Arizona State has been in higher ed news a lot this week. The Atlantic just published a fairly fawning article on ASU’s partnership with Starbucks, featuring trenchant critiques of traditional colleges like, “The customer service is atrocious.”
Today, the news is ASU’s announcement that it will offer its entire freshman year online, through MOOCs. (Just when you thought they were dead!) Here’s the deal: ASU is partnering with EdX, the nonprofit Harvard-MIT collaboration, to produce the MOOCs. Students don’t have to apply, and they don’t have to pay in advance. But after they complete the class, if they decide they want college credit, they can pay ASU $300-600 (the final price is not set) and it will show up on a transcript indistinguishable from any other class.
Of course, people love to hate on ASU president Michael Crow. Dean Dad pointed out that Maricopa Community College, in ASU’s backyard, only charges $250 a credit and provides library access, among other amenities. John Warner focuses on the importance of the first year to student persistence, implying that disadvantaged students will be hurt. Jonathan Rees amps up the rhetoric, calling ASU the first “predator university.”
The Chronicle’s analysis focuses on what it sees as the catch: ASU’s MOOC students won’t be eligible for financial aid. Because students won’t officially enroll until after they’ve completed the MOOC, what they’ve learned is considered “prior knowledge,” making them ineligible for federal aid. ASU admits this is an obstacle, but suggested that “the university hoped to find some way to make aid possible in the future.”
What the Chronicle doesn’t point to, though, is where this road ultimately leads. There’s no way ASU is committing to this if it doesn’t see a pathway to federal aid down the road. Who among the underemployed folks ASU is targeting can cough up $600 to pay for a single course? That’s more than two weeks’ work at minimum wage.
And indeed, noises about how to solve this problem are already being made. Conversations are underway in the Senate about finding ways to give accreditation — and thus access to aid — to “nontraditional providers” like (drumroll…) EdX.
Truthfully, I’m not that worried about ASU and EdX. I think it’s going to prove hard to get the disadvantaged students they’re aiming for to finish MOOCs, even with financial aid, and even with ASU’s well-publicized innovations in data analytics. And I think that the nonprofit EdX, with its close ties to Harvard and MIT, is unlikely to launch a race to the bottom in extracting revenues from students.
But you know who would be happy to suck at the teat of the federal financial aid system? The edutech disruptors, who talk a good game about transforming higher education but will quickly enough start tranforming student loans into company profits once it’s time to raise the next round of venture capital.* When we have the opportunity to channel our financial aid dollars not only to the University of Phoenix but to the Disruptive EduBadge Academy, then we will have fully corrupted the system. The reason, if it needs to be spelled out, is that there is no reason to think that their courses will require learning, that pesky obstacle between them and those tantalizing financial aid dollars.
I’m not anti-technology, or anti-innovation. And I think traditional colleges are deeply flawed. But I am very, very much against expanding the money-laundering side of our financial aid system. And that is the coal mine into which the ASU-EdX canary is being lowered.
* I just Googled “silicon valley edutech” and got the San Francisco EduTech Meetup Group for — you can’t make this stuff up — “connecting folks who are passionate about the education space.”
Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan, an emeritus guest blogger, have written an article in Slate about the clustering of LBGT workers into specific occupations. In other words, is there any truth to the view that LBGT people tend to go into specific professions like cosmetology? Fisman and Sullivan use an ASQ paper to discuss the issue. The idea is simple – LBGT people probably are attracted to jobs that either (a) require subtle interactional skills, which they have cultivated because they live in a hostile environment or (b) they seek jobs where they can work by themselves so they don’t have to deal with hostility or constantly trying to stay submerged. From Fisman and Sullivan’s analysis:
The central thesis of Tilcsik, Anteby, and Knight’s paper is that gays and lesbians will tend to be employed at high rates in occupations that require social perceptiveness, allow for task independence, or both. They test their theory using data from the American Community Survey—a gargantuan study of nearly 5 million Americans conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau—and the U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), an ongoing study that has followed the same group of Americans since 1994. All Add Health respondents were in middle or high school in the mid-1990s, so they were just beginning to settle into their careers around 2008, the year the study uses for its analyses. Both data sets include questions that can be used to infer sexual orientation, as well as information on respondents’ occupations.
The authors connected these data to assessments of the extent to which particular jobs require social perceptiveness and whether they allow for task independence, which come from ratings from the Occupational Information Network, a survey of employees on what they see as their job requirements and attributes. The survey seems particularly well-suited to the researchers’ task. One question asks the extent to which workers “depend on themselves rather than on coworkers and supervisors to get things done” (task independence), while another asks whether “being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do is essential to the job” (social perceptiveness).
The link between these attributes and sexual orientation is immediately apparent from browsing the list of the top 15 occupations with the highest proportions of gay and lesbian workers. Every single one scores relatively high on either social perceptiveness or task independence, and most vocations score high on both. According to the authors’ calculations, the proportion of gays and lesbians in an occupation is more than 1.5 times higher when the job both has high task independence and requires social perceptiveness.
