College in America - The Four-Year Queue

There’s been much discussion lately around various aspects of education and policy – from AP classes to book “banning” to school choice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The single most important part of any culture is what it teaches people: the skills we teach, the attributes we mold and reward in the young, and the stories and exemplars we put forward – all the things that constitute an education. This education – whether familial, practical or classroom based – is a huge part of cultural transmission and an even bigger part of human shaping. Early experience is tremendously powerful for adaptive learners; for any task, the largest changes in our cognitive structures occur in response to early data. This magnifies the benefits of good education and the consequences of doing it poorly. Teach a child the wrong lessons, and they can spend a lifetime failing to undo them.

Modern society devotes an immense amount of time to formal classroom instruction. Most children spend their entire and very extended formative years in school – anywhere from 16 to as many as 20 or more years. Yet despite this huge investment, very little actual attention is brought to bear on the fundamental nature of this time. And when we do talk about it, we ask all the wrong questions.

Instead of asking about the content of an AP class, we should be asking why AP classes are taught at all. No school that took education seriously would have AP classes, and it’s a measure of how misguided thinking about this is that people often use the number of AP classes taught at a school as a positive correlate to its quality. A parent would be better served counting the number of BMWs in the parking lot.

But while the public policy aspects of education generate plenty of debate, not much attention is given to how our process of education impacts students or how they should think about what choices they have. After all, choosing a college is the first great transformative decision in most young people’s lives. For the children of college-educated or middle-class parents, forgoing college for enlistment or getting a job are not real options. College isn’t so much the golden ticket to a career and a good life as it is a bus pass to a giant queue where good lives are doled out. And while the differences between colleges are not very significant, the importance attached to those differences is enormously magnified by the whole process – since some tickets put you much nearer the front of that gigantic line.

The point of becoming a soldier is to BECOME a soldier – not to wear the uniform or drive the tank or to get into the Navy. But the point of a college degree is usually getting the degree. No one seriously believes that a Harvard education is better than an education at Indiana University or the University of Texas. But people do believe, quite rightly, that a Harvard degree is worth far more. 

The enormous importance of your place in the queue makes for odd decision-making and impacts every aspect of educational delivery. Nearly everything that’s important about college is wrapped up in the admissions process.

College’s compete for students on the basis of the value their degree gives to the student. If that value was jeopardized by work done at the school, it would be quite uncertain and therefore worth much less. Colleges must make sure that everyone who enters college will exit with essentially the same value attached to the degree or they will lose position in the marketplace.

This creates a shared understanding that once accepted in a college, everyone will shuffle along in roughly the same place in line. Grade inflation ensures that students leaving any given institution are indistinguishable, so the college minimizes risk for their consumers.

That means what college you get into determines your final place in the gigantic queue much more than anything you do once you are there. This puts tremendous pressure on every aspect of the admissions and pre-admissions process while making it nearly impossible for students to stand out once in college or for colleges to accurately assess or incentivize work.

The queue system traps both institutions and potential students. Institutions can’t attract good students unless they can give them the best possible place in the queue. That place, though, is mostly just a reflection of the perceived quality of student they can attract. So institutions spend their time and effort fighting for students and ensuring that they make enrollment as attractive and risk-free as possible.

Failure at this creates a kind of death spiral where the declining quality of students leads to declining institutional value which leads to lower quality of students.

College football provides a lovely crystallization of the identical process played out in a slightly different context. The elite football programs attract the best talent because they are elite programs and top prospects know they will provide the most direct path to the NFL. Since they get the best players, these programs will nearly always beat 2nd-tier schools no matter how well coached or inspired they are. Thus, the same 10-15 programs dominate the college rankings every year.

But, of course, sporting prophecies are not completely self-fulfilling. Sometimes a bad coaching staff can lose out in the recruiting wars or lose games even with superior talent. As the perception of the program declines, it gets harder and harder to reverse the downward momentum. A program like Nebraska can go from national powerhouse to 2nd-tier contender to also-ran in a few decades.

The same process takes could take place on the academic side, but several factors ensure that it mostly doesn’t. The only “games” that measure academic process come at the end of four years and are generally encapsulated as tests that measure almost the same things as students were tested on four years previously. Outstanding test-takers do not often lose their abilities in a few short, youthful years. It’s very difficult for a university – once it becomes prestigious – to lose that status no matter how poor the education it provides.

Is there a single college or university in the United States whose reputation has significantly declined in the past 100 years? Do we believe that colleges and universities exist outside the laws of every other enterprise where changes in quality are inevitable? Or is it simply impossible to judge the actual quality of education provided?

Because the queue system is self-reinforcing and is used by employers to cherry-pick new hires it’s hard for institutions or prospective students to buck the system. A prospective student who seeks something other than the most prestigious degree they can wrangle from the admissions queue may be foregoing important life opportunities and a considerable financial premium. An institution that refuses to play the game risks a death-spiral in prestige.

