Archives—October 2017

Education Reformation on the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses

October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his hometown church, as legend has it, he launched innumerable changes to the western world. One of those being a direct challenge to the commonly understood definition of “expert.”

In some ways the Reformation was as much a technological evolution as much as it was cultural and theological. Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular of the masses. Up until then the Roman Catholics of the day leveraged access to the bible (or lack thereof) to create experts, or rather, priests. By virtue of constricting access to the scripture, Catholic leaders lay claim to the only path to God’s word and thus, His salvation. The printing press eliminated that barrier to expert witness, exposing the masses directly to God’s word.

One wonders whether we’re seeing a 21st century version of the 95 Theses today. Machines are advancing their capability to take on more and more tasks that were once the sole proprietor of the human mind and body. Evolutionary jumps in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are creating a new automation age. Machines can now not only perform a range of routine physical work activities better and more cheaply than humans, but they are also expanding their capability to accomplish activities that involve cognitive skills once considered too complicated to automate, such as making tacit judgments or even sensing emotion.

The question is, then, how will this technological evolution manifest itself in today’s definition of the idea of an expert (a professional)? How is a profession defined if it can be done by a machine (try checking the chances) that your own profession will be automated. If Gutenberg’s printing press gave the masses scripture which by-passed the need for a trained priest, how will this new form of machine age redefine the professions that give structure to our present education system?

Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book The Future of the Professions characterizes today’s professions as sharing four common features. 1 they have specialists knowledge; 2 their admission depends on credentials; 3 their activities are regulated; and 4 they are bound by a common set of values.

The first two characteristics are the property of education and our overarching practices concerning education have not altered much in centuries. Paulo Freire, in his masterful work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, described this aged tradition as the banking concept of education which views students as containers into which educators must put knowledge. He critiques this by writing, “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.”

There are hints of a new education reformation on the near horizon. Flipped classrooms, adaptive learning, and other structural changes recognize that access to information is no longer the primary paradigm of education. The educator’s currency described by Freire, knowledge, is now ubiquitous. The sum total of all human knowledge is now comfortably resting in the palm of your hand. The Susskind’s write, “There is less need for a sage on the stage’ and more of a job for ‘guide on the side’ – those who help students navigate through alternative sources of expertise. In other words, value of education is no longer the facts, but the skills to navigate those facts.

Where does the role for higher education fit in all of this? The fact that specialists’ knowledge is available to everyone will surely alter the notion that credentialed admission is the only entry into professions. How will this new technological age merge with a DYI culture? And what role will higher education serve in it? (There are those who might skillfully claim that college tuition is a new form of Catholic Indulgences.)

Gutenberg’s printing press and Luther’s 95 Theses did not spell the end of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the Catholic Church resisted change fairly successfully for 450 years after Luther’s nail in the door. Only relatively recently did it partially reform in its own way in 1965. Perhaps modern higher education, founded from the same DNA that trained those Catholic priests, can too resist change and survive. I’d rather not test that hypothesis.

Despite its stuffy reputation, higher education has proved itself to be rather adept at adaptation over the years. From its ability to scale up with the massification of education brought on by Morrill Act and the GI Bill to its ability to innovate through large scale disinvestment from the states, colleges and universities continue to find themselves at the crux of social need and economic necessity. The world still needs experts (in fact, it needs many many more of them) and the definition of that need may very well change over time. Post-secondary education must continue to adapt to stay relevant. In the end, the question is will higher education be the parchment of 95 Theses or will it be the door that Theses is nailed on to?


Federal Investment in Michigan Tech: Students are a Good Bet

This week The Student Loan Report published a report that analyzed the default rate among graduates from thousands of universities. Using federal data from the Department of Education, the report looks at the three-year default rate for students who entered repayment beginning in 2014. The national average for default among these borrowers is 11.5%, an increase of 1.77 percentage points over last year. Public college students only did a tad better than the overall average, defaulting at a rate of 11.3%.

Michigan Technological University’s three-year default rate, however, is much better, holding steady at 2.0%. Overall, Michigan Tech ranked #119 out of 1,900 schools reviewed by this report (in the top 6%). Among public institutions, Michigan Tech ranked #27 in the nation (top 2%).

Public Rank 1But many of those public institutions are actually medical schools consisting mostly of graduate students (and just handfuls of undergraduate students). Removing the public medical schools, Michigan Tech ranks 18th in the country for the lowest default rate.

Public Default 2

Finally, the default rate isn’t only a factor of how easily a student can pay back their loans with their early-career earnings, it is also a factor of their socio-economic class background. Students coming from higher earning families borrow less and have back-up means by which to pay off their loans if they do borrow. So we pulled a bit of additional data from the White House Scorecard. Of those top 18 non-medical school public institutions, only three (UC-Irvine, George Mason, and Suny Geneseo) had a higher percentage of students qualifying for the federal Pell Grant.

Looking at it this way, it’s fair to say that Michigan Tech is one of the top four public institutions in the nation where students from modest to moderate financial means can get an education that ensures them the ability to pay back their loans after graduation.

Name 3

No school on this list has a higher percentage of their student body taking out federal loans than Michigan Tech.  In other words, on this list no other public institution in the nation has a larger percentage of students taking out loans with the lowest default rate three years after entering repayment.  Secretary DeVos should sleep well knowing that Michigan Tech students are a good investment for our nation from that point alone.