How to get into Harvard

It’s a simple formula (ALDC), really, as the New York Times explains:

Harvard gives advantages to recruited athletes (A’s); legacies (L’s), or the children of Harvard graduates; applicants on the dean’s or director’s interest list (D’s), which often include the children of very wealthy donors and prominent people, mostly white; and the children (C’s) of faculty and staff. ALDCs make up only about 5 percent of applicants but 30 percent of admitted students.

While being an A.L.D.C. helps — their acceptance rate is about 45 percent, compared with 4.5 to 5 percent for the rest of the pool — it is no guarantee. (One of those rejected despite being a legacy was the judge in the federal case, Allison D. Burroughs. She went to Middlebury College instead.)

Harvard’s witnesses said it was important to preserve the legacy advantage because it encourages alumni to give their time, expertise and money to the university.

Which is how you get to have a hedge fund with a nice university attached.

Quote of the Day: Non Potest Quae Non Manent

Clay Shirky, writing about Higher Ed’s reaction to MOOCs:

College mottos run the gamut from Bryn Mawr’s Veritatem Dilexi (I Delight In The Truth) to the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising’s Where Business Meets Fashion, but there’s a new one that now hangs over many of them: Non Potest Quae Non Manent. Things That Can’t Last Don’t. The cost of attending college is rising above inflation every year, while the premium for doing so shrinks. This obviously can’t last, but no one on the inside has any clear idea about how to change the way our institutions work while leaving our benefits and privileges intact.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.

Harvard 2.0 or just another tech bubble?

Interesting piece by Lee Gomes in MIT Technology Review.

Harvard, by many measures the most prestigious college in the U.S., has been at it for nearly 400 years. Ben Nelson, founder of an online education startup called the Minerva Project, says he can do equally well in just three.

Minerva is one of the least-publicized but also most well-funded and audacious of the current crop of online education startups. Funded with $25 million from Benchmark Capital—one of the well-known venture-capital firm’s largest-ever investments—Minerva says it will begin accepting applicants in 2015 for an entirely Web-based college program. The resulting undergraduate degree, it promises, will have all the prestige of anything the Ivy League can offer, but at half the cost.

Many people would dismiss Minerva’s notion of some sort of instant online Harvard as the fever dream of someone who had sat through one too many TED talks. But the for-profit company’s assumptions about how the Internet will change education can be found, to varying degrees, in most of the scores of startups now getting venture money to do instruction online.

The level of venture-capital investments in education has nearly doubled in 2011, and now rivals figures last seen during the dot-com boom. Representative of the crop is Coursera—formed by two Stanford computer scientists—which offers a growing list of free online classes (see “The Technology of Massive Open Online Courses”). Even though Coursera has no clear plans for how to make money, an investor involved in its initial $16 million financing said other top VCs pleaded by phone and e-mail to get in on the deal, regardless of the price. It’s the sort of enthusiasm that often signals a tech investing bubble.

Hmmm… I think I’d read this as Round Two of the 1999-2000 fantasies about online education. It smacks of But the movement started by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrunn will eventually have a disruptive effect on Higher Ed. The $64B question is how MOOCs will eventually start to disrupt conventional, lower- and middle-range HE providers. The Harvards, Stanfords and Cambridges of this world will be largely untouched by these developments, largely because they are really selling positional goods as much as an educational experience.

Why public universities matter

I’ve just come on an excellent opinion piece by Professor Peter Scott of the Institute of Education in the Guardian about the two contrasting philosophical/ideological camps — traditionalists and modernisers — that are emerging in British Higher Education. The article was published on April 3, but, hey, I’m a slow reader.


So for traditionalists, higher education needs to be more “private” to resist the market. For modernisers, higher education needs to be more “private” because the market is the measure of all things. No matter. Either way the public university is finished.

On the contrary, the public university is like democracy – a flawed institution perhaps, but so much better than all the alternatives. The reason is that higher education is a public good – not (just) in the technical economists’ sense that large public benefits accrue that cannot be allocated to individual beneficiaries, but in terms of more fundamental social and cultural values.

There are three compelling reasons for keeping higher education public. The first is the witness of history. Universities have played a central role in the construction of national identities.

Scottish universities have contributed at least as much to the identity of Scotland as its on-off parliament or established Presbyterian Church.

Exactly the same can be said about the great land-grant universities in the US, or German universities in the 19th century, or universities across Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. All distilled some essence of their nations, for good or ill.

More practically, the state has stepped in to make good the deficiencies of tuition fee, industrial and philanthropic funding. The greatly extended systems of higher education and research we possess today simply would not exist without public patronage. The University of Buckingham may be a counter-example, but it is a tiny one, with 2,000 students – the size of a small faculty in a standard university.

The second reason is that science can only flourish in an open environment. If research findings are corralled by proprietary restrictions or commercial constraints, they cannot be properly tested. Of course, great philanthropic foundations support open research. But private interests do not, and cannot. State funding, for all the clutter of politically generated “themes” and “priorities”, is the best guarantee of open science.

The final reason is that universities act upon that most sensitive of all interfaces, between academic excellence and democratic rights. Fair access and widening participation are not, as some in the Russell Group seem to believe, irritating impositions by leftwing politicians; nor are they acts of noblesse oblige charity…

All good stuff. But the nub of the matter is captured by his analogy with democracy — “the worst system except for all the others”. The ‘problem’ with democracy (as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore might have put it) is that it’s inefficient. Much simpler, cheaper and more efficient to have a benevolent dictator (like Mr Lee and his successors). Likewise, our justice system is mightily ‘inefficient’ — all those lawyers, trials, juries, assumption of innocence until proved guilty, etc. Much simpler to be able to lock up baddies on the say-so of a senior policeman.

