Domestic, Friend, Fraud, or Fishy, Required, Students, University & College - Written by on Thursday, August 4, 2011 18:12 - 0 Comments

NIA’s College Conspiracy Documentary: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

By KatieW on Flickr via Creative CommonsFilm Review

by Derek Reed

The recent wave of college-is-a-bubble criticisms has been thoroughly documented, both here and elsewhere. Coming in on the more vehement end of that wave is a film produced by the National Inflation Association called College Conspiracy, which has racked up more than 1.5 million views on YouTube since it debuted in May. It’s billed as a documentary, but the film is actually more of an hour-long video Op-Ed, which runs through most of the familiar criticisms we’ve heard over the past year before concluding that “college education is the largest scam in U.S. history.” If you can’t tell already, the film’s argument is a rather radical one, but since it does argue that the future of education is online, it’s worthwhile for us to dig into the good, the bad, and the ugly about it.

The Good

- The film forecasts that, by the end of this decade, 20 percent of American schools will have closed, enrollment will decline by 15 to 30 percent, and that universities in the States will see an influx of foreign students as the U.S. dollar continues its slide from global hegemony. It’s anyone’s guess whether these predictions will play out, but it’s at least interesting to see a critic of higher education coming forth with some concrete numbers.

- In its criticism of higher education, the film touches on a small but important issue that few people have brought up: grade inflation. A professor shares how, at his school, students who make a 4.0 GPA are honored by having their name engraved on a plaque. The first 60 years of 4.0 earners fit on one plaque, but now, each year requires multiple tablets—and this sort of thing is happening at schools all across the country. College should be difficult, so if students are finding it easier and easier to make stellar grades, that means one of higher education’s main tools for spurring growth is becoming dull.

The Bad

- For us at WiredAcademic, it’s of particular interest that the film predicts the future of higher education is online, where the best professors can come together to teach an unlimited number of students, all from the comfort of their homes. NIA predicts that, since this model supplies better value at a fraction of the cost, online education should see a 25 percent jump in market share by the end of this decade. But don’t get too excited, because the film’s characterization of online schools is a bit short-sighted. We shouldn’t assume that professors at online schools can adequately teach an endless number of students, just because their lectures can be streamed over the net to anyone in the world. At the end of the day, someone still has to grade all of those papers, and even if F. Scott Fitzgerald himself were your English professor, chances are he’d never even see your work if there were a million other students in your “class.” The impersonal, 300-students-in-a-lecture-hall model has already been pointed out as one of the university system’s flaws. Let’s not make matters worse by moving it online and shoving more students into the class.

The Ugly

- The reason this film can’t be called a documentary is that all of the facts, figures, and viewpoints shown in it fit perfectly into the picture that NIA is trying to present. On an issue as complicated and far-reaching as the “college bubble,” a true documentary would give screen-time to people who hold views opposite the filmmakers, and you’d better believe that there are plenty of people who would be happy to take issue with NIA’s college-is-a-scam argument. Big issues like these are never as simple as NIA has it here—otherwise, they wouldn’t be newsworthy and they wouldn’t be such a pain to sort out.

- Where other critics have explained higher education’s deficiencies as being the product of myriad cultural causes, NIA argues that the college bubble is actually a conspiracy drawn up by nefarious college administrators “who are only interested in lining their own pockets.” Textbook publishers and the U.S. government are in on it, and the mainstream media is too, because it has helped spread the lie that college is a good investment. It goes without saying that this isn’t true. In times of crisis, it’s always convenient if you can pin your woes on a scapegoat, but even though there might in fact be some college administrators whose intentions fit NIA’s profile, this probably isn’t the case everywhere. Conspiracy theories are fun and exciting, but on issues like this one, we need sober and balanced solutions if we want to see real results.

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