An Education for the Republic: A Conversation With Stanford’s David Labaree About American Schooling

David Labaree is the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus at Stanford University. He received a BA from Harvard and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. His work explores the intersection of education and society in the United States. His books include The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004), Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard University Press, 2012), and his latest, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (U. Chicago Press, 2017).

We spoke about former normal schools positioning themselves in today’s higher education market, public school teacher credentialing and pay, the consumer-driven American university, the first-mover advantage in the American university system, challenges to public education from libertarian thinkers, university admissions, and more.

I previously spoke with Dr. Labaree in June: “The University is Emergent: An Interview with Stanford’s David Labaree About American Higher Education”.

Ryan Maloney: I work at a university that used to be a normal school, and there always seems to be this debate: should we return to our roots and be an education school, particularly for the people in this area, or should we extend ourselves to become a national brand? It’s hard for us to get away from being an education school: we were branded as being really good at education a long time ago. Some people say that that’s great: “Let’s just do that.” But as a university, if all we’re getting are education students they’re probably not also not the most talented students. So if we want to “get ahead” as a university we have to broaden, and it’s almost a self-defeating quest because you also have to start raising standards–and for what? So that we can be more prestigious? At some point it feels like we have to say enough is enough. We’re doing good work. We are training public school educators that will go on to do good work of their own. I’m interested to hear how you’d respond to that. We’re behind in being a liberal arts school; we’re ahead as being an education school; which way do we go?

Dr. David Labaree: That’s an interesting problem. What’s the history of the name? Probably the name evolved over time?

Maloney: It was Academy in the 1800s; then Normal School later in the century; then Teacher’s College; then SUNY.

Dr. Labaree: What percentage of your students are still in education?

Maloney: Not a huge number. Maybe ten to fifteen percent. But we’re really not known for anything else.

Dr. Labaree: That’s interesting. There’s a parallel to my wife’s institution. She went to Eastern Michigan University, which was the Michigan State Normal School in the nineteenth century. It was Michigan’s first normal school. And now all the regionals in Michigan are the former normals: Eastern, Western, Central, and Northern. They all went through that transition to become full-service universities. They still produce a huge number of teachers. So in many ways that’s still their core, but like at your school the large majority of students are in other areas. If you look at this historically, I think the issue is that the normal schools were started because of a clear vocational need. We’d been building up this system of public schooling and we needed to provide it with teachers and the normal schools did it. But pressures emerged on them to become more and more like the elite side of the higher ed spectrum, and a lot of that wasn’t coming from the administrators or the policy experts; it was coming from students who were saying, “Well, I can go to Michigan Normal School because it’s close and it’s inexpensive and it’s easier to get into than, say, the University of Michigan, but the only thing they offer is teaching and I want more opportunities.” It’s that All-American quest to have the broadest array of mobility possibilities, and a broad-based bachelor’s degree-granting institution does that. The normal schools already had subject matter people because they were teaching people to be math teachers and social studies teachers and so on, and so it wasn’t that hard to start spreading out to create separate departments, then separate programs. The demand from students was for things other than teaching, which pressed the institutions to expand because if they didn’t the students would just go somewhere else. 

I think you’re still in that situation. If you look at the former normal schools around the country, the Cal State system are all former normal schools. They still produce the very large majority of teachers in-state. UC produces a very small number of teachers by comparison. But the large majority of people attending those places are looking for a university, and Cal State is the most accessible form of a university that most people can get into. It’s very hard to get into UC these days. CSU campuses are more accessible; they’re less expensive; and they still provide this broad array of possibilities. That’s very attractive to consumers. It’s really hard for the American higher ed institution to say, “No, we’re going to stick with what we’re doing even though the consumer demand is for expanding and broadening out.” But it becomes a real identity crisis for formal normal schools. They had a really strong identity, a kind of expertise: “We are really good at this.” For example, the Michigan Normal School was particularly good at special education; they had the best special education program around. And that’s a really cool thing to have: “This is a real point of pride.” But when they started spreading out and doing stuff that everybody else was doing, it was usually being done better somewhere else. So you’ve got this interesting tradeoff between having a really strong brand identity and craft pride about what we do, as opposed to saying, “We’re going to be the Wal-Mart of higher education; we’re going to give you a little bit of everything.” Then suddenly you’re not good at anything; you’re just a reduced version of some fancier institution across the way. And that makes for a creepy feeling: “What are we trying to do here?” And you can understand why administrators are constantly fraught about that. They don’t want to lose enrollments; they want to be competitive; but they also want to have a point of pride: “This is what we do that nobody else does.” That becomes harder the more diffuse you are.

