The New York Times’ Curious War on Traditional Higher Education

It’s a strange position for America’s “paper of record” to take. Despite its largely traditionally-college-educated readership, the New York Times is constantly publishing articles attacking the value of university degrees. Tom Friedman dismisses them as expensive merit “badges” oft-unrelated to the exact qualifications needed for jobs. The ubiquitous Tyler Cowen blasts ed sector costs and inefficiencies, despite international acclaim for US universities. The author of The End of College has had a high-profile platform at the Times‘s Upshot blog.

All three men tend to characterize traditional college degrees as mere signals, barely (if at all) related to the actual skills, habits, and qualities of mind and character that lead to successful, fulfilling lives. I’ve never seen them grapple with the extensive empirical literature on why education increases earnings. Nor do they tend to respond much to the hard data that their colleague David Leonhardt provides on the costs and benefits of college.

Sadly, there’s just too much money in education disruption narratives for the Times‘s most prominent writers to give up on them. Critics have documented how “influence moved from the $795/$495 per person corporate-sponsored [New York Times Schools for Tomorrow] conference [with the theme Virtual U: The Coming Age of Online Education] to the pages of the newspaper of record.” As Facebook and other tech firms angle to squeeze ever more control over (and compensation from) their “content partners,” those partners in turn seek advertising from similar tech firms in other sectors. That’s one reason you’ll see, for example, long stories (aka “earned content”) about legal technology “disruptors” in legal trade publications, near paid ads for the same firms elsewhere on the magazine or website.

I’ll make one grudging concession to Cowen: he’s long argued that marketing is set to become a much larger part of our economy, and you can see its dominance congealing in the ed space now. “Disruptive innovators” push for more for-profit schools and nano-degrees–even though the former have seen so many scandals, and the latter have barely been tested. But what these newfangled entrepreneurs lack in quality, they make up for in marketing budgets. The figures exposed a few years ago were shocking:

At the end of July 2012 the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions presented an 800-page report, the culmination of a two-year investigation into ‘for-profit’ higher education institutions.​ The senators found that at such institutions a mere 17.4% of annual revenue was spent on teaching, while nearly 20% was distributed as profit (the proportion spent on marketing and recruitment was even higher).

All those marketing dollars, flowing to Google or Facebook as conduit, or publications like the New York Times as content, get attention. It’s no wonder why leading technologists and journalists think it’s so important to promote the disruptors. But they may find their own brands tarnished as the harsh realities of techno-utopian ed reform gradually become more apparent.

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