Decoding the Jargon: understanding the corporate model of the university

The Atlantic recently published an article online titled "5 Ways to Make College Much More Affordable for All Americans" written by a team of consultants at McKinsey & Company.  The article addresses a well known problem, a problem of constant debate in the burgeoning field of scholarship (and rhetoric) concerning contemporary higher education.  You know the one:
"America has a deep problem when it comes to the cost of higher education."  We are all worried about "skyrocketing student debt, ever-rising tuition, strained state budgets."
OK, familiar enough territory...wait, what?
"Our research at McKinsey shows that, when it comes to cost per degree, the top quartile of institutions is 38 percent more productive than the average of their peers."
So...you looked at all the stats on colleges and universities granting degrees and made a big list and arranged them least to most expensive.  How else would you be able to designate a sub-set of those institutions "the top quartile"?  The top quartile of what?  Oh, right, the top quarter of your list of least expensive schools.   OK, so this subset we have now is "38 percent more productive."  What is the "productivity" of a degree granting institution again?  I suppose that would have to mean the ratio of the rate of degrees granted per year over the net cost per degree granted.  But wait a minute, didn't we already arrange the list using the criterion of "least expensive"? So wouldn't including this criterion in the formula for calculating productivity (the desideratum, after all) automatically skew the notion of "productivity" in favor of the least expensive schools in the first place?   If the desire is productivity, and the productivity of a school is calculated with a fixed denominator (the avg. total cost of putting a student through the school), then of course it becomes a race to increase the numerator: get as many through as possible for the least amount of money.

Suppose we grant all of that.

OK, McKinsey, let's hear about some of your "ideas that could help make college more affordable while maintaining or improving quality."  That sounds great to me!
"The surest way to boost college affordability is to make certain that students complete their degrees and do it quickly."  
Back up a second.  Boosting affordability means speeding up time to completion?  Well, I guess that makes sense.  If I went to college to major in engineering, college would be more affordable if I only went for 2 or 3 years and just took engineering courses or courses necessary for understanding future engineering courses.  It makes some sense when you think about it.  If some students change their majors half-way through school, they often end up staying for an extra semester or even a fifth year of college.  That definitely means more money being spent on/by that student.

So let's evaluate the emerging picture of the more productive university: students would select a major and be urged and reminded to do nothing but that major, and perhaps even being locked into that major by some sort of pricing structure that ensures that people get on a track and run through it quickly.  If an engineering student found himself having some time to take a philosophy or literature class, and formally tried to enroll in such a class, the registrar would remind him (perhaps by automated email response) that if he indeed finds himself having extra time, this entails that he use that extra time to run all the faster along his intended course.  Perhaps his attempt would even be viewed as a tacit admission, as proof that he is not performing up to the standard of the contract he signed when he "decided to become an engineer."

Well, McKinsey, perhaps you really haven't thought through what your first suggestion amounts to, but you do at least raise a good point:
"Only 60 percent of American undergraduates seeking a bachelors degree complete their studies within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics."  
Indeed, that is cause for concern.  I agree that we should look at ways to make sure people finish their degrees on time.  But, oh, what's that?
"On average, students who do complete their degrees are paying for more courses and credits than required for their diploma or certificate. That's a waste of resources for both students and the governments that subsidize their tuition -- a waste that makes higher-ed more expensive for everybody"
Ah, yes, so you did think your suggestion through!  My distopian thought experiment above is not distopian at all for you!

What the hell, I'll play along.

I will join you in condemning those awful brats who have the nerve to take classes that aren't essential for their degrees (for, even if they finish in 4 years, if they could have done so in 3 then they should have in the name of productivity).  And if anyone had the nerve to change degrees and thus take longer, shame on them for being so fickle!  Let's not forget to chastise smokers, the obese, and the soda drinkers for driving up the cost of healthcare too.

The next suggestion contains a grain of truth as well, but is much more problematic than McKinsey seems to think.  They point out that one way to increase productivity is to:
"revamp antiquated transfer agreements that wrongly deny students credit for work done elsewhere."  
Of course, this sounds nice and I would like to support this, but if you ask any experienced teacher about handling transfer credit you will most likely hear some variant of, "Well, that depends."