Maloney: Maybe you know Bill Maher. He has the weekly HBO show, Real Time.

Dr. Labaree: Yep, yep.

Maloney: He recently went on a rant about higher ed, reciting all the usual criticisms people have. He got to criticizing how much education teachers need just to do the job they’re already doing, like needing a master’s degree, and I thought, “You know, you’re putting too much blame on the universities, because this is what the students asked for.” Now we’re complaining that it’s too much. So what’s the right amount of education that a teacher needs?

Dr. Labaree: It’s easy to criticize universities for giving people what they want. You can blame the universities, but hey, if you’re tuition dependent, and if you’re enrollment dependent–even if you get a state subsidy dependent on the number of students you’ve got–it’s really hard to say no to programs that are going to add enrollment. This is what people want. So it’s kind of strange that universities get blamed for doing what’s asked of them yet nobody wants to blame the consumer. It’s the same reason universities need to have all the other things that universities have: all the clubs; all the athletic facilities. They want to have the whole picture: “I want to be a real university, not a fake university.” Students want to go to a place that’s a real university, and that means they have to have all this stuff. You can criticize it and say, “What’s all that stuff for? You don’t need it.” But you need it to get the students. If you’re trying to survive as a university you can’t ignore the fact that if you don’t provide students these things–if you don’t give them the food courts and the really nice dormitory with really nice bunk beds–then they’re going to go somewhere else. So you’ve got to build new dormitories, and you’ve got to build new food courts, and you’ve got to have really great athletic facilities for them to work out in. You can’t just ignore that stuff and pretend it’s peripheral. 

Maloney: Some people will hear that and say, “Well, the government shouldn’t give so much money to universities and students. Then that cycle deflates. But if you’re going to keep giving them money they’re going to have to keep inflating their offerings.”

Dr. Labaree: Well, we can see that happening in Europe and elsewhere where the system is more government-controlled and less market-centered. In that case they can just say, for example, “You know, we have enough lawyers. We really don’t need to increase enrollments at law schools.” Or, “We don’t need to let that university have a law school just because they want to have a full array of professional schools.” They can just cut it back and say, “No. That’s not possible here.” In America we tend to overproduce in lots of areas. Michigan, for example, for years was producing way more teachers than the school systems needed at the public expense. And so southern states would come to Michigan and recruit teachers. It doesn’t make much sense for the public in Michigan to be subsidizing the education of teachers for Florida and Texas, but if you have a relatively decentralized system, and there’s a demand for teacher programs, you’re not going to say no just because they end up having to leave the state to get a job. 

Maloney: And from having read a lot of your work, I think you would say that the American system is better than the European system?

Dr. Labaree: It’s broader, and, at the upper ends in particular, it’s stronger. It’s a more stratified system, and in that sense it has a kind of power that other places don’t. And a lot of that comes from this market structure that allows the system to be everything to everybody, and to do it in a way that matches the consumer’s needs more than trying to meet what the state needs. There’s been a certain tolerance for inefficiency of overproducing various degree programs simply because that’s what people want, and there’s nobody in charge to just say “No. That’s enough. Cut it off.” The disadvantage is that it’s a very inefficient and incredibly expensive system per capita. The advantage is that it does create entrepreneurial universities that are out there hustling, looking for possibilities, and along the way they’re creating programs that no government agency would have ever invented; they’re pursuing lines of research and creating lines of instruction that nobody would have figured out, but that turned out to be providing knowledge and providing people with skills that suddenly become very useful later on in life. It’s the problem of the old five-year plan: it’s really hard to plan an economy, and it’s really hard to plan what kind of knowledge people are going to need in the future; what kind of skills we’re going to need in the future; and what kind of research is ultimately going to be beneficial. Often the kind of research that’s pursued just because it’s interesting–just because there’s some faculty that wants to do it and keeps plowing ahead–is the research that finds something that’s really amazing. That’s where quantum theory came from. People were just playing around with stuff that was really cool and then it became an incredibly powerful technology. One of the things I always think about education, and higher ed in particular, is that it’s good at solving problems that haven’t happened yet. It’s kind of a long-term investment in human capital and cultural capital which you’re storing up until it’s needed. Just think about the work with vaccines: they’re working on this mRNA technology and suddenly this virus pops up, and Bang!, we’ve got a vaccine in twenty-four hours because we actually know how to do that. These things turn out to be incredibly useful, but at the time it was like, “That’s interesting, but what can you do with that?”

