We’re speaking with a hot name in disruptive innovation, Sebastian Thrun. He’s part of our conversation on hacking higher education. He’s the founder of the Google X lab, immersed in robotics and artificial intelligence, in building driverless car, but he’s more than all that. Three years ago he offered his Stanford University introduction to artificial intelligence class — online for free — and quickly had an enrollment of over 160,000 students from all over the world. It was the start of a craze in so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses – a craze he’s still retooling. The company he started in his living room, Udacity, is now set on reinventing higher ed inside a computer on a billion-dollar scale. We asked him for his essential principles in remaking the university.
May 22, 2014
- Shai Reshef, founder and president of University of the People, a free, non-profit, online university;
- Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character;
- Sebastian Thrun, cofounder of Udacity and Google X, developer of the Google driverless car and Google Glass.
- Margaret Doherty, Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University.
- Evan Charles and Dan Pickett, founders of Launch Academy, a ten week coding bootcamp.
Continuing our series on higher ed, we’re hacking our way to a better model; call it New U. There won’t be a football team or a building and grounds department and maybe no president and no tenure. We might think of more adjuncts with more power. We could surely MOOC up in order to spend way down and eliminate the frats, kegs, mixers and majors. Where would you start in reimagining the American university?
- Paul Tough’s article in the New York Times, “Who Gets to Graduate?“
When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.
The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.
- Shai Reshef discussing “How Much Does it Cost to Educate All Those Currently Priced Out of Education?“
Realistically, it will only take a drop in the bucket in relation to the billions floating within the higher education industry. To exemplify how insignificant the support needed to reach individuals currently priced out of education is, take the recently launched $6 billion fundraising campaign at the University of Southern California and divide by 1000; the average $300 million university endowment in the U.S. and divide by 50; or the interest Harvard earned every 10 hours last year. Either way, the solution is $6 million: a tiny price in the world of higher education but a number that has the capacity to educate the world over.
- Thomas Frank in Salon, “Congratulations, class of 2014: You’re totally screwed“
- This interview with Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, “A Q&A with “Godfather of MOOCs” Sebastian Thrun after he disavowed his godchild“
Podcast • May 21, 2014
We’re extending the conversation on higher education in America with the man who gave just that august title to his own fresh take on a troubled subject. Derek Bok is the only two-time president of Harvard University, which is to say he has twice reinvented the management of the oldest, richest, maybe the best university in the country. First time was 1971 during the Vietnam War campus uprisings. Second time, 35 years later, Derek Bok was asked back in 2006 after Lawrence Summers was ushered out of the job early. So he’s a qualified fixer of the university system; at the same time he personifies the high Ivy Establishment, the very top of heap.
He doesn’t blush about the quarter-million dollar price-tag on a Harvard BA. And he resists my bleating about student debt. The national average is under $30,000, he notes. Those infamous 6-figure loan burdens are are “outliers” and “self-inflicted wounds,” he says, given the amount of available financial aid and alternative schools and programs. Bok says the economic bonus for completing a degree is at historic highs in this country, but he sounds disturbed by that, too — by the fixation on high costs and big career payoffs.
Not for past loans but for the future, Derek Bok would like to make college debts “income contingent,” that is, sharply discounted for people who don’t seek (or find) big salaries for their work – in teaching, say. I found him disarmingly candid on a trend as worrisome as the money issues. Students on American campuses are not studying nearly as much as they used to; they’re not learning as much either! So says the honorary chairman of the board, Derek Bok, with a Cambridge view of Boston and the rebuilding of the Longfellow Bridge over the Charles River.
May 19, 2014
By Max Larkin
We’re sending along some free advice for aspiring artists from the ones who’ve made it. Whether to go to school, and for how long? If not, what do you do instead? It’s a topic discussed online, on stage and off, and continuously among the artists. Be sure to add your voice.
Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker art critic
I tell them that I’m not interested in educating their minds, I’m interested in sophisticating them, which is different. Sophistication is knowledge that’s acquired in the course of having a purpose. You know why you want the information at the moment that you put your hand on it. You’re not just storing it up for a rainy day.There’s nothing innately relevant or innately irrelevant to an artist. If their minds and spirits can’t put the stuff in order, then they’re not artists. Very often the flashiest, most seemingly talented person turns out to be not an artist at all, and some hopeless klutz ends up being Jackson Pollock.
Andrew Fish, painter
I attended SVA but didn’t actually get my degree. Like many in a long tradition of dropping out, I was anxious to get to work. I was going into debt, working in art galleries and as an artist assistant, and making paintings in my own studio. I even organized a show for my work at a New York gallery. I was thinking that I was already doing the thing I went to art school to learn how to do. And why continue to go into debt?
What I didn’t take into consideration was how important the community was. It’s really hard to see the bigger picture when you’re 19 or 20 years old. And you have no idea how much your attitudes about things will change by the time you’re 40.
I fluctuate between being proud of my education (self-directed, experiential, and comprised of workshops, classes, and mentorships) and being defensive about my lack of official, institutional certification. But I’m still a painter and making some of the best paintings I’ve ever made, so maybe it doesn’t matter how I got here, just that I kept going.
Noah Bradley, environmental artist
I have a diploma from the best public art school in the nation. Prior to that I attended the best private art school in the nation. I’m not some flaky, disgruntled art graduate, either. I have a quite successful career, thankyouverymuch.
But I am saddened and ashamed at art schools and their blatant exploitation of students. Graduates are woefully ill-prepared for the realities of being professional artists and racked with obscene amounts of debt. By their own estimation, the cost of a four year education at RISD is $245,816. As way of comparison, the cost of a diploma from Harvard Law School is a mere $236,100.
Don’t do it. Don’t start your career with debilitating debt. Please. I beg you. Think long and hard whether you’re willing to pay student loan companies $3000 every single month for the next 10 years.
I dropped out of NYU, moved out of my parent’s house, got my own place, and survived on my own.
I would make demo tapes and send them around; then I would jump on my bike and pretend to be Lady Gaga’s manager. I’d make $300 at work and spend it all on Xeroxes to make posters. Lady Starlight and I would spin vinyl in my apartment, sewing our bikinis for the show and listening to David Bowie and the New York Dolls. We thought, “What could we do to make everybody so jealous?” We did it, and everybody was so jealous. And they still are.
If I have any advice to anybody, it’s to just do it yourself, and don’t waste time trying to get a favor.
Junot Diaz, novelist
I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.
So what was the problem? Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs. That shit was too white.
Sometimes [people] say: You did an MFA. Did you ever think about dropping out? All the time.
Why didn’t you?
Another good question. I’m not sure I have a real answer. Answers yes but An Answer: no. Maybe it was immigrant shit. Maybe it was characterlogical—I was just a stubborn fuck. Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t want to move back to my mother’s basement for anything. Maybe I just got lucky—I didn’t snap or fall into a deep depression or get completely demoralized.
The promise of a life-changing learning experience is only as good as what you actually get and how that sizes up with what you need. It’s up to you to ask, ask, ask in advance: your teachers, your mentors, and other art students. Instead of getting into tense conversations with recruiters about financial aid once you’ve been admitted, find out before you apply if your school of choice is endowed with resources that allow it to provide adequate support.
Make sure to ask about hidden costs. You may be lured into paying for a lot more than your peers while getting a lot less. It’s up to you to find out what your money will buy.
Jerry Saltz, critic
I think it’s great for young artists to go to grad school if they’ve got the time, inclination, and money — whether it’s Mom and Dad’s money or a trust fund. Artists seem to thrive during these two years of enforced art-making, staying up very late and learning things with each other long after the professors have gone home for the night. But I’ve also witnessed — and may have been responsible for — a lot of bullshit. Iffy artist-teachers wield enormous artistic and intellectual influence over students, favors are doled out in power cliques.