In a free market, one might wonder why employers would use the queue system unless it was a good predictor of performance. In fact, there’s no reason to think it isn’t. To win the college admissions game is hard. It takes discipline, ambition, a ruthless focus on image, and a willingness to give up any aspect of one’s life unrelated to “success”. Why wouldn’t it be a nearly perfect predictor of success in a large corporation or bureaucracy?

For the prospective student, the queue system turns college selection into a pure preference optimization decision. With straightforward preferences for a high-paying job and good social status, it’s not difficult to rank colleges based on the value of their degree. Modern youth are trained almost from the crib in this kind of shrewd assessment. They know the difference between Harvard, Duke, Tulane, and IU just as they know the difference between an iPhone, a Pixel, a Samsung, and a Motorola.

Students are fully capable of taking the basics of their own situation and applying them to this fine-grained analysis of status. The scientists and engineers know how MIT and Purdue rank, just as the prospective lawyers and politicians understand the difference between Harvard and the University of Chicago.

Given cost, location, professional interests, and admittance, it’s not only possible to choose the optimal college, it’s pretty easy. And no one could gainsay the rationality of such a choice. It’s a straightforward preference optimization decision from straightforward preferences ubiquitous in our society.

And it sucks.

It’s very hard not to play for the best spot in the great college admissions queue game (it might even be a mistake not to), but suppose you didn’t have to? What would it be like if choosing a college was treated as a transformative experience not a giant scrum to end up as close as possible to the front of the line?

To answer that question requires a bit of background on why people might go to college at all. College, after all, is not like most other career choices. When you enlist, you are making a life and a career choice. When you take a job, you are doing something similar. College, on the other hand, is provisional. It’s a four-year detour on the way to something else. So, unlike an enlistment or employment decision, where the decision is to become something (e.g., a soldier or a mechanic), going to college is not always or even often a decision to become something.

Still, there are students with a clear and definite idea of what they want to do with their life who are going to college to acquire the background and credentials to do that thing. This group is the closest in spirit to those enlisting in the military. If you want to be a doctor, you enroll in a four-year college as a path to being a doctor. Ideally, that path isn’t just about winning the race to the next milestone; it’s about learning the foundational elements of a discipline so that you have a broad intellectual understanding that can be applied to the actual techniques of the profession. For a doctor, biology and chemistry may provide this foundational knowledge. For an engineer, it may be calculus.

Much of what this group is forced to endure in their undergraduate experience is mindless culling and the amount of time and the range of courses they must survive is hardly justifiable. It may be that this group should NOT be making that kind of career commitment based on their knowledge and experience. It may even be that their decisions are at least as naïve as most military enlistments. Still, their reason for being in college is clear and sensible. This segment is likely a decent percentage (though a minority) of students.

There is, also, a segment of college students doing their best to make a transformative choice. They are going to college with the explicit intention of becoming somebody else. Indeed, they are usually going with the remarkable desire of figuring out what kind of life is worth living. This desire, once the essence of liberal education, is now addressed by a tiny fraction of true liberal arts colleges and even those colleges have abandoned at least half their mission and purpose. These students are the group that the liberal arts college was designed for. They are the group around which the entire college ideal is fashioned. They are also a vanishingly small segment having been remorselessly eroded by the great queue process – a process that drives all but the most determined of these students into the first segment.

If the first segment is a sizable minority and the second a tiny sliver, what remains?

Students enrolled in college to get a degree and, secondarily, to enjoy the college experience of being out on their own and surrounded by similar youth. This supermajority of students prioritize their position in the queue and the quality of life they’ll enjoy as they shuffle through the line.

These are completely rational preferences; and in the absence of any effort by colleges to provide anything different, it’s hard to argue with either concern. If you must go through the queue to get on with your life, it makes sense to try and get the best position possible. And it always makes sense to have an enjoyable time doing whatever it is your doing. Good housing, good food, good parties, lots of perks and very little pressure are all entirely reasonable preferences.

The problem isn’t with the preferences, it’s with the process and the expenditure of four years shuffling along in a makeshift if very enjoyable line. You can and will change a lot in those four years. You can and will grow up (at least some) in those four years. This is unavoidable particularly at that time of life. But most colleges will do nothing to guide, improve or accelerate that process.

Young adults are early in the process of choosing a life. It’s a process that while life remains, never fully stops, but it does go slower as you age. A typical High-School Graduate has never worked a job at all like the profession they will ultimately pursue. They often have no idea what that chosen profession will be. They’ve never had a real relationship. They’ve never worked as part of a real team. Most have never read a great book. Most lack any truly differentiated skills. Few have ever learned from anyone exceptional at what they do.

There is so much to be learned! Spending four years in random motion is a profound waste.

