She opened the press release all by herself!

At least a dozen ways to stoopid, by Froma Harrop:

Bill Gates recently predicted: “Five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”

A year at a university costs an average $50,000, the Microsoft founder and Harvard dropout said last month. The Web can deliver the same quality education for $2,000.

Yet American colleges continue to float in the bubble of economic exceptionalism once occupied by Detroit carmakers.  American median income has grown 6.5 times over the past 40 years, but the cost of attending one’s own state college has ballooned 15 times. This kind of income-price mismatch haunted the housing market right before it melted down.

.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      

As the father of a student at Kenyon College told me, “It’s like driving a new Corvette to Ohio every September, leaving the keys and taking the bus home.”

This reminds me of that old Calgon bath salts commercialinternets, take us away!!!  So why does that father choose to do what Harrop implies is the economically irrational thing and continue to drive that Corvette every autumn to Ohio?  Gee, I wonder!

American universities now rake in $40 billion a year more than they did 30 years ago. And most of that money isn’t going for academics, according to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in their book, “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It.”

She opened the press release herself!

For starters, the money is going to more numerous and more pampered sports teams. Duke University in Durham, N.C., spends over $20,000 a year per varsity golf player. And these squads rarely pay for themselves. There are 629 college football teams, and only 14 make money.

Well, that’s a reasonable point.

The number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled over 30 years, according to Hacker and Dreifus. Their titles point to such questionable duties as “director for learning communities” and “assistant dean of students for substance education.”

Compensation for college presidents, meanwhile, has soared to corporate CEO levels. Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., pays its president $1.2 million a year!

Universities are also competing to make their on-campus experiences more like a resort than a bookish monastery. Some dorms feature granite counters, kitchens and walk-in closets. Fancy health clubs have replaced musty gyms.

What else are students getting in return for their enormous college bills? Some useful contacts for the future and four extra years to figure life out.

And they do receive an education, though the quality doesn’t seem to justify the rising costs. Full-time faculty members are being paid more for teaching less. Some elite colleges now offer sabbaticals every third year instead of the traditional seventh. Harvard has 48 history professors, and 20 of them are somewhere else this year.

The market will eventually recognize the out-of-whack economics of today’s “place-based colleges” and intervene. Some day soon, Web alternatives will let students of modest means try their hand at a college education. And what a great day that will be.

Your turn now!

And when the day comes that the Froma Harrops and her friends who apparently have the discretionary cash to abandon a Corvette annually sit their children down in front of a computer for four years instead of sending them to Brown, Harvard, Vanderbilt, and Kenyon, monkeys will fly out of my butt to teach those online courses.  And then the Rapture will be nigh.

31 thoughts on “She opened the press release all by herself!

  1. This seems like a silly point to make, but the colleges mentioned by name in the article – Harvard, Kenyon, Vanderbilt, Duke – are all private universities. For that reason, they seem like bizarre supporting examples for the statement, “American median income has grown 6.5 times over the past 40 years, but the cost of attending one’s own state college has ballooned 15 times. This kind of income-price mismatch haunted the housing market right before it melted down.”

    But then, what do I know. I went to state college for two of my three degrees 🙂


  2. (Oh, I guess they *do* mention University of Illinois in the fuller article, but its tuition is only up by 6x the rate in 1980… even though it’s one of the best universities in the country….)


  3. Articles like this also make the critical mistake (intentionally?) of presenting the situation as if Kenyon and Harvard were competing with online “education” for the same consumers. They’re not. Kenyon parents will continue driving that corvette to Ohio, because they can afford to leave their kids with a corvette (or maybe something more reliable and useful). The online folks will be competing with second-tier state unis like the one I teach at — ones where the students have less money, and come from families who are less experienced in the world of higher ed.

    What will we be left with: Kenyon grads driving those corvettes (to be fair, they put work into them) to the car wash where online students (formerly students at public universities, which taxpayers can now stop paying for!) will be working for minimum wage. And it will all be seen as right and good, because those grads went to all the best schools for their education, and got a rigorous education while they were there, so why shouldn’t they come out on top?

    Works out perfectly — if you’re on the right side of that divide to begin with.


  4. I particularly liked the way that the implication that top class teaching will continue to exist without research! One of the reason research unis have had to up the sabbatical ratio is because of the greater demand for research products (more books and articles people- what do you mean you need time to think?!). And those of us who are at less research intensive places still rely on that research to keep teaching up to date- because that used to be the point of university teaching- filtering new ideas downwards to keep the economy fresh, new and expanding. Where do they expect that web content to come from without research?


  5. Tom–apply for the job, and keep your eyes peeled for abandoned corvettes on the streets of Gambier. It sure will make that commute to W. VA a lot speedier!