But in both cases we tolerate the inefficiencies because we value other things more highly: political liberty and freedom of expression in the case of democracy; the belief that a system of justice should be open, impartial and fair in the case of our court system.

Like democracy, public universities are also ‘inefficient’ — often, in my experience, woefully so. And only some of that inefficiency can be defended in terms of academic freedoms; much of it is down to the way university culture has evolved, the expectations of academic staff, poor management (rather than enlightened administration), and so on — things that could be fixed without undermining the really important values embodied by the idea of a university. The advent of serious tuition fees in English universities will have the effect of highlighting some of the more egregious deficiencies — poor (or at best uneven) teaching quality, little pastoral care, archaic pedagogical methods, etc. But any attempt to remedy these problems is likely to be seen as interference with cherished academic freedoms, and resisted accordingly. Already, however, students are beginning to ask questions: why, for example, should they pay £9,000 a year for crowded lectures, ‘tutorial groups’ of 50 or more, zero pastoral care and — in some cases — lousy social facilities? Why should complaints about the crass incompetence of a particular lecturer be ignored by the Head of his department? (These are gripes I’ve heard from students recently, though not at my university.)

The problem isn’t helped by the crass insensitivity of many of the new ‘managers’ in UK universities — people who may know how to run a business but haven’t the faintest idea of how to run a university. There’s no reason in principle, though, why one cannot have universities that, on the one hand, function as liberal, critical institutions which cherish and protect freedom of thought and inquiry while at the same time providing excellent ‘customer service’ to their paying students. Making that blend a reality will not be easy to achieve, but it can be done.

The ‘debate’ about Higher Education is, in many ways, analogous to the debate about Intellectual Property in a digital age. In both cases, what’s important are the central values that we wish to buttress and protect. In the case of universities, it’s the idea of the university as a place of free inquiry, a critical institution. In the case of IP, it’s the importance of ensuring that society has ready access to new ideas and that innovation is not stifled by the vested interests of old industries or institutions. But in general nobody talks about the values. This may be because they’re intrinsically intangible: values are beliefs about what is good, important or ‘valuable’. Value-conflicts therefore cannot be resolved by resorting to facts, because rival sets of values may be incommensurable (to use Thomas Kuhn’s famous term): there’s no rational way of deciding whether Bach is superior to Beethoven. Given the irreconcilability of values, the only way we have of deciding is political: insofar as the current US presidential election is about anything, it’s about two sharply-conflicting sets of values, and in the end the votes will decide which set gains the upper hand for the time being.

Because values are intangible, conflicting and too abstract for most public discussion, they tend to be left out of policy discussions. The Browne Report on the financing of British HE, for example, is drenched in values, but they are nowhere discussed in the document, and it has been left to scholars like Stefan Collini to unpick and expound them. But the Browne report is absolutely typical because much of what has happened to British public institutions over the last three decades can be best explained in terms of values.

It all goes back to Margaret Thatcher who, when she was PM, was both intrigued and infuriated by the BBC (with good reason IMHO). So she asked her advisers a question: how can one rationally evaluate public (i.e. non-market) institutions like the BBC? How could she know whether it was giving ‘value for money’? The answer, she was told, is that one cannot — because of the value-problem mentioned above. Dissatisfied, Thatcher commissioned a consultancy firm to advise on how government can determine whether it is getting value for taxpayers’ money in the public sector. The consultants reported that while values were difficult or impossible to ‘evaluate’, nevertheless there were some things that could be measured — the number of visitors to a museum, for example; average length of queues for hospital operations; the citation-record of university scholars. Beans that could be counted, in other words. And so Britain embarked on a frenzy of bean-counting in the public sector — a frenzy that continues unabated to this day, and is what gave UK universities the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

The Higher Ed market: real disruption moves a step closer

Fascinating times. For years I’ve been arguing that the Higher Ed market looked increasingly like one that was ripe for disruption. This development brings real disruption a step closer, because it offers a way of linking MOOCs with accreditation. And it’s interesting that Pearson is the company involved. I always thought it would be the prime contender.

Students taking online courses from prestigious US universities will be able to take final exams in a global network of invigilated test centres.

Online universities have been claimed as a “revolution” for higher education and this will be seen as a significant step forward.

Education company Pearson will provide test centres for the edX online courses provided by Harvard and MIT.

This will give online courses “real world” value, says the edX president.

As well as providing supervised exam centres they will also authenticate the identity of online learners.

It will also see formidable partnership between some of the world’s most most famous universities and the world’s biggest education firm, Pearson.

Noam Chomsky: the purpose of education

My favourite wise old bird. Lovely moment late in the interview where he tells a story about a famous MIT physicist being asked by a Freshman “what are we going to cover this semester?”

“It doesn’t matter what we cover”, replies the academic. “What matters is what you discover.”

Disrupting the HE market

The Higher Education market is weird. For decades the costs of HE have been going up at rates that far exceed the rate of inflation. At the same time the “product” (whether as measured by the quality of the education ‘delivered’ or the student experience) has been, in overall terms, deteriorating. And throughout this period, computing and other relevant technologies have been developing at an astonishing pace. So if ever there was a market that was ripe for major disruption, HE is it. And yet, except at the fringes, nothing much changes. Elite US universities will soon be charging $60,000 a year just for tuition. Even gimcrack institutions — in the US and elsewhere — are still able to charge astonishing fees. How long more can this go on for?

At this week’s All Things D Conference, Walt Mossberg held an interesting and revealing conversation with John Hennessy, the President of Stanford, and Salman Khan, founder of the wonderful Khan Academy, which covered several of what seem to me to be key issues — in particular, credentialling and the real reason why we insist on gathering bright young people in one place at great expense, namely to enable them to learn from one another (and engage in oblivion drinking).