I am intimately familiar with this issue.  I teach at a large research university with relatively bright students who worked hard in high school.  I also teach for a for-profit regional institution that is a "university" in name only.  I am not degrading this institution, but rather pointing out that it has an open admission policy.  They take anyone who can pay (yes, that often means with federal student loans).  The difference in writing quality between the two is, to say the least, pronounced.  Thus, were a student to be transferring from "elsewhere," I would not automatically assume this to entail that the student should be granted credit for my university's, say, lower-division writing requirements.  Of course, I am very happy when I meet a student at the university who has transferred in from community college and the whole thing has worked like it should.  Ideally, the community colleges and the for-profit institutions (the "elsewhere") would enact grading criteria that ensure strict alignment with the expectations of the university (the "there").  A compromise position would be to grant transfers the credits upon passing a suitable test designed by the members of the faculty who design the requirements of the major in question.  Thus, transfer credits remain possible but, like all credits, must be earned rather than granted on testimony.

So yes, making the whole transfer credit swamp more efficient is a good idea.  But you can't simply rewrite the rule in the registrars office and assume that you are maintaining any sort of standard for your own university (after all, we are looking after the value of a brand here).

Another way to speed up the process is to
"give students support and tools that help them plan the most efficient path to graduation." 
Another phrase as equally lovely as it is vague.  What sort of "support" and "tools" are we talking about here.  Well, according to the grammar of the sentence, we give them support and tools for "planning."  We help them plan.  We guide their planning.  But we already do that.  So this must be a better, productivity sort of planning tools and support.  It most likely would feature "enhanced planning techniques" that border on persuasion, prodding, and perhaps admonition.  After all, you had better "remind" your borrower of his responsibilities, of his promise.

Finally, the authors begin to mention the heart of the problem:
"Improving today's low completion rates will also require serious strides in K-12 schooling, because a student who isn't ready to do college work in the first place will have a harder time getting a degree."  
But this incredibly sobering mountain of a problem is assumed solvable, thus we skip immediately to the pay-off of this, stated in terms fitting of a boardroom discussion over increasing the speed of the machinery to expedite the production of what-the-fuck-ever:
"If all undergraduates were college ready when they entered school, for the same cost, the country would add 300,000 additional degrees above and beyond the roughly 2 million it graduates today." 
What are we even talking about again? 60% of the students who go to college don't make it through college.  Naturally, if they were "college ready" they would graduate (and on time).  I can tell you first hand, if all the students in my real and virtual classrooms were "college ready" (if "college ready" means being able to get a C in the course), I would indeed love that and they would surely graduate on time.  But you already stated the problem above: 60% of them are not college ready; hence the need for those "great strides" in K-12 education.

This is the ultimate buck passing.

Thus far, this report amounts to the statement: "If we could figure out a way to get all students college ready, we could make college more efficient and thus more affordable."  Yes, McKinsey.  You are right.  Why didn't we think of that yet?  We just need to make everyone smart and capable enough to get through college in under four years.  I'll leave this one alone (for now).

The next suggestion is to
"try new ways of teaching."  
This is often code for "get an adjunct to teach an online course or a hybrid online-classroom course."  What McKinsey has in mind is not too far off this stereotype.  They throw a lot of jargon at us about these "new ways" improve "learning outcomes" and "overall retention" while "deploying technology" to increase the variety of modes of "student teacher interaction."  Sounds nice.  So, you basically mean, decrease classroom time and get more done over the internet?  You guessed it:
"For example, Rio Salado College and Western Governors University rely on self-paced online instruction for the introduction to basic course material, use flexible adjunct faculty and student mentors, and  are able to deliver instruction at least 50 percent more efficiently than peers. Traditional brick and mortar institutions can pursue a similar process to increase quality and decrease instructional costs."
 Sounds great! Do you accept credit default swaps?

