Redundant

Moved on to another town
Tried hard to settle down
For every job, so many men
So many men no one needs.

Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up”

Every time you see a job ad that looks like a match for your skills and ideas, you’ll have a moment of already inhabiting that life. In every case, you go through a few hours of imagining what life might be like in your new home in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, in Minneapolis or Seattle. Imagining how your work might blossom further among your new colleagues at Brandeis or Marquette, with the resources available to you at UCLA or Oregon.

But then no. And then no. And then no.

“Unemployed scholar” sounds like a noun, but it’s really a constant series of verbs, of hopes rising and beaten back, of staying close to your friends as they also succeed and fail, remaining part of the society of insiders who might some day notice your work and open a door.

Being an unemployed scholar means being willing to go anywhere. To not put limits on your job search, to be as willing to live in Manhattan KS as Manhattan NY, as willing to live in Miami as Seattle, as willing to live in rows of soy as in grids of metropolitan streets. I have a colleague who grew up in the forests and mountains; she took a short-term job in a broken border town where everything in all directions was beige. “I just think the desert is ugly. I’ve tried really hard, but everything is just so bare and sparse. I’m still used to Tacoma where it rains for nine months out of the year.” The pain would be equal if applied in the opposite direction. And at the end of this semester, she’ll be cut loose again, on the road with a cardboard sign, hoping for a ride to paradise.

Being an unemployed scholar means that you can only apply for jobs once a year. You look at the Chronicle, where the elite schools advertise in August and September, the middling schools in October through December, and the bottom tier in the spring, all aimed at hiring in the summer for a start in the following fall. You feel your prospects sink as the schools become more meager, but you’d take it, you’d take an offer from any aimless college, some formerly Methodist teachers-and-preachers school now existing only through its inertia, clinging to a lost identity. Much like yourself.

Being an unemployed scholar means feeling yourself getting stale, drying out, losing your juice. The dissertation is behind you, you’ve climbed that mountain safely. But you don’t know what’s next, you don’t have the library and the databases and the lab space to take the next step. You keep trying to sell that old product while the shiny new kids get all the visitors to their booth. It’s like being a thirty-five year old first-baseman for the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, sitting in the ice bath after a hard workout and watching the twenty-year-olds coming for your job.

Being an unemployed scholar means that your .edu mail address is about to expire. Your only contact with your old doctoral institution is through their alumni office, occasionally getting their glossy, undergrad-focused magazine or a request to donate to the annual fund. They’re busy with their new generation of students, have finished with their obligations to you. Write when you find work…

Being an unemployed scholar means wondering every day whether it’s time to quit, but not knowing how to leave even if you could gin yourself up to try. Failed racing drivers don’t have any advantages in the Uber market, and failed rhetoricians don’t have any advantages in writing for HuffPo or on Twitter. There’s no good place in the air if you were bred for water.

“Unemployed scholar” is a daily experience, a chronic ache, a deficiency that cannot be remediated. It is an encompassing, complete shame. It cannot be repaired. It can only be left altogether, with enormous bravery, re-inventing yourself from near zero.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Guys and Dolls: The Academic Journal

I’m doing some research this morning for a potential new project, which I’m superstitious enough not to tell you about yet. But in doing so, I came across a very early article by the sociologist Erving Goffman, called “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure.” It’s a very thorough piece of descriptive research about the ways that con men have to handle the people they’ve swindled, to soften the blow to the victim (or “the mark”) of the fact that they’ve lost money and respect. This isn’t done from any humanitarian impulse, but rather to keep the mark from going to the cops or the courts.

I’ll have more to say in the next few days about how this article so presciently describes the institutional response of higher ed to its adjunct community (the marks who were promised a knighthood only to find themselves outside the castle) as well as the larger political scene in which millions of Americans are now discovering themselves to have been the victim of a massive con, and have to find some ways to come to terms with that. What I want to talk about today is another writer familiar with con men: Damon Runyan, the author of Guys and Dolls and dozens of other stories set in the minor-league gambling underworld, people who’ll bet each other ten dollars on the color of the next car through the intersection.

