There is the old story of the frog and the scorpion. It goes like this. There is a wide river and the scorpion, needing to cross to the other side but not knowing how to swim approaches a very hesitant frog.
Will you let me ride on your head as you cross this river?” asks the scorpion. “But why, Mr. Scorpion, should I trust that you won’t sting me when we get to the other side?” asked the frog. “Because”, said the scorpion, I give you my word and also, if there are threats en route, I can scare them away, assuring your safe passage”.
The frog agreed, with some trepidation, to carry the scorpion and they set out. Once or twice along the way, they were approached by a fish or a diving bird of prey, but in both cases the scorpion scared them away. Eventually they neared the other side of the river and, as the frog carried the scorpion out of the water, the scorpion jumped down and promptly stung the frog. Mortally wounded, the frog moaned, “Why did you sting me? We had an agreement.” And the scorpion replied, “Because that’s what scorpions do.”
Granted, the imagery may be a little extreme. But I see that “frog” of higher education being seduced and then stung by the twin foes of performance distortion and academic tradition. This is happening exactly when higher education needs to break free of the damaging aspects of tradition and develop new forms to educate the learners on the 21st century in the numbers, at the levels, and at a price that society and individuals can afford.
In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education innovation section, Richard Vedder blogs about the “scandal” of having between 40-50% of all Pell recipients graduate. And he opines that the more Pell recipients there are in an institution, the lower the graduation rate, thus blithely skipping by a) the whole reason Pell grants were instituted (to provide financial support to poor students needing financial grant assistance) and b) the known fact that children (and adults) from more affluent families do better and receive higher allocations of resources in higher education than those who are 1st generation college-goers. Furthermore, he ignores the important fact that even some success in higher education without the award of a degree is better than none at all when it comes to economic participation in the society.
In last week’s blog post, I discussed at some length the emerging data on what tuition really pays for and the “back room” economics of higher educational institutions that bear, in too many cases, little connection to the actual costs of teaching.
In this case, the “scorpion’s bite” lies in the law of unintended consequences. The tack that Vedder has taken in his recent blog, and the drag of the traditional higher education economic model on the need to provide higher quality, lower cost learning opportunities, is that each points the country, its quality of civic and social life, and its workforce in the wrong direction, towards 2nd class citizenship in an increasingly global and information-driven economy. Even as it is unintended, this sting is, ultimately, just as problematic.
The conversation we need is about quality, effectiveness, and efficiency. Currently that conversation being driven by, among others, the Gates Foundation with its work in metrics and the Lumina foundation with its Degree Qualifications framework organized around learning outcomes. When those conversations can be merged with the power of the Open Education Resource movement and emerging socially net-worked support services, we will be on a revolutionary cusp of a new education age. Our focus must be forward and upward to success for many more learners with the capacity to succeed.