Maloney: I remember hearing a statistic a while ago that the average teacher only stays a teacher for a short number of years–something like five years I think I remember hearing. Is that so?

Dr. Labaree: I can’t remember what the stat is. It’s been going up. I mean, in the early twentieth century teaching was something that women did before they got married, and so typically they were doing it for less than five years. Strangely, teacher contracts often said that they couldn’t hire a married woman; part of it was a certain feeling that somehow a sexually active teacher shouldn’t be in a classroom. If you got married you had to quit. Unions helped change that in the fifties and made teaching something you could actually support a family on for a lifetime, as opposed to treating it as a job you did before you settled down to your real life. But there’s still a lot of turnover, yes, and it’s still something that people move on from. That in itself makes for an inefficiency, which means you have to keep cranking out a lot more teachers than you think you need. If they keep turning over you’re going to have to keep cranking out more, and that was a big pressure in the nineteenth century when teachers were only staying for a few years; you had to be at warp-speed turning out teachers in order to keep filling the classrooms. That’s calmed down more now that people are willing and able to spend a lifetime in that career, but there’s still a lot of former teachers around. It’s still a thing that people move on from. 

Maloney: And in that sense a bachelor’s degree seems very useful because you can transition into something else.

Dr. Labaree: Yes. If you just had a teaching certificate and no bachelor’s degree you’d be trapped in a vocational furrow that you can’t get out of. And so having that “I’m a university grad; I’ve got a bachelor’s degree; I can do lots of things, not just this.” That’s what the consumers have been saying all along, and they’re right. It gives you options, and it’s nice to have teachers who have options rather than teachers who are trapped in the classroom because they can’t go anywhere else. In some ways the worst teachers would be the ones who had to stay on because they had nowhere else to go. It’s hard to see that as a bad thing. You want people to be in the classroom because they’re good at it and they feel that this is a fulfilling thing to be doing, rather than “I guess I’ll just have to phone it in until retirement.” 

Maloney: Sure. And on the flip-side–and maybe this is a controversial question–should teachers be paid more? Should a central planner just snap her fingers and say, “Okay, teachers are paid more now.” Or are teachers paid appropriately?

Dr. Labaree: I don’t know how to answer that. Again, the unions had a huge effect on that in the 1950s. They managed to drive up wages and make it sustainable as a career and not just as a career stage. They really did raise salaries. And the salaries are not bad: in high-expense areas teachers are making over $100,000. If you compare teaching to certain other professions it doesn’t pay very well, but if you look at the larger population they’re paid pretty well. It’s turned into a good news-bad news story for teachers’ unions after the pandemic. There was this tension between teachers unions and parents: unions were reluctant to go back to work, while parents were saying, “Hey! Let’s get the schools going again.” So there’s that concern that this is just a craft guild that’s not really interested in the larger phenomenon. The union thing is kind of a mixed blessing: it’s created the possibility to have a reasonably well-paid teaching force that can support families on their salaries, but it’s also created something of a difference with the population. Lots of people and lots of voters who are paying their taxes for schooling are making less than teachers are. It’s hard for them to be overly sympathetic about teachers saying we need more money: “Well, so do I. And by the way I’m paying your salary, and so why should I approve of this process?” That has changed the public image of the teacher a little bit. It’s created something of a wedge issue.

Maloney: Not too long ago you said something on Twitter like, “As an academic I was frustrated that I was underpaid, but maybe I was overpaid, and maybe I should keep quiet about that.” It made me think about my own situation and other peoples’ situations in education. It’s hard to say. Everybody has opinions about who is overpaid and who is underpaid, but when you put a market into it, and you put supply and demand into it, I think it goes beyond our moral intuitions.