The most remarkable feature of Runyan’s work is neither the colorful characters nor the screwball adventures they find themselves in. His world is most centrally built by the very form of his writing, a perpetually present-tense form filled with unnecessarily high diction, a language of the man desperately needing to be seen as more than he is. Here, for instance, is the opening to his story “A Piece of Pie,” of betting on an eating contest.

On Boylston Street, in the city of Boston, Mass., there is a joint where you can get as nice a broiled lobster as anybody ever slaps a lip over, and who is in there one evening partaking of this tidbit but a character by the name of Horse Thief and me. This Horse Thief is called Horsey for short, and he is not called by this name because he ever steals a horse but because it is the consensus of public opinion from coast to coast that he may steal one if the opportunity presents.

By contrast, and from the same era, here is Goffman’s description of the ubiquity of con schemes:

The con is said to be a good racket in the United States only because most Americans are willing, nay eager, to make easy money, and will engage in action that is less than legal in order to do so.

You can see the similarities. The insider letting us civilians in on the game, but doing so through politeness and formality that would never be found in the native scene. And the fussy diction—... willing, nay eager… … action that is less than legal… —marks the work as a form of highbrow wildlife documentary, Sir David Attenborough describing the behavior of penguins in language that is perhaps other than the penguins themselves might deploy.

(Once you read a little of this kind of stuff, it’s impossible to not write that way yourself for a while. It’s deliciously fun.)

So much of academic writing, across all disciplines, is a form of Runyanesque self-soothing, convincing the writer that she or he really does belong. It’s governed by a series of conventions—the use of the third person, the passive voice, the present tense—intended to remove the work from place and time and authorship, to take on the mark of lasting, objective, incontrovertible truth.

It’s easy to make fun of writing in the high humanities, through things like The Postmodernism Generator and the various Sokal hoaxes. And the writing in those fields is, indeed, impossibly arch and ponderous. But even the bench sciences have their own Runyan syntax. This is from the abstract of an article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry:

An approach for the synthesis of a variety of new β-aryl-β-amino acids has been developed via a palladium-catalyzed auxiliary-directed regioselective Csp3-H arylation of the unactivated β-methylene bond of β-alanine. The use of 8-aminoquinoline amide as an auxiliary efficiently directs the desired regioselective β-Csp3-H functionalization. The developed protocol enables the easy and straightforward access to several high-value β-aryl-β-amino acids useful for peptide engineering, starting from inexpensive and readily available β-alanine precursors in moderate to excellent yields.

Leave aside the nouns, none of which us laypeople should be expected to understand, and look only at the verb phrases. An approach…has been developed. The use… efficiently directs. The developed protocol enables. It’s as though nobody actually did the work. This is the language of police reports. The language of official blue-ribbon commissions designed to cover up crimes under the guise of investigation. The language of Damon Runyan, desperate for respect without wanting to seem desperate at all:

This tall young character cannot be more than twenty-one years of age, and he is maybe six feet two inches tall and must weigh around one hundred and ninety pounds. He has shoulders like the back of a truck, and he has blond hair, and pink cheeks, and is without doubt as good-looking as any male character has a right to be without causing comment.

For all of its gravity—because of its gravity—academic writing, like the work of Damon Runyan, can be poignantly funny, a mature version of fourth-grade Shakespeare, little kids dressed up and playing their oversized roles.

Everything You Know Is Right

There are dozens of diagnoses for why the adjunct crisis is occurring. And they’re all correct, although they’re all also partial and incomplete. One of the benefits of seeing higher ed as an ecosystem in collapse is that it allows us to recognize the interplay of innumerable variables. As the famous guidance has it, introducing a new species or new nutrient into an ecosystem doesn’t make it the same ecosystem plus one thing—it creates, by definition, a new ecosystem, as all of the other inhabitants adjust to the change.

The starving of the adjuncts is the result of at least four major forces, each of those four already a summation of dozens of other impacts.

The first is the overproduction of workers with PhDs and terminal master’s degrees. We’re throwing six or eight or ten times as many candidates into the job pool as can be absorbed under current conditions. We do that because graduate programs bring prestige to their institutions, because graduate students do tons of research, and because graduate students make really inexpensive teachers. We’ve given the opportunity for significant intellectual growth to more than twice as many students as we did thirty years ago, a real social and personal benefit, while neglecting the fact that these newly sophisticated thinkers might not have a place to ultimately exercise that muscle.