To pick a college by preference optimization is just another way of floating with the tide. Of accepting that you will become whatever society is willing to reward most. It’s not so much a decision as the postponement of a decision. A postponement that can be – and often is – prolonged indefinitely until there is no longer either the need or the opportunity to be anything but a social consumer.

As mentioned, there remain a declining fringe of liberal arts colleges still committed to a vision of education as transformative process, and they are well worth considering if you are seriously interested in exploring what a good life could be. Some may think the classic liberal arts college is the only plausible vision for what a self-altering college could be, and intellectual exploration of the humanities is an established path to a better and deeper understanding of what kind of life is worth exploring. But so too would be a college modeled on a Benedictine rule that combined a carefully curated blend of healthy work, community, and introspection. This need have no religious overtones to make perfect sense as a way to build a better version of your self and learn more about what kind of life to explore.

Similarly, one can see the gradual evolution of colleges into intellectually focused work experiences. Schools like Northeastern and Drexel have significantly altered the paradigm for what a good college experience is like – and they could and probably should be even more radical. By creating opportunities for potentially relevant work at highly desirable companies with intellectual exploration of the essential skills, they have made the college experience much more relevant for those who aren’t looking for abstract exploration but can benefit from exposure to real jobs and the skills necessary to excel at them. This isn’t selling out. It’s making college a closer analog to enlistment – a real choice not a postponement of choice.

Whatever paths there are, picking a college ought to be a more than a refusal to choose. Like enlistment, it should be a paradigm case of a self-altering choice. Many of the same ingredients are present. The four-year commitment. The passage from adolescence to adulthood. The honing of cognitive skills and dispositions. The community (like the military services, college is a true community and there aren’t many real communities left in our culture).

We are exceptionally blessed to live in a culture rich enough and considerate enough to carve out four years of peak productive space in a young adult’s life to do NOTHING but figure out what kind of life is worth living. That’s amazing. That this same culture encourages and almost forces people to waste that opportunity is heartbreaking.

Indeed, it’s extraordinary to look at the different path that universities and military service have taken since the 1960s. In the wake of disastrous failure in the Vietnam War, the services fundamentally re-thought and re-imagined their initial training processes. They paid keen attention to studies of what makes a good soldier and a good fighting team. They thought about and studied how to make a racially integrated team work, and how to break down the problematic cultural norms that recruits entering from the broader society brought with them. The process of basic training is, in many respects, a levelling process. It’s designed to break-down the individual and eliminate many of their existing ways of thinking and behaving and then gradually replace those norms with soldierly ones. This process wasn’t abandoned in the wake of Vietnam, it was reinvigorated with startlingly successful results. Within a generation, the U.S. military was one of the best in the world and it has maintained a relatively high-level of performance even in the face of broader cultural norms that are deteriorating in almost every way important to the practice of soldiering.

At colleges, many professors are still peripherally engaged in a kind of transformational process. But the institutions have lost any sense of this as mission and any confidence about what that transformation might entail. Unlike the military, where the unambiguous goal is the creation of a soldier, the university has no consensus on what it’s trying to create. Inevitably, professors work at cross-purposes with most fulfilling the new mission of adding marketable skills while others cling to the ideal of changing people without having the coherence or institutional consistency to have any chance of success.

What’s particularly painful about this is the unique opportunity the university presents to change people. It comes at the right time – when youth have matured enough to seriously consider what kind of person to be and before they have experienced years of work and decision that make any sort of change much harder. It’s blessed with time. The ability of a rich society to effectively remove a vast amount of its most valuable young citizens from either work or soldiering and ensconce them in an economically unproductive endeavor is historically unique. Creating excellence whether in virtue or skills takes time – and colleges get four years or more. They are a community. Almost every other endeavor (outside of the military) in Western society owns only a fragment of the person’s time and attention. We have jobs, but outside those jobs we have families and houses and online communities and hobbies. We don’t live with our co-workers. We don’t often hang out together with them. At a university, you’re there. Sharing houses. Sharing dining. Spending every hour of every day together in a shared endeavor. It’s a unique opportunity for guided transformation.

Students certainly do transform – you can’t stop people from changing. Much of that change is good. Professors are often brilliant and passionate – and exposing people to interesting minds and sophisticated ways of thinking can hardly fail to have some positive effect. But with no clear purpose in mind and a strong need to fulfill the pragmatic version of skill development, the business of transformation is essentially random. Unlike the Marines, where the DIs know what they are supposed to achieve, the institutional members of the university are all working at cross-purposes. There is no progression from year to year. Students choose courses willy-nilly based on time of day[1], ease, professor rating and resume building. Imagine a military where recruits chose when their training started and what to learn today (Hand to hand combat or trench-digging? Hmmm…). And yes, I realize that part of the college experience is choice, but it is feckless to pretend that what choices are given has been thought out as part of a transformational process and is not simply a response to marketing imperatives.

