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Guest Column: America’s Top Colleges Are Karens

This is a guest column by Ryan Craig.

My stepsister is a lovely person, but she has the great misfortune of being named Karen. When she was born back in 1971, Karen was the 15th most popular name for girls. No one’s exactly sure when the name Karen began to go downhill – my guess is Lorraine Bracco’s portrayal of entitled mob wife Karen in Goodfellas – but in the fast-moving world of social media and memes, Karen has become the insult of choice for entitled people who demand to speak to the manager to sustain their privilege. It’s no longer cool to be a Karen and I’ve taken it upon myself to send examples to my stepsister. Her response is generally one of befuddlement, most recently “what is this baloney?” (an American processed meat popular around the same time as the name Karen).

The Karen-ization of Karen reached its apex two weeks ago when a white woman called the police on an African-American birder in Central Park. Even though the privileged perpetrator’s name is Amy, “Central Park Karen” began trending. Karen has now become shorthand not only for blatant assertions of privilege, but also reinforcing social inequality and racism, as underscored by the tragic death of George Floyd and the resulting national explosion of frustration and anger. In response, a friend tweeted that his bumper sticker for the remainder of 2020 would be: A Little More Carin’, A Little Less Karen. I told him if he produced it, I’d give one to my stepsister.

Last month Washington Monthly reported that elite and wealthy business schools like Northwestern, MIT, Columbia, and Cornell are refusing to grant deferrals to international students concerned about paying full price for what could very well be an online MBA, and also refusing to return deposits to students who withdraw. And just as the University of Southern California was making scandalous national news (again) as Full House’s Aunt Becky and her designer husband admitted committing fraud to get their two daughters in, USC announced it was raising tuition 3.4% for next year and, simultaneously, that it would not provide any discounts if classes are held online. I read this while wearing my favorite new T-shirt (You can’t spell “suck” without USC), and a question crossed my mind: are America’s top universities becoming Karens?

When I wrote A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, I was worked up about the poor employment outcomes of recent graduates and predicted that non-selective colleges and universities that continued to ask students to take on unaffordable levels of debt to pay for tuition, fees, and living expenses were in for a rude enrollment awakening. As Kevin Carey pointed out last week, Covid-19 has thrown gasoline on this dumpster fire and most leaders at mere mortal institutions recognize the world has changed. But even in a faster + cheaper world, F. Scott Fitzgerald informed my view: “Let me tell you about the very rich [universities]. They are different from you and me.” Elite colleges and universities would innovate at the margins, perhaps playing with integrated experiential learning and digital credentials, but remain largely unchanged – a monument to America’s isomorphic college ideal, continuing to attract the most talented and promising students to gothic parklands. But no one anticipated a faster + cheaper + Covid world.

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Prior to Covid, top universities were already braving unprecedented headwinds. The perception that elite universities were less engines of socioeconomic mobility than brakes gave rise to candidate Bloomberg’s plan to ban legacy admissions (a position also supported by Tony Carnevale in his upcoming book), and to New America’s proposal to mandate lottery-based admissions. Recrimination from left and right coalesced in the first ever endowment tax – a 1.4% annual excise tax on colleges and universities that is costing Stanford $43M and Harvard $38M annually.

Now Covid is shining a blazing spotlight on inequality and racism. The economic and racial gap between haves – who can work remotely and who’ve only experienced inconvenience – and have-nots – who have been risking their lives by showing up at work to keep the country running, and getting sick, and showing up at hospitals, and dying – has never been more stark; it is now clear that social distancing is a luxury much of America cannot afford. Selective schools have made some progress increasing enrollment of low income Pell-eligible students, but no elite college or university has put forth a compelling narrative as to why it – in its current form – should be considered a solution rather than a Karen flaunting exclusivity and perpetuating inequality. It’s a tricky argument for elite institutions to make. But, like Karen, they haven’t really tried. 60% of students at selective colleges come from top quartile income families ($115k+ annually). In recent years, legacies have constituted more than one-third of each class at Ivy League schools; Harvard’s Class of 2022 is over 36% legacy. Carnevale calls it “an inequity machine that raises and perpetuates class and race hierarchies and sinks the lower classes.” As young Americans have always had a knack for spotting and rebelling against insincerity, the more Covid reveals elitism’s dark underbelly (i.e., inequality), the harder it will become for top universities to continue to attract the best talent.

The privileged insincerity of our top universities is equally clear in their immediate response to Covid. If Harvard were put on trial for continuing to charge full tuition for Zoom U. in March, April, and May, a clever lawyer would force America’s richest university to admit that either: (1) the last three months did not constitute an education worthy of the Harvard name; or (2) Harvard could easily scale enrollment by a factor of 10. Re: #1, the quality of Zoom courses was apparently pretty good. According to an internal Yale survey, 80% of Yale College faculty said their remote courses were good, very good, or excellent after only the first week. And whether correctly, or out of pride or greed, none of the richest colleges and universities that could have afforded to provide discounts offered to do so.