The second is that colleges have found an endless number of other things to spend money on, all of them useful and important, but all of them changing the nutrient demands of the lake. Colleges buy technology, in vast quantity and wild variety. They support the wonderful fact of an increased diversity of students through programs and offices: for adult students and veteran students and single-parent students and students with learning disabilities and English-language learners and women’s centers. They chase the employment market with the launch of new programs and new degree levels… or no degrees at all, just badges and certificates. They market to a much broader audience than their humble geographic region, to students from other states and other nations, competing on the basis of amenities and buzz as much as they do on academic quality. They join a huge number of national organizations, related to disciplines and institution types and pedagogical practices, each of which requires membership fees and conference registration and travel. They fund offices of sponsored research, even though hardly any will pay their own way through the ultimate sponsorship harvest. They have more staff for financial aid, more staff to respond to legal mandates and federal programs and state/regional partnerships. Teaching is now only a tiny proportion of what colleges are required to offer.

The third is that the income side of the equation for colleges is uncertain. State governments are less generous with funding than they had once been; just this week, Alaska’s governor introduced a draft budget including a 40% reduction in funding for the University of Alaska system, and he’s hardly alone in the past decade. Just as profound, though, is the demographic collapse, the reduction in 1990s and 2000s and 2010s babies that become college students between 2010 and 2030. When we don’t know how much money we’ll have or how many students we’ll have, it doesn’t make sense to make permanent commitments to anything.

And the fourth is that higher ed just looks like the rest of the economy, with our emphasis on consumer satisfaction and convenience far outweighing our commitment to worker dignity. Gig workers abound. We increasingly accept and rely on paraprofessionals for most daily contact in law and medicine as well as college teaching. We outsource all of our non-core functions to invisible off-site workforces. We systematically devalue any profession once women begin to succeed at it.

Any time someone tells you that they know why the crisis of contingency exists, you can agree with them, because they’re almost certainly right. That is, they’ve almost certainly named one of the dozens of factors that enter into the remaking of the academic ecosystem. The problem is that we can’t fix it by working only on one variable at a time.

The Importance of Finding the Metaphor

When Nora and I first started doing consulting work, we decided that her job title should be Director of Dialogue, because she has a magical skill at getting people to talk about themselves and what they believe. And we decided that my job title should be Director of Metaphor, because of my habit of describing one thing in terms of another.

Metaphors are a form of theory: they explain how disparate things fit together. Finding the right metaphor allows you to make sense of things that didn’t make sense, to open things that seemed stuck because we kept working inside the same old stories.

When I first started to write about adjuncts, I knew that the right metaphor wasn’t the great labor struggles of the industrial era, the great battle between two opposed interests. I wrote in my proposal for the book that I was going to avoid “the combat narrative.” But it wasn’t until I had a new metaphor—the ecosystem in collapse—that I understood how to move forward.

I’m understanding that personally as well as professionally. My wife and I are both writers, working outside of easy membership in long-established genres. That makes our lives especially difficult, because readers don’t have an easy way to enter the work, can’t quickly say “Oh, that’s a historical novel” or “that’s a political thriller” and then stand on an established way of reading. Just as was true for my first year of work on The Adjunct Underclass, we know the metaphors and categories that we aren’t, but haven’t yet developed new ones.

When submitting books for an editor’s consideration, one of the key elements of the package are the “comps,” or comparable titles. The stronger and clearer the comps, the easier the sale. “This book is a romantic comedy in the style of Nora Ephron” or “I have a Grisham-like story of political corruption” will get those books considered. But those comps can also be a trap, because the reader now has pre-read the book in some particular way, expecting the conventions of that field and caught by surprise when those conventions aren’t mostly fulfilled. And they can be a trap for the writer as well, trying to fulfill those conventions instead of letting the book and its characters do what they need to do.

I half-jokingly refer to my fiction as “men’s romance,” but it’s only half. The Women’s Fiction Writers Association defines women’s fiction as stories of a woman’s emotional journey toward a more fulfilled self. And that’s what my work is, stories of men’s emotional journey toward a more fulfilled self. But it’s a category that doesn’t yet exist; there’s no easy set of comps.