Dr. Labaree: Everybody would like to get paid more, but there is this certain element of justification: “Am I really worth it?” I remember years ago a friend called me up and said they had this endowed chair position and they wanted to offer me the job paying a hundred thousand dollars, and I started laughing and said, “I’m not worth a hundred thousand dollars.” (laughs). Are you kidding? I can’t play that role. They’ll find me out: “Give me a break. You’re not an all-star.” So it’s not like the sky’s the limit. There’s a certain sense that maybe I’m getting out of my depth here, and I don’t want to suddenly be on stage and have people say, “You’re not the real thing.” So that’s why I decided to stop whining about my salary. I’m paid less than I’d like, but more than I’m worth, and that’s a pretty good balance. I’ll take that. 

Maloney: If I can come back to teaching education. Can we agree–and you can tell what I think–that a master’s degree is a lot of education for a teacher? 

Dr. Labaree: It’s part of that larger process of credential inflation that’s going on everywhere. It used to be that to be a teacher all you needed to do was go to a normal school; and the first normal schools, as you said yours was, were academies. They were the equivalent of high schools. Not many people went to high school, and if you went to high school then you could teach in the schools. Then you needed to go to college. Now you need to get a master’s degree. Is that true in New York now, a master’s degree?

Maloney: Yes, within five years of graduating.

Dr. Labaree: In California it’s not technically a master’s degree, but teaching programs are all post-graduate, so you could get one without a degree but that would be stupid. Is that really necessary? I don’t know. This same kind of credential inflation is going on elsewhere. People need bachelor’s degrees for jobs that their parents had without a bachelor’s degree and did just fine. The bachelor’s degree has become the entry-level ticket to get in now. Is it necessary? Probably not. It’s not necessary in intellectual terms or skill terms, but it’s necessary in job market terms because they won’t consider anyone without that degree. And there’s also this thing with states: “If all these other states require master’s degrees then why are we the losers that hire the people with bachelor’s degrees?” There’s a sense that they have a deficient school system because they have undertrained teachers. Well, it’s not clear they’re undertrained; they’re undercredentialed, which is a very different thing. But the credential drives things. It’s hard to escape from, and once the minimum degree qualification goes up you can’t fight it. You’ve just got to go with it. Sometimes the market does it: more and more people with higher degrees will apply for a job that doesn’t require it, and after a while the employer says, “Well, I think we’ll just make that the minimum. We won’t look at anyone that doesn’t have that level of credential.” And so the overcredentialing ends up having the effect of elevating job requirements just because those people are available, and what the hell? We can brag that everyone on the workforce has a fancy degree.

Maloney: I saw that during the pandemic New York and California were the two states that lost the most wealth. People were leaving those states and going to Florida and Texas, in particular. I do like the idea of competition between states, so that a prospective teacher from New York can say, “Well, I don’t want to have to meet all those requirements so I’m going to go over here and I’m going to give them my tax revenue for the next fifty years.” Then New York has to say, “Wow, why is everybody leaving?” So I think that’s a very helpful balance in the way the country is set up.

Dr. Labaree: It seems reasonable. People have alternatives, and with the schools teachers can just go to the school district next door that pays better. That’s another option, not just out of state. And that’s one of the pressures that tends to have a leveling effect on salaries. You can’t compete for employees unless you pay a fair market wage, and if you’re always behind you’re going to get the leftovers, and so you’re kind of forced to meet the market price for your labor. And that makes sense. That’s the way markets work, and it benefits the employees. Whether it benefits the employers, I don’t know.

Maloney: Do you have an opinion on the minimum wage? How involved should government be in setting that?

Dr. Labaree: I don’t know. I’m not an economist. I understand there are lots of arguments about that. Setting a minimum wage has some benefits in that it prevents people at the low end from being in an occupation where the wage is driven down simply because there are too many unskilled people looking for particular kinds of jobs, the classic burger flipper jobs that are entry-level and don’t have credential requirements. They might be accessible jobs at the bottom of the payscale. And so without the minimum wage there’s no pressure to raise it–until right now, of course. Now there is job pressure. Suddenly you can’t hire somebody at McDonald’s for less than fifteen dollars an hour because they have options they didn’t have before. But that hasn’t been true in the past, so having some minimum wage seems worthwhile. The danger is that if you push it too high you find people are unemployable at that rate, or that employers have a huge incentive to automate your job out of existence, which is another thing that has been happening lately. I don’t know. It’s complicated. I like seeing it going up–it’s been sitting at one level for a ridiculously long time–but it’s also true that if one city tries to raise it it can have negative consequences because the businesses go somewhere else. And that’s something that states like New York and California have always suffered from. You go to Texas and they pay no income tax, so there’s a real incentive to leave town. 

