Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Future of Higher Ed - $99 a Month?

by Daniel L. Bennett

Kevin Carey has an exceptional article in Washington Monthly discussing a topic that I've been thinking about quite a bit lately: the future of the multiversity/conglomerate higher education model.

In the article, Carey describes how universities essentially exploit introductory courses as cash cows to cross-subsidize many other services and activities that operate at a loss, such as museums, entertainment, athletics, research, etc. He tells the story of the emergence of Straighterline, a provider of 24/7 online tutoring and more recently, introductory college courses for $99 a month, and how technology that significantly reduces the cost of instruction will eventually change the institution of higher education as we now know it. Carey points out that the accreditation moat has served as a protectionist barrier and will buy it some time, but that a day in which the barrier erodes is coming, perhaps sooner than we think. When this day occurs, the conglomerate university model will become a memorable institution of the past.

1 comment:

capeman said...

Ah, the Straighterline guy, Burck Smith. Williams, Harvard, Kennedy School, all that, the real low-cost education route, he should know. A lot of stuff lately in the news about Ivy-League types in the education reform movement, like that Harvard lady with the report that gave the University of Arkansas an A, and Harvard a D, but guess which school HER kid goes to??!! But as that car insurance guy used to say, I digress.

Actually, Straighterline apparently offers courses at $399 apiece, if you don't take their $99/mo. come-on offer. For that you can take things like college algebra which will get you credit at Ft. Hays State, etc. I suppose if you're really motivated, you can get admitted to Ft. Hays and get a degree there after the straighterline curriculum peters out. (Interesting stuff in the news though about student reaction at Ft. Hays. And, it might be interesting to check out what Ft. Hays State charges for an equivalent course; maybe they should worry about THEIR business model.)

Here where I toil, the math department offers courses at an average expenditure of about $750, counting institutional overhead of 100%. (Math is relatively inexpensive compared to nanoscience, but expensive compared to sociology.) Of course, the catalog here includes quite a lot more than College Algebra, including courses leading to a Bachelor's in math, and even a Ph.D.

The real expenditure here for College Algebra, I would wager, is quite a lot less than $399. Maybe they have pricier operation at straighterline, though, I couldn't say.

Of course, it's quite correct to say that the lower-division courses subsidize the upper-division and probably the graduate program. Sort of like the airline business, the hotel business, right? But we seem to get steady growth in students, another record next year.

And if the students really don't want to pay our tuition, they can take College Algebra at the local community college, for quite a lot less than we charge, and less than $399, too. (It is subsidized, to be sure, we believe in that kind of thing here where I live.)

So, I don't think we're in imminent danger of being put of business by the likes of Straighterline, worthy as they may be.