Are education and opportunity at odds in higher education today?

By Jeremy Cunningham
January 25th, 2017

College and opportunity have always been intertwined, yet the relationship can be paradoxical.  Education has been called the silver bullet to poverty.  As an extension of that, higher education can be assumed to offer egalitarian opportunity.  David Leonhardt’s article titled “America’s Great Working-Class Colleges” gives me pause about this relationship, and, as always, technology both solves and exacerbates the problem.

Leonhardt recently wrote about schools he deemed “working class colleges” and laments the decline of these institutions in the higher education landscape.   He discusses research that shows these colleges, like City College of New York or University of Texas El Paso, play a huge role in pushing the bottom of the socio-economic class into a middle class existence.  Leonhardt cites statistics on the make-up of the student body and how, “these students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.”

Later, he points out that so many colleges fail to live up to the ideal of truly serving all students.  He cites the well-known ails of for-profit colleges, but also points to an unlikely culprit of the problem: elite colleges.  Leonhardt does not say that elite colleges are not producing good students or that they are short changing the poor students they do serve; but he does make the point that they are not serving a representative sample of the country.  In short, elite colleges mostly serve upper-class individuals.  Elite institutions do not set out to discriminate, but the selective nature of entry turns away, either explicitly or implicitly, the majority of the population.

Technology has a paradoxical role in addressing this problem.  Elite institutions are a driving force behind much of the online education content.  When you go the EdX’s homepage, its banner advertises courses from MIT and Harvard; Coursera features Johns Hopkins, Penn, and U-M on its front page.  Information is at our fingertips and elite institutions are taking down the walls between themselves and the masses.  The paradox is that for all the courses students can take on Coursera, they can’t get a diploma from Johns Hopkins.   Students don’t get the benefits of going to the institution; they only receive the content.

This is a complicated tension between old and new ways of education.  Someone looking at this situation would say the decline of the working class college is not an issue because lower income students can access all the information they need, from elite institutions, online.  Elite institutions would also most likely push back against Leonhardt’s article and say they have removed all barriers to the university by putting the courses online.  But, educators know that so much more goes into higher education that just getting the information.  When looking particularly at the lower socio-economic class, support services, time management, and community building all play a key role in successful education.

These are things that technology has failed to remedy.  As a teacher of face-to-face, blended, and online-only content, I can attest to the fact that the online space contributes to a fractured feeling in the class.  The aesthetic of the education is completely different when taken out of the classroom. To me, this is an appealing space for EdTech to move into.  How can technology better provide students the feeling of education in addition to its content?