All this may be the same as it ever was. What’s different now is that MFA programs are exorbitantly priced luxury items. At the top-shelf East Coast schools like Yale, RISD, SVA, and Columbia, the two-year cost can top $100,000. This doesn’t include room, board, materials, etc. Add all that in, and you’re hovering near a quarter-million dollars. No matter how wonderful the M.F.A. experience, that’s straight-up highway robbery.
I believe that many of the less-expensive, non-marquee schools now have parity with — and are sometimes better than — the sexy top tier. Trust me; I’ve taught at them all. And should be fired.
May 17, 2014
By Kunal Jasty
College tuition is rising faster than medical costs, inflation, and certainly the income of 99% of Americans. Four years at a private university now costs as much as a new Ferrari, and a student at a public university can expect to graduate $25,000 in debt. But does anyone know where colleges are spending all their money?
Academic Support – Academic administrators, academic deans, libraries.
Instruction – “General academic instruction, occupational and vocational instruction, community education, preparatory and adult basic education, and regular, special, and extension sessions.”
Research – Funding for research institutes, laboratories, and individual research.
Public Service – “Activities established primarily to provide noninstructional services beneficial to individuals and groups external to the institution. Examples are conferences, institutes, general advisory service, reference bureaus.”
Student Services – Admissions, registrars, student activities and organizations, student counseling.
Institutional Support – General administration and management, legal operations, fiscal operations, logistical expenses, public relations.
Operations and Maintenance – Utilities, insurance, maintaining campus buildings and grounds.
Depreciation – Losses in capital assets per year.
Scholarships and Fellowships – Grants, stipends, awards.
Auxiliary Enterprises Expenses – Residence halls, dining services, student health services, athletics, faculty housing.
Hospital Services – All expenses at a university affiliated hospital.
Independent Operations – Expenses “unrelated to the primary missions of the institution (i.e., instruction, research, public service) although they may contribute indirectly to the enhancement of these programs.”
Other expenses – “The amount of money (estimated by the financial aid office) needed by a student to cover expenses such as laundry, transportation, and entertainment.”
Net grant aid to students – The difference in the money a school receives in tuition, fees, room and board, and the amount of scholarships and fellowships it awards.
Podcast • May 15, 2014
We’re digressing here from our ongoing conversations about higher education in general, and arts education in particular. For the perspective of experience and solid accomplishment, we’re asking two acting professionals in the middle of enviable careers what they learned in and out of school, where they’d be looking for training, how much they’d pay, if they were starting out again. Chris Cooper is a Hollywood hero, often in deep supporting roles. He won an Academy Award for one of them, in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. His wife Marianne Leone played the gangster mama Joanne Moltisanti in The Sopranos on HBO.
May 15, 2014
• Roger Brown, president of Berklee College of Music.
• Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College.
Show biz is center stage next in our higher ed series: Two venerable private art schools in Boston’s Back Bay — Emerson College and the Berklee College of Music — are booming, if you can believe your eyes. Both have built major gleaming signature buildings close to downtown. Emerson has a satellite campus in Hollywood. Berklee is teaching in China and has a campus in Valencia. More students are chasing the dream and mastering a craft, under a load of debt, with maybe fewer job prospects. But where’s the line between chasing a dream and betting on a bubble?
Harvard’s Helen Vendler, the preeminent poetry critic, is pushing the arts, period. At Harvard and everywhere, she wants to advise admissions officers about the value of creative talent. Would T. S. Eliot, Buckminster Fuller, Matt Damon, and Adrienne Rich have a tough time getting into Harvard today, as in fact they did back in the day? Today, Vendler says, “We need to mute our praise for achievement and leadership at least to the extent that we utter equal praise for inner happiness, reflectiveness, and creativity; and we need to invent ways in which our humanities students are actively recruited for jobs suited to their talents and desires.”