Maloney: I meant to ask you about SUNY the last time we spoke. There was maybe a sentence or two in your most recent book that SUNY, in comparison to other state university systems, came about very late. 

Dr. Labaree: Very late. Yes.

Maloney: So you’re behind if you’re trying to compete as a university. I just wanted to hear you talk about that, because I meant to ask. 

Dr. Labaree: It’s interesting. SUNY was the extreme case. What was it, 1947 that the system was created?

Maloney: Yes, mid- to late-forties. 

Dr. Labaree: What’s the rush (laughs). That’s an East Coast phenomenon–not a West or Midwest phenomenon–because the problem the East Coast schools have is that the privates got there first and they established themselves as the brand. Just look at the name: SUNY couldn’t call itself New York University. The name was taken. So they came up with this bizarre SUNY name that’s. . . 

Maloney: It’s ugly.

Dr. Labaree: It’s like, “What the hell is that?” The state university in New Jersey is “Rutgers”. What is that? The College of New Jersey was the official name of Princeton so Rutgers couldn’t call itself that. If you’re a university in Massachusetts what are you going to do when you have Harvard there already? The University of Massachusetts was an afterthought that came in very late, and came in as this sort of off-brand. It didn’t have the prestige that a similar university would have in the Midwest or West: the University of Michigan, or the University of California, where the public university is the premier brand. They were there first; that was where elites went; that’s where all the future leaders came from; those are the schools that produced all the top professionals. The privates had a harder time getting established in the West and Midwest where the publics were. But in the Northeast, Penn State isn’t the University of Pennsylvania, because the University of Pennsylvania has been there since the 1700s: “Oops, it’s taken.” The public institutions in the East have always had trouble establishing their status because they’ve always felt like the off-brand. If you couldn’t get into Harvard or Penn you could always go to Penn State or UMass. But if you grew up in Michigan, going to the University of Michigan is as good as it gets. It’s a very different kind of atmosphere. It was fun for me to move from the East Coast where I grew up, with the sense that the publics were like, “Eh,” and then I moved to the Midwest and suddenly the publics were king.

Maloney: And so it seems like Stanford is kind of an outlier. 

Dr. Labaree: The privates can make a brand, but it typically takes a huge amount of money. And the brands that got established there–like in the 1880s when Rockefeller established Chicago–had billions behind them. Stanford did the same thing; Vanderbilt; all these other places that were able to establish themselves on a big scale. They bought the coolest and latest programs and faculty and they could move into the top rank quickly. That was, in some ways, a one-time phenomenon. It was an opening wedge during the Gilded Age where a lot of big, new privates–the non-Ivy League privates–popped up. That window was briefly open.

Maloney: To go back to K-12: You’ll sometimes hear Silicon Valley elites say how much education has changed and how everything is digital now. They’re like, “Let’s just airdrop a bunch of laptops into a poor community and the kids will teach themselves. They’ll open the laptops and they’ll just get it.” And I suppose if you have an infinite amount of wealth you could find alternative ways to educate children, but that seems. . . undemocratic. 

Dr. Labaree: Yes, yes.

Maloney: Can you say something about that?

Dr. Labaree: It’s always been possible to become self-educated. Think about Abraham Lincoln: that worked out pretty well for someone who was uneducated. Or Andrew Carnegie, who basically taught himself using libraries. So you can do it, but it involves a huge amount of talent and a huge amount of luck, and it’s not a way for a general population to get educated. It’s like, “Don’t make it hard; make it easy.” So part of it is that schools are in the job of making this accessible to everybody and not just the people who can afford to hire a tutor, or who happen to be lucky. That’s a key element. 

Maloney: Today we tend to debate school choice, but when schools were founded it was a very good thing to be able to go to the local school. That was the privilege: just to be able to go there. What do you make of school choice today?