If we examine this example we find the following suggestion: get students to complete automated online tutorials in order to qualify for the next level of classes, in which either a adjunct, graduate student, or "student mentor" (another undergraduate?) grades you based on some pre-established  "scaffold" of assignments and a rubric with nice sounding "student learning outcomes" like "development" "organization" and "reflection."  I have developed an innate sense of the distinction between a rubric score of "5 out of 5" on the reflectivness scale ("Variety of elements captures reader’s attention") and a "4 out of 5" on said scale ("Variety of elements enhances interest").  Grading has become the practice of a subtle phenomenology of attitude recognition.  Is my attention currently captured? or merely enhanced?

*Sigh*  Whatever.  Fine.  Let's use the self-paced whats-it-called and the student mentors and the 50 percent thing sounds good too. 

The next suggestion is to
"recognize that learning happens outside the classroom."  
Once again, the experienced educator will not deny this outright, but will seek to understand what, exactly, this means.  McK provides a heartening rationale, which one would be hard-pressed to disagree with:
"Today there are medics and mechanics who acquired skills on the battlefield, but can't land a job back home as a paramedic or mechanic because they don't have a diploma or certificate that proves what they know. We need to develop ways for colleges to recognize the academic value of such prior work."
Of course I agree that if someone learned how to be a medic or mechanic in the army then he should not need a college degree to become a medic or mechanic.  Or, if the relevant employers of medics and mechanics require proof of a college level degree in the field, then colleges should simply grant them the required degree.  But of course now we are back to the question of accepting transfer credits.  You don't give someone a paramedic certificate without testing her.  And you don't grant someone a license as a certified mechanic without testing her in some way.  I don't really see a problem here at all to be honest.  If someone is qualified because he learned in the army, then he should be able to pass a test to prove his qualification and be on his way.  If the issue is one of affordability regarding the cost of taking some test, then the degree granting institution should work out some deal so that the veterans don't have to pay to prove their merit.

Now its just getting tiring.  It's only getting ridiculously vague and jargon-y sounding:
"Introducing leaner processes and shared services is one promising way to shrink the cost of management functions, student services, academic support services, and plant operations. Organizational redesign and smarter purchasing practices along the lines of what top performing private corporations now routinely do can also help."
OK fine, whatever.  If there are some more efficient ways to run the power grid at the school or lower costs on maintenance, then yes, let's go for it.  But what university isn't already looking for that stuff anyway?  I'm definitely on board with shrinking the cost of management functions.  Although the good people at McKinsey should be acutely aware of how broad and nebulous the term "management" has become.  What is a management function?  Beats me.  Shrink away.

Oh and of course let's not forget to tip our hats to the "top performing private corporations" and acknowledge the brilliance of their "smarter purchasing practices."  I suppose this means that universities should leverage their size to drive down the cost of textbooks, meal-plans, and dry-erase markers if nothing else.  That last sentence: "Organizational redesign and smarter purchasing practices along the lines of what top performing private corporations now routinely do can also help" essentially translates to "Hiring firms like McKinsey to make lists like this for you can also help."

And finally, to cap it all off, the government ought to "encourage" all degree-granting institutions by "reminding" them to adopt everything McK just told us by using financial aid as a "carrot and stick." "Encouraging" amounts to "incentivizing" in this vernacular, which would be the carrot part.  Whereas the stick is probably just some form of straight up financial coersion.  (Your institution will be turned over to a team of experts from the educational equivalent of the IMF.)

Wait, what is that you heard? Aren't the educators themselves not really on board with any of these suggestions?  Meh, fuck 'em:
While the education community is understandably wary about the details, state and federal governments should continue to carefully consider and pursue incentives that reward programs or institutions that embrace the changes described above.
Taken in isolation, none of these suggestions from McKinsey are downright awful or patently absurd, but taken collectively they amount to a re-imagined university that is simply not a university at all.  It is some sort of quasi-government funded loan company that keeps overhead on a product as low as possible in the name of affordability.  This reminds me of those stories I hear about how McDonald's primarily makes money by collecting rent on the properties it owns, and that the food is not the focus of the business.  According to wikipedia at least, McDonald's organizes the supply of food and materials to restaurants through approved third party logistics operators.  Wikipedia also tells me that one in eight workers in the USA have worked at McDonald's.  Man, they are really cranking out graduates!  What's their secret?  We'd better consult the experts in order to manage this problem.  We require the proper tools and support to increase efficiency and productivity...