Nora’s in the same place, writing “historical fiction” whose characters are introspective more than interpersonal, work that draws on ideas from material culture studies but rests fully on the lives of dense, complex characters. It’s a category that doesn’t yet exist; there’s no easy set of comps.

You can make something new, but it’s not an “innovation” until others take it up. You can go to a new place, but you’re not a “pioneer” until others settle the land you’ve found. The word pioneer comes from an ancient French word pionnier, or foot soldier. We walk on toward a landscape that we hope will be hospitable, with no guarantees that we’ll find water or gold or fertile soil, without the expectation that others will necessarily join us. We do the work because the work asks us to do it. Perhaps others will follow; perhaps not.

Glengarry Glen U.

We talked a little yesterday about the added burdens of complexity that are introduced when institutions pursue research funding, and the demands of research universities that its faculty get that funding. Let’s turn our attention today toward a darker side of all this. Not sinister, not intentional mistreatment, but rather the collateral damage, the civilian casualties. The costs of doing business.

Research universities love graduate students, in much the same way that Walmart loves its associates. They get the work done without much need for reward. They do the work in the lab and the institute. They coordinate the conferences. They teach the lower-division undergraduate courses. And they do it for a tiny stipend, far less than one would pay a professional for similar service.

Research universities also love postdoctoral researchers, in much the same way that Walmart loves its site managers. They coordinate and supervise the workers, they know enough to make independent decisions about the day-to-day conduct of the operation. And although their stipends are larger than those of the grad students, they’re still about half or less of a faculty salary, with no commitment of permanence. With, in fact, a guarantee of impermanence.

The number of graduate students has more than doubled in the past thirty years. The number of master’s degrees has gone from about 316,000 in 1989 to a projected 780,000 this year; the number of doctoral degrees (research and professional) from 100,000 to 182,000. This is not because the number of faculty will need to grow; in fact, exactly the opposite. This body of inexpensive workers have reduced the pressure for faculty hiring, have acted as a downward force on salaries and permanence. Over that same time, the number of postdoctoral researchers has nearly tripled, from about 20,000 to over 60,000.

All of these low-paid people, investing all of this hope labor, doing the daily work of teaching and research productivity, so that their permanent faculty can do… what, exactly?

Always. Be. Closing. [nsfw, thanks to Alec Baldwin and David Mamet.]

You’ve got to feed the machine, you’ve got to earn your keep, you’ve got to cover your nut. You have to be an asset, and assets are capital, and capital returns dividends. MIT makes a billion seven on funded research, and spends a billion five to do it. That’s a pretty fine margin, and they can’t carry any dead weight. You’re a good teacher? Ain’t that nice… they can get a good teacher for three grand a course, hungry and ready to prove themselves. You want to work there? You need to close, you need to sell, you need to get the NSF and the NIH and the big pharma and the big ag to pay your way.

Listen to the wisdom of your Dean, Alec Baldwin. First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. The money’s out there. You pick it up, it’s yours. If not, you’re gonna be shining my shoes.

Administrative Jenga

About twenty years ago, while I was still on the job market, I’d applied for a position at a major research university, and got a nice phone call from the chair of the department, a writer whose work I was familiar with from my own research. Our conversation made it clear that the position wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined, though the chair had been familiar with my research and was trying to figure out whether I could fit into the broader life of the department while still bringing my particular interests and skills.

As the conversation went on, I asked directly (following a bit of advice I’d recently read) what criteria were most central in their tenure decisions. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Research funding.” And I thought, “Oh. It’s a commissioned sales position.”

Grant proposal writing is one of the primary roles of the contemporary college faculty member, one of the visible acts of devotion that must be conducted to remain a member of the flock. This is absolutely true at the world of the R1, the most research-focused universities, but it’s increasingly true at the lower tiers of schools as well, as colleges try any number of strategies to raise money in the face of reduced undergraduate enrollment and decreased state support.

Let’s think, though, about a single successful grant, and how many people at an institution are implicated in creating and sustaining it. On the front end, there’s probably an office of sponsored research, a person or people who are paid to investigate funding opportunities, to publicize those opportunities across the faculty, and to help faculty members write effective proposals. They’re also paid to predict the internal accommodations that a funded project will require, and to help coordinate internally with a surprising number of other players.