Dr. Labaree: You go back to the beginning, before public school systems: if you wanted to educate your kid you had to pay for it. But the key thing to remember is that in the U.S., and in most modern countries, they didn’t evolve publicly-funded universal schooling systems because of consumer demand. It was an exercise in state-building. At a certain point in creating a nation state you need some sort of institution to pull together this disbursed, highly localized population and turn them into citizens of a national entity, and have some skills to support it. And schools were set up, basically, to turn subjects of the King into citizens of the Republic. That’s how you create a community. I don’t know if you’ve read a book by Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities. His argument is, “What makes you American? What makes you French?” It’s an odd thing because you’re part of an entity of 350 million people you’ve never met and have very little in common with, but we still see ourselves as somehow part of this thing. It’s not a real community in the sense that you’re having face-to-face interactions with people in your neighborhood, but it’s a powerful thing. People go to war over their imagined communities. There’s a fascinating book about France called How Peasants Became Citizens. It’s about the construction of the French school system in the nineteenth century, and one of the issues there is that France was in some ways created by schools. The areas were so radically localized that there was really no common French language. In some places on the coast they actually spoke Bretton, which is more like Celtic, but there were so many dialects that if you walked from one town to another you couldn’t understand people. And so the markets were closed; the communitications were closed; there was no sense of being French; and the schools basically created it; and they in effect established Parisian French as the national language and sent it out into the hinterlands and taught it to people; and they ended up creating a more coherent sense of people: “Now we speak the same language and we’ve gone through the same curriculum. We’re increasingly part of something that we never used to be part of.” That’s a huge accomplishment that schools have provided, but what’s interesting is, What happens to schools after you’ve done that? France exists. America exists. Now what do we do? We’ve got the whole system in place; now what do we do with it? We’ve got one in every community; it’s all staffed up; they’ll follow directions; let’s give them new tasks. And then we start thinking, “Well, now we’re starting to prepare people for the workforce,” which was never the idea initially. Education was more or less irrelevant to work: as long as you were moderately literate and numerate you were fine. If you look at the time when schools were expanding in the U.S. in the nineteenth century–enrollments were shooting up–at the same time the qualifications for work were going down. The average skill level of the workforce was declining because of industrialization. So schooling was going up, skilling was going down: there’s no relationship between the two. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century and the rise of white collar work that schooling looked to be relevant again. It was occupationally relevant, but that was a relatively late development once schools were already established. Then they started to take on this human capital production role, which wasn’t really part of the story at all.

Maloney: It’s interesting. . . 

Dr. Labaree: Can I just mention one other thing? Going back to something earlier: Why do we need schools? Why couldn’t students do this on their own? One interesting issue is about language. Kids pick up language naturally. They imitate; they communicate; they don’t have to be taught grammar; they learn that this is the way you say things, not that way, “and if I don’t say it that way people won’t understand me, so I adapt.” They don’t need rulebooks; they become experts at language. But reading is a totally artificial skill. You have to be taught reading. It doesn’t just emerge. So there are certain kinds of things where you really need instruction and you can’t rely on community communication to make things happen. And if you don’t do it systematically then only a few people are going to learn how to read and write and they’re going to be very privileged people. That’s not fair. There are certain kinds of things where you just need to have some kind of formal instruction and make it possible for people to pick up things that then become incredibly powerful for them. Just think about the difference between being literate and illiterate. It’s astonishing. I had a student that did a really interesting dissertation looking at adults who were only marginally literate, and it’s fascinating watching how they tried to negotiate living in a modern society without being able to read what the signs say. A lot of it was by bluffing: “My eyes aren’t that good. What’s that say?” You work around it. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’re illiterate: you work your way through but it’s an incredibly stressful, burdensome situation to be in. So schools do some stuff that we really can’t do on our own.

Maloney: We have a non-profit in town called Literacy Volunteers, and they put the numbers on their website and it’s stunning the percentage of people in the community where I live who are sub-literate. It reminds me of a time when I was grocery shopping at Aldi and a woman did to me what you just described: “Can you tell me the price on this? I can’t see so well.” Maybe that’s what was happening there.