    FA–yes, that old canard about faculty being paid more to teach less is a good one. (I can haz research fellowship naow, like Harvard faculty members?)

    And Notorious: you’ve got it exactly right. I take it you aren’t lining up behind my butt monkeys to teach those magical online courses?


  6. Yes, I was totally thinking of that post of yours from last week after I wrote my comment!

    But, on another note, I’ve got to jump in here to suggest that online courses aren’t necessarily the enemy of what non-profit universities do. (Nor are online courses what Gates seems to be describing.) It’s a different delivery method, sure, and in the ways that it’s been implemented at many institutions it has in many respects put the cart (the delivery method) before the horse (the content, the students, the quality of what’s being delivered). But I think we make a mistake if we just say no to online classes because that ship has pretty much already sailed. What happens if the people most qualified to teach in content areas refuse online delivery methods is not that online courses won’t exist: it’s that less qualified people will be teaching them. This is not to say that I don’t have my problems with online instruction, but I’ve got problems with 300+ lecture F2F instruction, too…. I don’t think the fact that something is online necessarily makes it poor quality. Anyway, enough of that for now, though. I’m going to do a post about online teaching over at my place in the next few days, and I’ll say more then.


  7. place-based colleges????

    I suppose “brick and mortar” is too web 1.0.

    But in all seriousness, I work at a place where we think community connections are good for our students and good for our scholarship. So old-fashioned!


  8. Yes, the questions of peer-review, vetting the value of online lectures, and compensating the lecturers who are teaching for free online … never addressed. MIT’s project is very interesting, but it depends upon the respect granted to the stone-and-mortar institution for its respectability. If there’s one thing the internet has taught us, it’s that when people distribute content for free, some of it is very good and some is very bad. And it’s up to the consumer of the content to determine what is good and bad. Somehow, with a university education, that doesn’t seem like as viable an option as it is for, say, sugar cookie recipes.

    Also, for learning for learning’s sake, the internet might do a great job. But for building a network of contacts, learning how professionals in your field interact, and generally being immersed in the real world of your field, picking and choosing between unvetted, free internet resources is not going to be as useful to students as the traditional university.


  9. Ya think?

    All of this hopey-changey $hite about the internets is pretty hilarious, IMHO. As you say Comrade Svilova, the programs that are more successful rely on the reputation and heft of bricks-and-mortar unis. (This is similar to efforts to “monetize” the internets–bricks-and-mortar stores had the inventory and infrastructure to capitalize on internet sales better than everyone else.)

    I wasn’t there, but from what I understand about the history of the teevee, it was once thought sure to be a great democratizer of advanced education. People would flock to watch educational courses and lectures by famous scholars, and teevee could deliver a university education to everyone!!11!!!

    And ZOMG. Look how that worked out. A lot of this discussion about online courses also reminds me of “distance learning,” which was being pushed in the 1990s as the next big democratizing educating wave of the future. (For those of you too young to know, “distance learning” was basically videotaped lectures or closed-circuit teevee transmissions of a professor beamed out to many other classrooms, with varying degrees of interactivity.) And it flopped too.

    I agree with Dr. Crazy that online courses are here and they’ll probably be around for a while. But there’s no way that online courses or degrees are going to be esteemed by future employers the way that a degree from an old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar institution is. Enough people with decision-making authority know the difference.


  10. Distance learning didn’t flop in the UK though. The Open University (the major quality distance learning provider) is technically the largest university in the UK- most students, most staff- but almost all are distance learning. It’s degrees are also respectable- I mean it’s not Oxbridge, but they are as respected any middle-ranking uni. It was ranked 43rd out of 132 in the last research assessment exercise- which is pretty decent, and came 3rd for student satisfaction.

    And now other uni’s like Oxbridge are trying to get some of that market!


  11. The Open University shows what could be done–by a decent non-profit management that appointed a competent staff, gave them decent working conditions, and took the enterprise seriously. I don’t as yet see anything like that in the US marketplace. (If I remember rightly, the Open University made a try at opening in the States and it didn’t end well–but I don’t recall any more details.)

    As to the article and its source: why does these folks write as if universities developed all these admittedly overpriced and irrelevant services in a vacuum, just because they felt like it and wanted to spend some dollars instead of burning them? The universities were meeting the needs of consumers, who were buying bigger and fancier cars and building bigger and fancier houses. They (we?) should have known better, but it wasn’t some unilateral effort: it was a response to demand. Sigh.