Graduates emerge from their time at college like clay pots shaped by a hundred different potters each with their own vision of what the pot should be. This is no way to make a fine vase. And, of course, the situation is much worse since unlike a vase the student is often striving hard to learn nothing. In the Marines, each recruit fully intends to become a soldier;  most college students intend nothing but to consume pleasurably.

The history of the past fifty years in the military and academe is a case-study in the difference between an institution that understands transformative experience and an institution that has embraced the idea that every decision is about preference optimization.

Since very few colleges offer a rational plan for life exploration, what can a decider do? This turns out to be a critical question because there are vanishingly few institutions like the military than can offer a tailored self-altering experience. For most decisions, it will be necessary to pair what you want with experiences that are not explicitly designed to help you achieve that vision.

Fortunately, colleges are far from homogenous. They differ significantly in culture, and by assessing that culture, a decision-maker can get a sense of what values are encouraged, what life-projects are supported and what kinds of reinforcement the community tends to give. What a micro-culture values is a decent predictor of how it will change you because what cultures value they encourage. And by evaluating the culture of a college and deciding if it’s closer to what you would like to value or be, you can at least make a plausible experience selection.

This is not far removed from the “fit” that colleges are fond of selling. But rather than “fit” in the sense of being like comfortable jeans, it is “fit” in a more aspirational sense. It’s not about what will make you comfortable or what will provide the most fun. It’s about what will make you more like the kind of person you want to be. A decision-maker should look for a community that reinforces the values and life-projects they care about. Making that kind of assessment isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. As much as we’ve tried to homogenize and commoditize the college experience, the institutional roots of academe run deep, and every college is a unique combination of place, history, and population that generates a unique kind of culture.

Consider Berkeley, in San Francisco’s East Bay a short drive from where I live, it is a bizarre amalgamation of haute progressivism (driven by its activist history, it’s hippie community and its snobby left-coast roots), funky urban town filled with Vegan Indian dumps and now gentrified into million-dollar bungalows and hipster street-food joints, world-class faculty left over from the heyday of California’s remarkable growth, and a techie culture imported across the Bay Bridge from Silicon Valley. If it is, as King Arthur observes of Camelot in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “a very silly place,” it is also a unique an interesting cultural vision.

Twenty miles away is Stanford – a place where those tickets to the very front of the good-life line are printed every May and handed out tied up in bindy little strings. It sits next to the lacquered town of Palo Alto – ground zero for Silicon Valley venture capital. Its beautiful Spanish buildings suggest the polished perfection that is Stanford’s aura – to be good at everything. Stanford is elite. Elite at the humanities. Elite at sports – especially the non-populist ones. Elite at technology. Elite at high science. If a school like MIT is all pointiness – with its excellence focused in a narrow and fully articulated band – Stanford lives as the Benjamin Franklin of educational institutions, with its toes in everything from invention to science to politics to football to business.

Three-hundred miles to the south sits UCLA. Perched just above Westwood, UCLA’s massive sprawl suggests a distinct Californian aesthetic (not a faux Spanish one). The campus takes advantage of L.A.s near perfect weather and so do the students. They look gorgeous, of course. Stanford kids are too well-rounded to look this good. At Stanford they are handsome or pretty. At UCLA gorgeous is just fine. They’re more relaxed too. The sound of party’s echoes across the campus from houses perched on the hill and Westwood is all movie theatres and upscaled pub-food. There are world-class medical facilities and neuroscience departments and – this being LA – film and theatre schools, but it all takes itself a little less seriously than the avant-hipsters do at Berkeley or the budding young plutocrats at Stanford.

In other words, these are places. Real places. Distinct though all more alike than they would be to Texas A&M or the University of Alabama. If they lack any coherent vision of what a college is for, what a good life consists of, or what their mission is in shaping students, they do not lack for distinctive micro-cultural values that they will necessarily impart or sustain. Which you would choose says a lot about you – and even more about the person you want to be. These places and communities will change you. And by picking a place, you are choosing something more than a four-year bus pass.

None of these colleges will do much to help you figure out what a good life is or what kind of person you should be. And they will do far less than they should to shape you since their influence is poorly thought-out, ill-coordinated, and unplanned. But as communities they will shape you in ways that are at least somewhat predictable and in directions about which a person ought to have preferences.

If, that is, you bother to think about it.

College selection highlights a central lesson of decision-making when it comes to the transformative choices that are the central concern of TW2BR. The real choices aren’t always, or even often, about experiences targeted like weight-machines to exercise and build specific cognitive muscles. Usually, what we are forced to choose is a version of micro-culture that is most likely to give us reinforcement in the directions we value. College could and should be so much more. But we do not live in the world of could and should.

[1] Avoiding classes before 10am? Guilty as charged. Just one of many terrible choices I should not have been free to make.