A little bit of rapid-fire: I hear people say that the SAT is a measure of your privilege; I hear people say the SAT isn’t perfect but it’s the best we have; can you comment on the usefulness of the SAT, or the ACT, and the usefulness of standardized testing more generally?

Dr. Labaree: I’ve had mixed feelings about it over the years, but I’m increasingly in favor of SATs, ACTs, GREs, MCATs, GMATs–all those different acronyms. I mean, yes, there’s a correlation between your social status and your score on those tests. They are in that sense biased towards people with the right cultural capital, but the problem is that everything is biased towards people who have advantaged positions. Just pointing to the bias doesn’t help you very much. It’s like, “Compared to what?” What’s interesting–I’ve been reading about this lately, especially people talking about their own experience–is that for a lot of kids who go to a lousy high school, they’re never going to get into college, but some of them are able to ace the SAT and get in. It’s not an easy way to get into college–and the kids with privileged backgrounds on average are going to score better–but for some kids this is it: “Don’t take it away. This is something I can do. I can study for this kind of thing. I nailed it, and it was my ticket to opportunity.” And so I don’t want to see them go away. I think the alternatives to standardized testing are more class-biased than the ones where the bias is built into the test. Admitting students who took advanced placement classes: well, a lot of schools don’t have advanced placement classes. If you don’t go to one of those places the SAT is the way to show that you’re the “advanced” person the school should bring in, because nothing else in your record would suggest you’d be a good candidate. Standardized tests are pretty well correlated with performance in college. It was interesting: when I was at Michigan State we did an informal study of our doctoral students, and we required GREs for admission. And there was a pretty solid correlation between performance in the classroom and GRE scores, ignoring everything else. It’s not irrelevant. It’s measuring some sort of cognitive skills, especially verbal, that are quite useful in performing in a college setting. And certainly people who are wealthier and have gotten better educations are more likely to do well on those tests. But it’s also a way for people who didn’t have those advantages to make a statement: it’s like, “Hey, bring in me.” And so I don’t want to see us cutting that off. I think it’s a danger to say that just because it’s class-biased it should be disallowed, since class-bias is so widely-spread. The question is, Is it a way for some people to surpass their class designation? If it’s doing that for a number of people, why cut it off?

Maloney: I just read Jeff Selingo’s latest book about college admissions. I came away amazed at how fluid admissions decisions are. And if the SAT is the thing that gets you over the hump, great. 

Dr. Labaree: I know. It’s interesting to look at the history of the SATs. The SATs arose in the 1930s, and that was an interesting time for American universities, because particularly for the elite universities if you met basic curriculum requirements and you could pay the tuition they’d let you in. Harvard was basically an open-access institution, and others were too. They didn’t really have an admissions process; they just had certain criteria you met. And the SAT emerged during a big expansion in higher ed: the big state universities were demonstrating that they could produce people that were really well-educated and capable; and that you didn’t have to go to one of the fancy privates to do that; and you could do it in a way that was based not on who you were but what you could do. At the beginning of the twentieth century the most selective college in the United States was City College in New York. 

Maloney: I didn’t know that.