Clever paper! The paper is also an excellent contribution to studies of occupational segregation that go beyond stories of human capital. Recommended!
In 1994, The Social Organization of Sexuality was published. The authors, Ed Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels,conducted a large N survey of a random sample of Americans. I use the book in my freshman class to discuss sexual behavior. In today’s post, I will discuss what sociologists should take away from the book.
1. Doing a well crafted large N survey on an important topic is huge service to science. When we think of sociology, we often think of “high theory” as being the most important. But we often overlook the empirical studies that establish a baseline for excellence. American Occupational Structure is just as important as Bourdieu, in my book. Laumann et al is one such study and, I think, has not been surpassed in the field of sex research.
2. The book is extremely important in that good empiricism can abruptly change our views of specific topics. Laumann et al basically shattered the following beliefs: people stop having sex as they age; marriage means sex is less frequent; cultural change leads to massive changes in sexual behavior. Laumann et al showed that older people do keep on having sex; married people have more sex; and cultural moments (like AIDS in the 80s) have modest effects on sexual behavior. Each of these findings has resulted in more research over the last 20 years..
3. An ambitious, but well executed, research project can be the best defense against critics. The first section of Laumann at al. describes how federal funding was dropped due to pressure. Later, the data produced some papers that had politically incorrect results. In both cases, working from the high ground allowed the project to proceed. It’s a model for any researchers who will be working against the mainstream of their discipline or public opinion.
4. Quality empiricism can lead to good theory. Laumann et al’s sections on homophily motivated later theory about the structure of sexual contact networks and prompted papers like Chains of Affection. Also, by discovering that network structure affects STD’s, it lead to the introduction of network theory into biomedical science about a decade before Fowler/Christakis.
When we think of “glory sociology,” we think of succinct theoretical “hits” like DiMaggio and Powell or Swidler. But sociology is also profoundly shaped by these massive empirical undertakings. The lesson is that well crafted empirical research can set the agenda for decades just as much as the 25 page theory article.
One of the problems in teaching social theory a lot is that you constantly deal with people who hate the class. For most sociology majors, theory is irrelevant intellectual history that they don’t understand anyway. I still enjoy teaching theory, but I wanted a class that would directly appeal to students.
I requested a section of social problems and decided to make a course about life course. But I didn’t advertise it as life course. Instead, it is called “MONEY SEX HEALTH HAPPINESS.” Yes – it is all caps in the course schedule! The way the course is built is that we have four week modules dealing with each of these issues. Each lecture uses research in a specific area to teach a social science lesson (e.g., the debate over human capital and signalling is taught as both an explanation of income but also alternative explanations).
The sections on sex and happiness are new to me. Although I am familiar with each area, I had never taught on health or happiness research. For the sex section, I wasn’t interested in sexual identity, which lots of classes cover. I was much more interested in practice. I wanted to focus on behavior that was tangible. Thus, I drew heavily from Laumann et al’s classic The Social Organization of Sexuality, which remains the definitive modern work on American sexual behavior. I also had a week on social change and I used gay marriage politics as an example.
This is a lecture class (70+ students) so it is hard for me judge exactly how people received the material. For example, we had a discussion of Fifty Shades of Grey. How typical is the behavior depicted in that film? Answer: as one student said, the average American is only into “two or three shades of grey.” Some students were put off by the big finding that people remain sexually active late into their lives. No one wants to know what grandma does on the weekend. But I seemed to win people over by pointing out that they will get old. If they remain in good health, they probably will have satisfying sexual lives. Gay marriage also turned out to be useful for teaching the median voter theorem. There is a lot of survey data showing that there is an increase in support (over 50% in many surveys) for gay marriage equality. Thus, the median voter theorem would predict that policy will follow, as it is nationally (though states with conservative voters, like Indiana, are trying to buck the trend).
Overall, I think it is a good experience to teach topics that are of immediate concern, such as income, or sex, or happiness. It means that people actually have some inherent interest and we can move to analysis. In terms of sex specifically, people seemed to be ok with explicit readings as long as they were presented in an academic format. Tomorrow, I will get into Laumann et al. 1994 and what professional sociologists should take away from that study.
A lot of people in sociology study sexuality, but precious few study the act itself. Even less outside of sociology. This is unfortunate because sex should be very important to all of the social sciences. In my intro class (see tomorrow’s post), I have a section on the sociology of sex where I explain why sex should be of extreme importance to social science:
- No sex, no people. No people, no sociology.
- Sex is, for most people, an important factor in personal well being and life satisfaction.
- Sex affects health – people can contract STD’s from unsafe sex.
- Sex is associated with social identities. For example, in Laumann et al.’s study, enjoyment of sexual experiences is highly correlated with religion. It was also found that ethnicity correlates with specific practices.
- There are a lot of taboos and other forms of social control aimed at sex.
These strike me as rather important, and rather obvious, reasons to study sexual practice from a social science perspective. Yet, in many quarters, even within sociology, sex is still a marginal topic and it doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss my freshman course and the section on sex.