A Bechdel Test for Higher-Ed “Disruption”

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 21 2013 3:20 PM

A Bechdel Test for Higher-Ed “Disruption”

Five rules for a better conversation about how to fix a broken system.

College students
College students.

Photo by Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Higher education faces many challenges—inequality, rising tuition, corporatization—and any academic would applaud the media’s growing interest in those challenges. The problem is the nature of the coverage. The media narrative of higher-ed “disruption” considers anybody with an angel investor or a TED talk to be an expert. There are some genuinely promising private-sector initiatives to improve technology in higher-ed bureaucracies, for example. But for every sincere “disruption,” there seem to be a dozen others that aren’t much more than screen-caps of a McKinsey or Bain model of slash-and-burn “strategic dynamism” aimed at grabbing a piece of the higher-ed market and its cash streams.

The disruption narrative does a good job of blaming higher ed’s economic weaknesses on ineffectual bureaucracies. But what’s really required to drive down tuition costs is real competition—not the pipe dream of low-cost MOOCs, short for massive open online courses, that will upend higher-ed profit models as we’ve known them for more than 50 years. Those policies require real guts and vision. They include giving students a meaningful choice between gainful long-term employment and furthering their education. They include providing adequate, low-cost child care so that parents can make meaningful choices about their education, rather than defaulting to high-cost, for-profit options.

Not many people want to hear that version of the “disruption” narrative. That’s their right. But I also reserve the right to ignore and/or mock any new story or “innovation” that fails my higher-ed version of the Bechdel test. To pass the Bechdel test, named for cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, a film or other work of art needs to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than men. To pass my variation on the Bechdel test—call it the Tressie test—a story about higher-ed disruption must do the following:

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1. Acknowledge our crappy economy. Any discussion of labor market outcomes of degrees that ignores the conditions of the labor market is foolish.

2. Acknowledge the peculiar prestige currency that renders higher education different from other markets—even prestige luxury markets, like those for designer clothing and yachts.

3. Address inequality, be it race-, class-, language-, or gender-based. Disruption is easy when you benefit from the immense stratifying of the most talented, best-educated, best-prepared college students in the nation. However, they are the minority by design. If your disruption ignores the vast majority of students, that is innovation like feeling up my hair at airport screening is security.

4. Describe an outcome in specific detail. MOOCs and learning-management systems and privatization all promise to innovate, disrupt, and cage-bust. They’re going to lower costs, decouple knowledge from institutions, help America beat China, and make everyone a scientist for tomorrow’s jobs, never today’s. The only promise I’ve not seen from a disruptor is 40 acres and a mule. But none of these plans ever evolve from feel-good missives into practical implementation. It’s all magic beans in a financial prospectus.

5. Call on the private sector to address its pathological unwillingness to expand hiring or pay wages that will attract skilled labor or to invest in the skills training of the labor they do have.

The problems of higher education are the problems of the greater economy and labor market. Proposing to “disrupt” one and not the other is either dangerous naïveté or willful, predatory profit-taking. Either way, elevating these stories and proposals from press release to news only gives these schemes the illusion of legitimacy.

This piece is adapted from McMillan Cottom’s blog, tressiemc.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Slate writer and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University. Follow her on Twitter.

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