  12. Historiann’s mention of educational t.v. (which is what they originally called what became Public Television) got me to nostalgically thinking about the course of lectures I sat through by James Shenton, a Columbia historian of the 19th century U.S., back when it wasn’t completely pathetic to only have black and white t.v. With very few bells and whistles and only medium graphics, he made what we would call the U.S. survey seem compelling. Pretty much totally presidential synthesis, but he never missed a labor dispute. It was doubtless pretty weak on women, Indians, and other subjects that no course would think of downplaying today. I once asked Eric Foner if they knew what had become of the tapes (old Channel 13 in New York) and he said he had tried to find out, probably for some kind of festschrift purposes, but that they had disappeared. Foner had been a grad. student assistant on that project.
    It helped to lure me into history as a field. But in general, I have a pretty skeptical view of distance ed.


  13. “Full-time faculty members are being paid more for teaching less. Some elite colleges now offer sabbaticals every third year instead of the traditional seventh.”

    Meanwhile, for us folks at the directional unis …

    Has this person heard of something called a recession (which apparently ended the other day)? How about being paid the same to teach the same because of budget and salary freezes? How about having the number of course releases and available SEVENTH year sabbaticals being reduced because of cost savings or “efficiences?”

    And amen to the relative deal of state unis (as long as they are in frugal states that aren’t gutting funding).

    And we keep focusing on tuition costs, but how about some attention paid to the student default rate at for-profits? Something smells there…


  14. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to be able to network with fellow students and your instructors — an invaluable feature of “place-based learning.” Oh, wait, I guess we’ll all be using some brand new Microsoft innovation to chat.

    Something that is not necessarily related, but I found moderately ironic, is that USC (South Carolina, not California) last year decided to subcontract the student email system out to Hotmail (or something like that, apparently it’s “Live@EDU” in this most recent rebranding attempt). So we have an domain name, but have to log in through Microsoft’s site. I guess Bill is completely happy to take our money while cheerfully plotting our demise.


  15. Let’s face it, anyone who put in the effort, had access to a good public library, and had learned to read could educate him/herself pretty darned well in 1920, too. But it takes more than access to information to get an education.

    A student taking a class (and an on-line class is very different than having access to materials, lectures, etc on line) gets pushed to work on a schedule, gets feedback, and gets help according to the instructor’s abilities and perceptions of the student’s needs. You don’t get that from an on line lecture or from a text book.

    Autodidacts will always be around, and we should cheer for and encourage them. But it’s a small percentage of real human beings that can push themselves without additional help.


  16. Then there is the comment from Tennessee’s lt. governor last week:
    college professors “step off campus and they’re lost. They like to get up in the morning, comb their beard, put on their wire-rim glasses, throw their little tweed vest on, and go to school for three hours . . . and hate Republicans.”
    Don’t hold your breath waiting for support from him!!


  17. I’ve been on all sides of this: putting together online classes, teaching them, participating in online groups as part of work, and, waaay back in the day, taking a correspondence course. The other bit of background is that I love computers and like few things better than getting away from people and their problems and living on the web.

    And even given all that, when I take an online class, or I’m part of an online group, there is a level of involvement that is just plain missing. You can only get that in the real world. If you know the others in real life, it’s less of a problem, but even then and even for someone like me, there’s a missing element. It’s not just social or networking, either. There’s something missing about how one learns and connects information.

    On the teaching side, there’s actually less missing, at least in my experience. But online classes take two to three times as much time because you have to be constantly in touch with the students. Otherwise they lose what little connection they have to the learning. In this group, everybody already knows that all that extra work is unpaid.

    After I was initially wildly enthusiastic about online education, I’ve come to see that it can only be successful where it’s given the extra resources it requires. (Australia actually has some of the best longstanding examples at the school level.) The other thing I’ve seen is the motivation. Administrations and others figure this is something teachers can do in their copious free time, and nobody even needs to keep the lights on, which means more money for presidential salaries! What could possibly go wrong?


  18. Let me see, now (adjusts wire-rims and tweed vest–sadly, no beard).

    Back in 1922, according to Sinclair Lewis (_Babbitt_) the characters were all keen to take correspondence courses, which were much more useful and much cheaper than learning all that “history and junk” at a place-bound university.

    Then radio courses. Then TV was the big edu-wave of the future. Then distance learning by video.

    Now it’s “free and online,” like the Edupunk movement.

    In the meantime, where is that place with the fabulous raises, salaries, and sabbaticals? As best I can tell, it exists only in the feverish imaginations of newspaper columnists.


  19. Well, since as a college professor I do no work, I have my first free minute of the day at 9:30. Hmmm. Where to start? I believe in autodidacts; they are often eccentric, but always interesting. My favorite autodidact’s book is 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. And that is some serious self-education. Using old-fashioned books.

    As for the Open University, following Historiann’s rule of listing the faculty — they do list the faculty, and have some great people. It’s flexible, not cut rate.