Re: option #2, I argued just ahead of Covid’s arrival that top universities had a moral responsibility to expand geometrically rather than linearly at $625,000 per seat (or in Harvard’s case not at all). Zoom U. demonstrated it’s possible. According to the Yale Alumni Magazine, as Jay Gitlin’s course Quebec and Canada from 1791 to the Present neared the end of a long and winding road, a student’s grandfather popped into the frame to say that, as the course was now available here, there and everywhere in this helter skelter world, he was very grateful to be able to get back several times a week and attend alongside his grandson. The grandfather was none other than Sir Paul McCartney, proving America’s top universities have the capacity to teach many more students, knighted and benighted alike.

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Elite universities purport to provide students with a bundle of education/skills, college experience, and a branded credential that helps them stand out in the labor market. Not long ago, this bundle commanded unrivaled respect, like Karen at the country club in the 1970s and 80s. But no longer.

One reason is that digitization of the economy, entry-level employment, and the hiring process make it increasingly likely that program of study is a more powerful lever for future employment and income than attending an elite university, particularly ones that fail to prioritize STEM and digital skills; a new AEI study from Joe Fuller and Frederick Hess shows that four years after graduation, median salaries aren’t materially higher for graduates from top schools. A second is that at least for the foreseeable future, the elite college experience will be constrained by social distancing and grab-and-go meals (and a concomitant volume of plastic waste that will be hard for students to swallow). And reductions in campus dining and housing will most significantly impact lower income and underrepresented minority students, further hindering equality on campus. But the biggest challenge may be that thousands of brands are capable of signaling talent and prestige in a less Karen-like manner. A recent survey revealed that to launch a successful career, 60% of Americans would opt for a Google internship over a Harvard degree.

NYU celebrity prof Scott Galloway has gotten a lot of digital ink predicting MIT will partner with Google to launch a category killer STEM degree. While this would go a long way to combatting Karen-ization, no one has ever gone broke betting against the pace of change in higher education. And I’m pretty sure no one has ever lost a single bet betting against change at elite institutions. Outside of the forward-thinking (but not rich) London School of Economics, real online credentials with partners like 2U – distinct from the asynchronous safety and plausible deniability of Coursera and edX courses – remain limited to select graduate and professional degrees (and with limited enrollment). Meanwhile, the Karens of higher education view the current Zoom school experiment as perhaps a decade’s worth of innovation. As a result, with few exceptions (most notably Davidson College President Carol Quillen’s plea to “dramatically expand capacity using every tool we have to reach many more people at dramatically lower cost”), the focus of current leadership is how quickly they can return to their cloistered campuses.

So I fear @profgalloway is wrong about MIT@Google, iStanford, and HarvardxFacebook, just as he’s wrong in believing that the missing link is a multi-year degree program, and wrong in resurrecting that old chestnut that star professors (or in Galloway’s parlance, the 6-12 “ringers” at each university “who are worth it” – presumably he’s one) “will see their compensation rise as much as 10x over the next decade” as a result of online delivery. (He’s probably also wrong to identify himself on LinkedIn as a “Clinical Professor of Marketing.” I’m not sure what clinical marketing is, but if he’s not joking, I’ll dream of a future NYU appointment as Clinical Professor of Private Equity.)

What @profgalloway isn’t wrong about is that Google has a powerful brand, perhaps more powerful than any of higher education’s Karens when it comes to the things today’s students care most about – first and foremost, a clear pathway to a good first job. Ironically, @profgalloway could look closer to home for a working model. NYU has already launched faster + cheaper pathways to careers in the music industry (in partnership with Billboard Magazine, a highly relevant brand) and in the sports industry. These programs guide students through the core elements of the industry – in the case of music, production, performance, business, and technology – and give them a better chance to begin making a living doing what they love than most multi-year degrees, at a tiny fraction of the time and cost. The programs are orchestrated by Yellowbrick, which also offers last-mile training in beauty (FIT, Allure, Bobby Brown, L’Oreal), sneakers (FIT + Complex Media), streetwear (Parsons + Complex Media), and other industries with other brands.

While USC and other top schools may look at what NYU is doing and ask to speak to the manager, NYU is demonstrating that elite doesn’t have to be inconsistent with access and equality. In a post-Covid world, NYU is on the right track. You’re either dramatically expanding capacity using every tool you have to reach many more people – especially black and brown Americans – at dramatically lower cost, or you’re a Karen. And the Karens of higher education should steel themselves for staggering penalties from not-too-distant-future governments, as well as from the market. Because no one wants to enroll at Karen U., even one with a $40 billion endowment.–

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