  • Will this project require added space? Different space? Specialized technical demands for worker safety or animal care or student and staff training?
  • Will this project require technology we’re familiar with, that will add to the IT group’s workload?
  • Will this project require technology we’re not familiar with, that will change the IT or facilities groups’ workload?
  • Will this project require hiring?
  • Will this project influence the way we recruit graduate students?
  • Will this project require the management and recruitment of postdoctoral researchers?
  • Will this project influence our undergraduate curriculum, offering opportunities for new courses?
  • Will this project require oversight for the treatment of human or animal participants?
  • Will this project require adherence to a new body of federal regulations?
  • Will this project require participation or partnerships with outside agencies or businesses? If so, how do we fit into their policies (and into their accounting)?
  • Did we already have different fundraising plans for this proposed sponsor that your project would supersede or interfere with?

And then, of course, any time you’re handling money, you’re adding a burden to bookkeepers and accountants who distribute it across the various players within and beyond the college, and who eventually justify your expenses to the funder.

That’s one grant. Imagine fifty. Imagine five hundred. Imagine five thousand, ranging from computational chemistry to writers’ archives.

The lone genius in the attic, the Wright Brothers in their bike shop, Thomas Edison in the garage, Margaret Mead setting sail for Samoa… that’s not how scholarly life works any more. Every decision is interlinked, every division of the institution impinges on every other, and every good idea has to be weighed on something other than its own simple merits.

The American Institutes of Research have shown that the only real growth in college employment over the past twenty years is in the community they call “professional staff,” that body of personnel who manage all of this complexity—and whose very existence increases that complexity. And since, for most institutions, research is a money-losing endeavor (just like football), the cost of adding professional staff is indirectly offset by not hiring faculty. If you can’t demonstrably cover your own weight through significant research support, you become a much less attractive candidate. A mere teacher. And colleges can get those nearly for free.

More on this tomorrow.

The Technological Avalanche

The ubiquitous ID sweep, this one at DePaul University

I recently visited a college nursing program that has an entire suite fitted out as a hospital ward, with the standard array of oxygen and electrical and data infrastructure provided to each bed, the standard array of bedside intravenous pumps, blood-pressure cuffs, and heart monitors. In every bed was a medical mannequin, more than a few of which were computer-controlled and responsive to student actions. Nursing students could be presented with breathing complications, convulsions, or seizures; they could inadvertently create those conditions themselves by incorrectly administering medications. They could assist with a vaginal or a cesarean-section birth, could listen to the mannequins give self-reports of their presenting conditions to aid in diagnosis.

In an adjacent set of rooms, control centers had been set up for the observation of students by a nursing instructor. The instructor could see and hear everything in the simulation studio, could videotape the events, and could have a record of the mannequin’s simulated body functions during the students’ intervention. All of this could be used both to assess students in the moment, and to review performance alongside students later on.

As much as I’m in favor of nursing students injuring mannequins instead of me while they practice, it’s important to recognize what an investment that simulation suite represents. And then to multiply that investment across dozens of campus locations: the computer-imagery rendering studios of the graphic design and film departments, the big-data analytics systems in marketing and geographic information systems programs, the supercomputer employed by scientists and engineers, the giant databases in use in the digital humanities. Every department on campus is a computer science department.

Individual faculty, and groups of faculty, also have research equipment of remarkable sophistication. The science departments have increasing arrays of spectrophotometers and ultracentrifuges, microfurnaces and cryofreezers, ultraviolet transilluminators and phosporimagers—tools of science once reserved only for elite researchers, but now increasingly made available to students as well. Even the model shops of architecture schools have become “fabrication labs,” with 3D printers, computer-guided routers, laser cutters, and robotic-arm milling machines.

This array represents another unspoken conflict between safely tenured faculty, who get to advocate for the teaching and research tools they want, and the adjuncts who are marginalized at least in part because of the cost of the TT’s toolkit, and who themselves never get access to the best parts of it. So let’s be blunt: Would faculty and students be better served with more tools, or with more colleagues? Who would benefit differently from different balances of those variables?