    I do think it’s amazing that someone like Gates, who is putting LOTS of money into education, doesn’t get that teaching is a relationship.

    Oh, and for the Tennessee guy: everyone knows that the in look in higher ed is RIMLESS glasses 🙂


  20. You know, by this logic, why not eliminate all schooling? Kids are naturally curious; get them a computer and away they go! Knowledge acquisition can be a passive experience from birth onward.

    I loves me some internet, but I think (one of) the (many) underlying issues here is a lack of understanding of how learning happens — related, I’d wager, to the increasing emphasis on testing as a measure of knowledge. If teaching to the test=successful education, then class (or virtual) interactions with faculty and other students seem unecessary. It isn’t about creativity, new ways of thinking or combining knowledge, it is about a pre-defined body of information/skills that you can check-off completing, like getting to a new level on a video game.


  21. I’d like to go back to Tony Grafton’s comment, because it articulates a key element to the development of the private uni in recent decades. It’s easy for us to lampoon how these media “discussions” of education focus on the private, elite schools (because most of us teach at public schools with vastly different salaries, research-teaching proportions, and sabbatical opportunities). But just looking at the Harvards and Princetons here – Tony is exactly right. Elite universities had to keep up with a certain demand and expectation from wealthy parents who had the cash to send their kids to the best schools in the country (for argument’s sake, let’s follow USN&WR here) – the Ivies. Everybody wanted a Lexus SVU, a McMansion with several acres of property, and to send their kids to the “best school” which in turn should offer spa-like amenities to their children. All of this happened in an environment of anti-intellectualism, where universities were seen increasingly as service industries to give middle class and rich kids a stamp of approval so they could move on to their corporate jobs, rather than as places of learning and exploration. Universities were also actively encouraged to model themselves after corporations rather than institutions of higher education. Because isn’t everything better once it’s privatized and corporatized?!? (Thus we now have “customers” instead of students.) And suddenly now that we’re in a recession, it’s the universities that are at fault! Because they’ve lost their sense of mission and instead care about things like staying afloat as they lose more and more of their funding!

    (I don’t mean this as a defense of the status quo.)


  22. Besides all the excellent points the other commenters have made, there’s also the problem of how you would teach the more hands-on, procedural stuff. The kind of stuff we have labs for at the actual, physical universities.

    I mean, you can teach yourself all about how a given technique works, even to the point of being able to predict how a given compound/DNA sample/protein/whatever will behave in a given procedure based on its mass, charge/mass ratio, polarity or whatever, but that’s not the same as actually being able to *DO* an electrophoresis! There are motor skills to be learned, and a certain comfort level with the various types of equipment to be gained — both things that require you to be there in person.

    And even in the humanities, where there aren’t labs to worry about, I still think you’d lose a lot not having a room full of other students to discuss the day’s reading with, or who might think to ask the professor a question you couldn’t verbalize, but whose answer really helps you understand something.


  23. Very interesting re the open university, I must check on this.

    I’m actually thinking of hybridizing my freshman courses, voluntarily. Now they meet 3 days a week + 1 lab hour that I sometimes run as a study group. The regular class meeting Friday is a bust for various reasons, including that the university is saving money by not turning on heat or air conditioning Fridays, so everyone is not just tired from the week but rather uncomfortable physically.

    We have a lot of online resources and I think that if the Friday class took place virtually people might actually get more, not less individual attention from me, and might take better advantage of the wonderful online resources we have.

    Has anyone else had an experience like this?


  24. P.S. Lindsay’s right; I do have labs because I’m in foreign languages and do digital humanities; it almost seems, though, that physical presence in labs and in study groups is better for beginning students than traditional classes. I almost want class to be online and then step up lab and study group activity with lots of physical presence. At present, I’m trying to make class itself be more like a study group/lab, given that this is the situation, but the things is that they also seem to need and want lectures (they wouldn’t if they read the book, but they don’t read the book). These (lectures), then, are what could be online is what I’m thinking.


  25. P.S. Lindsay’s right; I do have labs because I’m in foreign languages and do digital humanities; it almost seems, though, that physical presence in labs and in study groups is better for beginning students than traditional classes. I almost want class to be online and then step up lab and study group activity with lots of physical presence. At present, I’m trying to make class itself be more like a study group/lab, given that this is the situation, but the things is that they also seem to need and want lectures (they wouldn’t if they read the book, but they don’t read the book). These (lectures), then, are what could be online is what I’m thinking.

    Has anyone else tried this? I can’t believe I’m acting as though online components will be better, but it is how it seems right now…


  26. Pingback: Great prediction, Carnac: a brief history of the future of online education | Historiann

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