Who’s dreaming here? There’s a reason so many students chase finance: it pays, and many young people leave school in serious debt. At what cost to the students? And to expressive arts? And to our national culture and our reputation?
Below, Duke Ellington and Herb Pomeroy at Berklee College of Music in 1957.
May 12, 2014
It just seems absurd, to pay 60 grand a year so that you can read Rousseau. I mean I can read Rousseau right here. Hell, I can hire sometime to read it to me, teach me French, and then read it to me in French for that kind of money. It’s absolutely nuts!
By Kunal Jasty
We’re drilling down on the essential question around the higher ed challenge – namely why does it cost so much, and it is it worth it in the end?
Here are 1500 American colleges and universities plotted by their 4-year sticker price on the x-axis and 30-year net return on investment (based on the median salary of graduates) on the y-axis. All data is taken from Payscale’s annual report on the earnings of college graduates. Look to the top right of the graph for high-price schools with high future salaries, the bottom right for high-priced schools with low future salaries, and the top left for (relatively) affordable schools with high future salaries.
- Payscale has a great explanation of their methodology on their website.
- The dataset is by no means perfect, but I believe it is accurate enough for illustrative purposes.
- We’re not taking into account the net price of colleges (i.e. financial aid and grant aid).
- Future earnings by no means the only way to judge a college or the “college experience.” It’s hard to put a price on the value of a college education, but I believe the average earnings of graduates is an extremely important data point.
- Thank you to nsonnad for providing invaluable code examples.
Podcast • May 8, 2014
Thomas Frank is the bestselling omni-critic who founded The Baffler magazine and edited it for years. He’s a columnist at Salon.com and he wrote the book on the turning of American politics ten years ago, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Shifting focus from politics to higher education, he did it again with “Academy Fight Song,” a Baffler piece published last winter. The question, his and ours: how did higher education, in general, turn from the days of the GI Bill — and the land grant colleges long before that — to being a trap for seventeen-year-old kids who are signing away their lives into eternity with student loans? College has turned into a trap, maybe, for all of us. Will it be the undoing of the great American middle class?
May 8, 2014
• Liz McMillen, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education
• Joseph Moore, president of Lesley University
• Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor at the University of Virginia and cultural historian
On the way to commencement season, what’s college really good for, if the cost is out of sight, and your degree doesn’t point you to a job; if there’s too much drinking, cheating and grade inflation; if it’s not safe enough for women. What if the whole bloated model is outdated in a digital age? Who’s got a better idea? Schools are almost out; will they still be there in September?
• In a New York Times blog, Suzanne Mettler argues that college is not leveling the playing field, it’s doing the opposite;
• Thomas Frank’s essay from The Baffler, “Academy Fight Song;”
• Siva’s blog post, “Going Public the UVa Way;”
…We must stop using business language to describe universities. It’s not only misguided and inaccurate, but it also sets up bad incentives and standards. The University of Virginia is a wealthy and stable institution, a collection of public services, a space for thought and research, a living museum, a public forum, a stage for athletics competition, and an incubator of dreams and careers. But it’s not a firm, so it’s certainly not a “brand.”
…and the case he makes in Bookforum for “academic calling in a neoliberal age”;
• Clay Shirky on the coming money crunch in higher ed;
The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.
• We’re also reading two public worries about the university from two different sides of the conversation. The first is Noam Chomsky’s recent talk, “The Death of American Universities,” published at Jacobin. Chomsky sees universities caught in a corporate drift; he wants us to double back in search of the old Enlightenment idea of learning. Education’s not filling a vessel, but
…laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure… But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education.
• David Brooks wrote about Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova meeting in Berlin in his column “Love Story.” Two thinkers meet, turn over the canons in their heads and recognize each other. The story ends with Berlin collapsing, lovestruck, on his bed back at home.
I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion — the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.
Does this sound nostalgic, or are minds meeting in this way on American campuses? What do you think? Leave a comment or send us a message.