Then add on all of the nonacademic computing. The thousands of desktop computers and printers, the classrooms with their multiple LED projectors, instructor kiosks, and smartboards. The wireless network covering every building and the entire grounds besides. The email server. The faculty and staff smartphones. The learning management system, facilitating the global university archive of every course handout, every reading, every out-of-class conversation, every quiz taken, every homework submitted, every midterm and final grade, every instructor evaluation. The sweep cards that control building, room, and parking lot entry, and also record today’s lunch purchase against one’s prepaid meal plan. The academic records-management system coordinating financial aid, advising, registration, and transcripts for hundreds of thousands of a college’s current and former students.

It’s easy, in the face of this technological avalanche, to be curmudgeonly, to talk about how simple things were when one was a kid, to remind everyone how millions of people got trained to be pretty effective nurses before simulation labs. And I don’t want to go there. I recognize the power of all of this technology, and I also recognize that students are being prepared to enter adult life in technologically mediated careers. All true, all important. But there are industry estimates that the annual worldwide expenditures on educational technology are approaching a quarter of a trillion dollars a year, and dollars spent on technology are dollars not spent on faculty. If we’re going to make the choice, we need to know that we’re making the choice.

Keeping Up

Miriam Honsacker, Vermont Public Radio

It’s been a strange winter. It rained a lot in the fall, so the ground was completely saturated before the first snow. Then we’ve gone back and forth between –22° three weeks ago to almost 50° yesterday, so every time we get a foot or two of snow, it becomes more water within a week.

As a result, our rural roads are a swampy disaster. Vermont has always known that there are five seasons to the year, with “mud season” nestled between winter and spring. But for the past two or three years, mud season has been the longest season of the year, from late November until mid-May, because we just haven’t had the two consecutive months of frozen weather that harden up the roads.

Being on our town’s selectboard, I’ve learned more than I ever imagined I would about the care of unpaved roads. (I woke up this morning, 16° and really windy out, and my first thought was “great, this’ll help evaporate the mud.”) In a normal winter, the road crew would go out in a storm and keep plowing the frozen dirt roads, finishing the storm with a coat of mixed sand and salt to bring some grip to the plowed surface. But when the roads are like this, you don’t want to plow, because you just push mud up the road and tear up the surface worse than it had been. And you can’t bring the big equipment up, because you just sink in while you’re trying to carry the gravel to the work that you need to do. So our road crew is putting in ten- and twelve-hour days, six days a week, trying to lay stone and rebuild failed shoulders in preparation for what looks like a foot of snow on Tuesday.

We make our plans, we lay out a course… and then things happen, and we have to do our best every day with what falls on us. And there’s something noble about just keeping up, about sighing and putting on your jacket and going out and doing the daily stuff. One of our crew members was talking with me this morning while he was loading stone, conferring over where the rough spots were. I thanked him for all the work he’d been doing, and he smiled and said, “My wife asked me when I thought we could have a whole weekend off. I told her probably about mid-June…”

Take courage in the daily work. Step up and take it on and do it again, and again. You don’t think people notice, but they do.

Two Paths Diverged…

Yesterday, I wrote about the different college experiences of students able to sustain a single curricular engagement than of those who transferred credits to complete their degrees at another college. One of the facts I hinted at was that different kinds of colleges offer their students “different kinds of life prospects.” Let’s explore that a little more, with the help of an economist.

(This is one of those brilliant empirical moments, by the way, that takes something you’d always suspected, and asks a couple of simple questions that make a phenomenon way clearer…)

So Joni Hersch, an economist teaching about employment discrimination at the Vanderbilt University Law School, asked a simple question. Let’s say that person A and person B both graduated from an elite graduate school; let’s say, oh, with MBAs from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. You’d expect that similar degrees with similar records would lead to similar outcomes in career terms—employment patterns, income, leadership positions over time.

But Dr. Hersch asked a simple question: What if person A and person B did their undergraduate degrees at different kinds of schools? What if person A got a bachelor’s degree from USC, and person B got a bachelor’s degree from Sonoma State?

Well, you guessed it. The reputational value of one’s undergraduate institution was “sticky,” resulted in better employment prospects and greater earnings throughout adult life. I’ll let Dr. Hersch have the floor here for a moment:

Few graduates of nonselective institutions continue to graduate or professional schools, and among those that do, very few move to higher-ranked post- BA programs. And even when they do, their earnings do not catch up to their counterparts with elite undergraduate degrees… [The phenomenon of] “undermatching… may have permanent consequences if high ability students who do not attend elite institutions for their bachelor’s degree are unable to overcome their initial placement by moving up to an elite graduate or professional school for a post-baccalaureate degree.

