conclude that student debt is the next great bubble that will burst in the future to drag down the nation’s economy. This has led to efforts to reduce the costs of education, and there has been a lot of innovation in this arena. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Kamenetz finds that professors’ salaries are not the primary driver of the increase in costs, it is the rise of (1) staff who never enter classrooms, and in (2) services and activities ancillary to the educational enterprise.

Kamenetz suggests that there are four major trends in place that will force change to the system as currently constructed: (1) “The 80/20 Rule,” concerning the 80 percent of institutions that are open to virtually all students, especially nontraditional ones, which will see astounding growth in the next few years and must emphasize delivering good value education. This does not mean the end of the major research university, but there will probably be fewer of them in the future and the emphasis on education in them will be enhanced. (2) “The Great Unbundling” of the various parts of colleges and universities to separate social from educational from sports aspects of the traditional institution of higher learning. Increasingly, education will be the emphasis while students will gain the other aspects of their lives through non-educational entities. (3) “Techno-hybridization” will be carried even further as students gain through the employment of both technology-assisted and classroom learning. (4) “Personal Learning Networks and Paths” that offer a more individually structured learning approaches.

So far, so good. Kamenetz then offers individual chapters on these major issues. She takes a decidedly journalistic approach to this, traveling to meet with and talk to various educators who are making efforts to reform the educational system. She talks with BYU-Idaho official Clark Gilbert, who has pioneered innovative teaching approaches. She also talks with University of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwin to streamline administration and reduce student costs. These various efforts, not broadly coordinated and without overarching strategy, have made important reforms to individual educational institutions. Kamenetz believes these, and many others innovated in other places, will combine to create a new approach to high education that will eventually affect most of the institutions that deliver these services in the United States.

The author concludes with what she thinks is a given for the future. “The promise of free or marginal-cost, open source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore,” she comments (p. 130). In addition, “In order to short-circuit the cost spiral, and provide access to appropriate education and training for people of all backgrounds, there is much hard work to be done in the way schools are funded and accreditation and transfer policies are set” (p. 131). Finally, she contends, “The one thing that can change dramatically and relatively swiftly is the public perception of where the true value and quality of higher education lies” (p. 131). Kamenetz finds that society’s commitment to the four-year college degree is waning and other types of education, experience, and background are supplanting it.

These reforms will not quash the current system of education in the U.S., but they will force its change and improve the overall educational product. For Anya Kamenetz these changes cannot come too soon. For many in the education industry these changes also cannot come too soon. For the forces of tradition, many of whom are in the professoriate, these changes seem foreboding and will be accomplished only with difficulty.

While DIY U is a useful overview of the current crisis of higher education, it offers little in the way of a prescription for how to deal with these issues. Kamenetz instead offers an evolutionary biology perspective to the problem. She believes change will come in fits and starts; the process will be dominated by the need to evolve or die. I find this less than satisfying, a little like the “hidden hand” of Adam Smithian economics or any other type of “magical” alteration. I think the first part of the book, outlining the problems, is quite good, but the latter part stumbles.

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2 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education”

  1. Guillaume says:

    All I can offer is points that illustrate what she writes, and which you nicely summarized.

    The situation is already changing faster than we at four-year outfits can adjust to. Middles States, the College association that accredits the mid-Atlantic institutions, already requires that we accept transfer credit for courses taken on-line. We are allowed to reject these for major completion, but not gen ed distribution credit.

    Between that and outcomes assessment (Ed Sec Spellings’ “baby”) which is a kind of ISO model of customer service, it becomes harder to say with a straight face that students are not buying their degrees, but only the right to study for these.

    The route several of us are taking is to emphasize the “personal touch” dimension as a way to show why it matters to have a flesh-and-blood feedback as opposed to online or video-recorded instruction. It does mean putting in 60-hour weeks (for example by answering email late at night). And as you note, the ancillary costs to establish a “home away from home” are insane. Full counseling staff (very much needed actually) that includes palliative reviewing for students with disabilities, sports facilities nicer than private clubs, wired dorms, etc…

    Sadly, this is a losing battle for any of us in the third tier rankings, unless we can improve the financial aid packages, but big donors often want their names on buildings or sports teams, not in award programs. The paradox is that higher-ranked four-year colleges will survive, and we will be back to a multi-level type of degree. A BA from Haverford in person would still be ranked higher than a BA from Phoenix online. But what about Hopkins the hard way vs. Hopkins at night or online?

    Here is yet another paradox: we did it to ourselves. For years, continuing education programs (the old “evening division” unit back in the 80s and 90s) became the cash cow many colleges put up to respond to U Phoenix et al. In fact, it funds the day program (the “regular” study system).

    Solutions abound, but they are often band-aid types, because we are not in a cocoon. Even if the economy improves, fewer teens have the ability to attend college (especially boys–another demographic catastrophe.) because their high schools faced substantial cut-backs and only teach to the test. Redirecting small colleges’ efforts towards the local community (i.e. becoming true pillars rather than limited job mills for the local working class) has a long-term impact on donors if this is a depressed region, and affects the Carnegie classification of colleges (far more complex than the US News bit, but important.) I’ll stop here. It’s a headache, and that’s why some of us seasoned faculty prefer to go back into the classroom instead of going to deanships. True, we thus leave the field to people who have never taught and have other priorities than enlightening, At least in front of a black board, we know what challenges we are facing….


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