Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 7, “Pyramids”

Revolution in Higher Education, coverContinuing with our reading of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisher; Amazon): this week we’re discussing chapter 7, simply entitled “Pyramids”.

Here DeMillo explores different forms of academic hierarchy, from inter-institutional status competition to accreditation and ranking systems.

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 This is not a dispassionate account, as the author clearly abhors elitism and the pyramid.  “The academy hierarchy is held together by the veneration of outward symbols of status [and] slavish adoption of bureaucracies” (3038).  “[I]nstitutions have grown protective armor.  It is this armor that will be removed if the Revolution succeeds.

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” (3046)

This chapter voyages into history several times in order to trace the academic pyramid, with raids on the Carnegie classification system, the rise of the research-I university, Clark Kerr‘s work with the California higher ed system, and the 20th-century dominance of the PhD for full-time faculty.

There’s an interesting criticism of online learning in this context, as DeMillo damns institutions for offering distance learning programs instead of changing up their strategy and operations.  Why?  “[I]t did allow existing institutions to continue operating much as they had before, forever climbing a hierarchy that they no longer understood…” (3205)  Can’t we apply this critique to MOOCs, especially the elite-heavy edX group?

“Pyramids” also criticizes accreditation, finding regional authorities organizing a great deal of activity for, at best, “assuring minimal standards” (3274) rather than encouraging actual institutional transformation.  Worse, “[i]t is hard to argue that accreditors’ interventions actually improve quality when there appear to be no minimum standards.” (3292)  Only quality enhancement plans (QEPs) have hope for supporting actual improvements (3292ff).

In this chapter DeMillo focuses on one of the book’s major themes, setting access against elitism.

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 For him the elaborate structure of the academic pyramid wastes energy and strategy.  Ultimately it’s a waste for a large majority of students, in the chapter’s ringing conclusion:

Climbing pyramids might be important, but [one authority] is more concerned with the 80 percent of all college students who want a more direct path to a better job or higher salary. So are… other innovators who are convinced that the excesses of accreditation, rankings, and incessant homogenization…. are the root cause of widespread dissatisfaction with higher education, and constitute the rationale for change.(3392-99)

Miscellaneous notes:

  • DeMillo makes an intriguing argument that post-Carnegie academia has become more homogeneous, with institutions developing tendencies drawn from others (3361).
  • Interesting to see a bad bit of forecasting circa 1970, from Carnegie and Kerr: “They had projected that under the most aggressive scenario, US college enrollments would at most double by the year 2000.  In reality, enrollments increased by a factor of four.” (3146)
  • There’s a weird bit about the author finding it “alarming” that students would “commut[e] many miles” to and from campus. (3188)

What do you make of it?

Next week, starting December 21st, is chapter 8: Rankings.  That sounds like it’ll cover very similar ground.

Would you like to follow along?  Simply snag a copy of the book from your library or MIT Press or the local bookshop or Amazon (etc.), and get reading.  I’ll post about each chapter at the start of each week, so you can add comments there.

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 I’ve set up a tag for all posts: demillorevolution.  Twitter’s also a fine place to chat (I’m @BryanAlexander).  If you’re into Goodreads, let us know so we can catch up (here’s me).

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