Hersch, “Catching Up Is Hard To Do: Undergraduate Prestige, Elite Graduate Programs, and the Earnings Premium,” 2014.

When I went to college forty years ago, no one in my family had college experience. So when I was accepted to the University of Michigan, to Michigan State University, and to Michigan Tech, I had no way of knowing the differences among them, and no one I knew who could coach me into understanding. Millions of kids now are in the same boat; they’re about to be first-generation college students, smart as hell, but no one to tell them that saving a little money by living at home and going to Castleton State College (excuse me… Castleton University) is going to hinder their earnings for a lifetime compared to attending Middlebury College or the University of Vermont.

As David Labaree writes in A Perfect Mess, his marvelous history of American higher ed:

Stratification is at the heart of American education. It’s the price we pay for the system’s broad accessibility. We let everyone in, but they all get a different experience, and they all win different social benefits from those experiences. In this way the system is both strongly populist and strongly elitist, allowing ordinary people a high possibility of getting ahead through education and a low probability of getting ahead very far.

We imagine that “a bachelor’s degree” is the name of a recognizable thing, but really, it’s more like saying “a restaurant.” We might mean The French Laundry or Eleven Madison Park. We might mean a nice night in a nearby town. Or we might mean Denny’s. Our focus on college accessibility and degree attainment is simultaneously noble and misleading.

The Privilege of the Non-Transfer Student

About 40 percent of all young people who actually complete a college degree will get that degree from a college other than the one at which they began. The business of transfer credit is a massive change in higher ed over the past fifty years, going from being an occasional need to a regular part of doing business. Whether it’s the cost-conscious student who launches with two years at a community college before continuing at the regional state school, or the student who follows a friend or a partner to a new campus, or the student who’s had to take some time away and then come back to school after they’ve moved across the country or had a child, transfer credit is just a baseline of America’s higher education model, and an important contribution to college accessibility.

But the ability to do college without transfer credit, the ability to do it “the old-fashioned way,” is actually a marker of an enormous number of other benefits and privileges that go unspoken. The most obvious, of course, is that a non-transfer student has the life stability and the financial resources to stay put, to avoid disruption, to take the simple ballistic path of starting in Fall ’19 and finishing in Spring ’23. At schools that rarely take transfer students, in fact, the incoming freshmen will be met at the door with materials proclaiming them in advance to be The Class of 2023. The presumption of continuity is a taken-for-granted part of their experience.

And when we talk about transfer credit, what kinds of schools are we talking about? Community colleges are almost entirely in the transfer credit business, creating detailed articulation agreements with schools throughout their region, bolting their gen-ed engines into other schools’ majors. The recipients of those transfer students are most often the lower tier of state institutions, the so-called “regional comprehensives” like UW-Parkside or Eastern Michigan or Cal State Stanislaus. The flagship research universities, the public elites, take far fewer transfers than the regionals. Only about three percent of the University of Michigan’s undergrads got there through transfer; four percent of the University of Vermont; four percent of the University of North Carolina.

The private elite schools take even fewer. When Princeton decided to accept thirteen transfer students for Fall 2018, it was a news story. Duke has half a percent of undergrads who transferred; Stanford slightly less than that. These are schools designed for the comfortable, designed for those who can take an uninterrupted four year path for granted.

And the courses that most often qualify for transfer applicability—courses in the general education and introductory curricula—are the ones most often remanded to adjunct faculty in those less-than-elite colleges. It’s not that adjuncts are bad teachers, far from it. But contingent faculty have less awareness of the other resources that the college has, they aren’t available for out-of-class consultations either during the semester or in subsequent semesters, they can’t do any meaningful advising because they don’t know the school or even their own departments well enough to offer well-informed coaching. They can’t welcome students to be a member of the community, because they aren’t part of the community themselves

When we think of transfer students, we most often think that it’s just another path to college completion. But it’s not a parallel path—it’s a path to a different definition of college completion, at a different kind of college that carries different kinds of life prospects, with a different set of experiences along the way.

More on that tomorrow.