Dr. Labaree: It was free, but you had to compete to get in. There were a very limited number of seats. There was an amazingly talented group of people there. That’s where the best brains were going; it wasn’t to Harvard. Harvard got some good brains just by chance, but the place that was really being selective was City College. So that starts to put the elites in an odd situation. I recommend Jerry Karabel’s book about this by the way; it’s called The Chosen; it’s a history of admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton during the twentieth century. These institutions started at the top; they ended at the top; but the interesting part of the story is that they were very scared through the whole twentieth century because they thought that other universities were going to eat their lunch. And the big thing they were concerned about is they wanted to preserve their elite quality, because it’s by training tomorrow’s leaders that you become rich and famous as a university. They didn’t want to look like they were just a social club: “I’m a university here.” And so if the issue of meritocratic admissions is beginning to percolate around the publics, you didn’t want to be apart from that, and so they started setting up things like SATs, and they started setting up admissions programs. The early private admissions programs were more focused on keeping out Jews than bringing in people with high skill, but they increasingly came up against pressure to be more meritocratic, and so they were trying to hit the right balance: “We want to bring in people who are academically capable–not just bringing in people who are part of the social register–but we also don’t want to alienate our traditional population that builds our libraries and endows our professorships.” So there was this gradual increase in merit going on. I was in the middle of that: I went to Harvard in the 1960s and it was still a place that had a very strong elite bias. There were some meritocratic admissions, but still, I think forty percent went to private schools; twenty percent were alumni kids; they only had three or four percent black students there. It looked a lot like the old Harvard, but it was moving in the direction of becoming more selective in admissions on meritocratic grounds, and that’s been going on ever since. So that admissions process has been part of the way you construct yourself as an institution. You have to do what the market wants. You have to preserve your brand. You want to have a brand name, and the brand name needs to be both, “We’re prestigious. We’re the place where cool people go. But we’re also where smart people go. We’re a real university here with the best brains. We don’t want to be just the best brains, but we want that proper mix.” So it’s created a really interesting tension around the admissions process. One of the things I like about admissions people is that they are the realists in a university, the ones that have their fingers up checking the weather: “What’s happening in the marketplace? How do we get students to come to us who are going to be most advantageous to us?” And one of the things you look for is you want to have a nice, high SAT score for your incoming class, because that makes you one of the “cool kids.” But you don’t want to have it be too high because you also want to let in these other people who are going to pay the full sticker price and build buildings for you later in life. So you put together this judicious mix of “dumb rich kids” and “poor smart kids” to make up the magic of the incoming class. I just find admissions people to be less ideological and much more pragmatic than, say, presidents, who sort of blabber on about what their institution is. Somebody created that balance, and it was the admissions people. They’re the marketing arm of the institution. They’re the best ones to be concerned about, “How do we enhance the brand?”

Maloney: Admissions people come in for a lot of criticism. But they’re trying. They’ve got a lot of competing interests yelling at them about a lot of different things, but at the end of the day they’ve got to meet a number. 

Dr. Labaree: Exactly. They have this whole institution of enrollment management where they’re trying to figure out the right mix of, “How can we use our scholarship funds to raise our average GRE scores without subsidizing people who can afford to pay the sticker price? We want to get that balance right. We want to demonstrate that we’re bringing in really smart people that we’re willing to subsidize, but we can’t do too much of that, and we have to pick them carefully, and we have to maintain this balance so that we end up with something that’s fiscally sustainable.”

Maloney: We were talking about how public schools were built for state-building, and how they then transitioned to careerism. In reading a couple books lately, like School, and this book called Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, it’s striking how people in the 1800s were thinking about their purpose. They were all like, “Where is God in my life?” And for better and worse we’re a very secularized country today, but I think our students sometimes graduate asking, “What is the meaning of life? Nobody told me this was going to be confusing.” Maybe I’m putting another unfair burden on universities, but I feel like I want us to move back to something more purpose-driven.

Dr. Labaree: I know. That’s one of the problems with the market-driven university, is that its purposes are simply a reflection of the preferences of the consumers who come to it: “What do you want? We’ll give it to you. What kind of program do you want? We’ll teach it. Our mission is to serve you.” That’s not a very elevated mission, as you say. It’s the Burger King approach to education: “What do people buy? Fried food? Then we’ll give them fried food.” That’s not great, and I think a lot of people who work within universities are feeling uncomfortable about that. And so you find a tension where a lot of the faculty are thinking, “I’m not just a service provider for future workers. I’m not a human capital producer. I’ve got a vision about society. I’ve got a sense of the beauty of that subject and I want to transmit that to people.” I certainly thought of this too: students are not in my class because they’re absolutely eager to enjoy the richness of the ideas that I want to play with. They’re there because they want to get a job, because their friends are there and their parents would kill them if they didn’t go to college, “and I’ve got to pick up credits and you’re a credit.” I think what happens is that a lot of teachers find that that’s not a bad situation, because the students have to be there and now I have a chance to do something with them. And what I always thought, and I think a lot of teachers think, is that I want to seduce them into finding the use value in what I’m giving them, rather than thinking of it as a pure exchange value that they can cash in for a good job; that they actually get to love the subject; that they actually get to enjoy intellectual life and exploring it; that they actually think about values and purposes in a way that they wouldn’t have done if they hadn’t come through this institution. So I think we end up doing a lot of that, but we’re doing it, in some ways, in spite of the incentives that surround the university rather than because of them.