Sunday, June 14, 2015

Summer Reading Series - Ryan Craig's College Disrupted

by Julia Colyar, Council of Ontario Universities

Too often these days, I start my mornings with a cup of coffee and a negative news story about universities. Yesterday it was a critique of paper topics at a humanities and social sciences conference. The journalist (Margaret Wente, “Adventures in Academia: The stuff of fiction,” The Globe and Mail, June 2, 2015) wondered what Northrop Frye might think of a paper entitled “Whiteness, Nihilism and Class in Grand Theft Auto V.” Ultimately, her assessment turns to the familiar topic of the payoff of university studies:

Not all humanities and social-science scholarship is this bad. But it’s no wonder that the aspirational children of new Canadians are flocking into business, science, pharmacy, accounting, and other practical studies that will pay off in a good career. They have no time for this rubbish. 

The rest of the article can be found here: No doubt Wente would point to a decline in enrollment in arts and humanities programs as evidence of “not having time for this rubbish.” Indeed, though enrollment in Ontario universities has climbed in recent years, enrollment in arts and humanities degree programs has decreased by about 5%. This “crisis in the humanities” has been a topic of interest across North America for a number of years.

I’m not sure the humanities are in crisis—I think it depends on who you ask and where she or he is located (institution, discipline)—but I do think the public discourse related to “practical studies” and “university studies” is troubling. Ryan Craig (2015), in his recent book College Disrupted, wonders: “Will degrees become as impractical and amusing as debutantes?” (p. 98). Craig is concerned about returns on investment, among other things. He argues that a university education is increasingly unaffordable and without clear knowledge and skills outcomes. Part of the high cost of university education, he argues, is that institutions have bundled too many non-education expenses into their budgets—expenses like campus buildings, dining facilities, athletics, research and a growing number of administrators. Academic content is, to some extent, also bundled. Craig notes that “the content bundle includes remedial course work, general education courses and advanced courses in the major” (p. 99). Taken together, content and functions are paid for by (too-high) tuition and fees. Unbundling is similar to shopping for music on itunes: a consumer can buy a song rather than the whole album. Craig believes an equivalent arrangement is not only a good idea for universities but an inevitable future.

Unbundling detaches “all the things universities have taken on that don’t relate to student outcomes” (p. 99). Unbundling will decrease costs for students (and institutions), improve outcomes, and better prepare graduates for jobs. As part of unbundling, Craig advocates for more online courses and programs, competency management platforms (which allow students to map expeditious pathways into their job choices), and double-click degrees (“a degree that is accompanied by a transcript that an employer can double-click on to learn a lot more about the course and the competencies the student has demonstrated” (p. 115). In sum, Craig argues, “colleges and universities need to prepare to satisfy students who are increasingly looking for proof of the return on their tuition investments, or how their programs connect to jobs and income” (p. 119).

There is a lot more in College Disrupted to think about. His early chapters—before turning to the unbundling part—include important points about costs to students and families, online teaching and learning opportunities, student debt, and the problem of graduation rates. Because I am interested in student access, and in particular access for students from low-income backgrounds, I read the first few chapters with great interest. It is certainly worth thinking about how increasing access to college has not necessarily happened in parallel with increasing graduation rates at US institutions.

However, unbundling, as Craig presents it, is built on the foundation of instrumentalism and an insistence on direct connections between degrees and jobs. Unbundling would rid a university education of “all the rubbish.” I wouldn’t argue against degrees as stepping stones to employment success, but I don’t think the link should be, or needs to be, that overt. A degree is bundled. A degree includes breadth and depth experiences. A degree provides learning experiences that are hard to measure and likely include career preparation, not just job placement. It seems worth noting that degrees, in name, literally signal broad experiences: students earn bachelor of arts or science degrees (among other degree types), not bachelor of History or bachelor of Chemistry degrees.

Universities are also bundled, though not all students participate in each of the elements. What is perhaps most interesting about Craig’s book is the ways he critiques the expensive “extras” universities now offer, but also identifies them as valuable parts of his own undergraduate career. His discussion is replete with co-curricular tales of his years at Yale, including the tidbit that he met his wife in a first year literature course. A bundled experience was good for him, I guess, but isn’t necessary for students today.

Craig and Wente’s focus on job outcomes for graduates, and their various critiques of the ways in which universities mis-educate students and over-charge, is certainly not new. The public discourse about rising costs and graduates working at Starbucks has been around for many years. It seems these kinds of presentations are challenging to respond to. And though I disagree with the idea of unbundling (as well as the ascendency of “practical studies”), I appreciate the questions both Craig and Wente raise. Craig asks: “Which of these items [the content bundle, admissions, research, facilities management, housing, health care, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement] should be at the core of a university?” (p. 100). Wente wonders: “I wonder what Northrop Frye would make of modern English studies?” Both questions seem like something university community members might talk about.

Craig, R. (2015). College Disrupted: The great unbundling of higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wente, M. (2015, June 2). Adventures in Academia: The stuff of fiction. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from :

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