Writing recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Carey cited the Sloan Consortium’s finding that 3.9 million people—20% of all college students—took courses online in 2007 and that The University of Phoenix now enrolls 200,000 students a year. For-profit Kaplan University shows similar growth, and other college “products” like recorded lectures do brisk business as well.

However, the title of Carey’s column, “What Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers’ Decline,” indicates his trepidation about the success of alternative college courses.  He sees the struggles of The Tribune company (owners of the Chicago paper and LA Times) and the failure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as harbingers of what awaits universities if they do not adapt to the new business climate. Just as online sources shrink readership, the internet shrinks student bodies, and Cary worries online schools will redirect cash that brick and mortar schools need to survive.

As economic analysis, his thinking is valuable, but it rests on a devastating assumption—that education must make economic sense.

Some aspects of education are marketable.  Some are not.  It’s true, the end-result—a degree—is an appealing commodity.  The promise of better pay and the prestige of new initials often sell consumers on continuing education.  But that’s the product and not the process.  As long as studying is convenient, as long as students can take classes on their time, as long as assessments like papers and tests are minimal, and as long as classes are not too expensive, too arduous, or too consuming, people who don’t particularly like school can be convinced education is worthwhile.

The trouble is, as a process, getting educated can be uncomfortable and, to sell it, marketers must minimize or ignore its less desirable aspects.  For one thing, education is unreliable.  Like a drug that may work for some people and not others, schooling may rely more on the patient than the product.  True education can’t make any promises about anyone’s capacity to learn or retain information and skills.  The success of taking any course of study—at least measured in learning rather than credits—rests on students’ efforts.

This effort often translates as a desire to struggle, a willingness to be tried and tested by the unknown.  Grappling with difficult reading and addressing challenging questions are essential elements of face-to-face learning… but how do you sell that?

Some marketers are making a strategy out of telling students, “You will be tried.  You will discover thoughts and ideas you never conceived.  You will train weak or neglected parts of your brain with difficult and complicated skills and information.  You will benefit from these trials.”

But that’s not happening as much as it should.

Instead, online universities promise convenience and getting your money’s worth—in the most craven, materialistic, product-oriented terms, telling consumers they will experience increased earning power or certification when they finish.

And it’s cheaper.

The cost of education seems to be Carey’s chief concern.  To be fair, he’s interested in dollars, not in what the growth of virtual education means about what an education should be or do. But he barely musters any defense of real-time teaching,

Some people will argue that the best traditional college courses are superior to any online offering, and they’re often right. There is no substitute for a live teacher and student, meeting minds. But remember, that’s far from the experience of the lower-division undergraduate sitting in the back row of a lecture hall. All she’s getting is a live version of what iTunes University offers free, minus the ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward at a time and place of her choosing.

If lectures were all there were to schooling, maybe iTunes University would be a suitable substitute to lecture courses.  Being able to pause, rewind, and fast forward is handy but won’t matter much if the student has no compulsion to do so.  And what’s wrong with being trained to listen the first time around–isn’t that valuable too?  A podcast of an Ivy League lecture is appealing because the listener needn’t worry about understanding.  You can always come back… if you come back. With these lectures—and some University of Phoenix courses—you can always sidestep personal struggle.  Yet these challenges give education much of its value.

Carey laments the economic competition represented by online resources, not the way they may stress education’s convenience and, in the process, fundamentally distort its definition, meaning, and value.  He celebrates the forward thinking of Lamar University in Texas for offering a graduate educational administration course (a “cash cow,” he calls it) in coordination with a for-profit online provider and then splitting the profits.

If you can’t beat them, join them?  Perhaps it’s naïve to ignore such opportunities—non-profits need money too—but, if colleges are making economic judgments, shouldn’t they examine the cost of that sort of survival?  What will survive exactly?

Anyone who’s taken an economics course understands the temptation to see everything in economic terms, as if all value might be charted on a supply-demand graph and every choice resolved through cost-benefit analysis.  Educational institutions are certainly not immune to such considerations.  They operate in the same world businesses do.  But are universities, in the end, purely businesses?  If they are and it’s a product their students are buying, why not sell degrees outright?

Maybe you can win the competition with online sources by maximizing the economic advantages of education. Perhaps universities should ask, however, what kind of victory they seek.


Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Humanities, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

6 responses to “Edubusiness

  1. Very thoughtful piece. But to your “who wants to buy the discomfort of having your ideas challenged” point, I think you’re being too cynical. I actually market this notion to 1,000s of kids in secondary school and college-bound who are hungry for “more.” Challenge and the room to excel and push themselves is exactly what they’re looking for. I know you know who they are because you teach them at the schools with which you have been and are affiliated.

    So, I don’t think it’s all about economics in the sense of slick marketers trying to sell a sugary version of higher ed. To me, the cautionary tale here is that a little more than a decade ago the end of print media was forecast and a lot of print professionals stuck their heads in the sand. While universities and newspapers aren’t perfectly analogous, I think Carey is simply saying “pay attention folks” because something has *got* to give on the price of higher ed. It’s not that students want it quick and easy, they just want to be able to afford to go to college.

    You ask why must we assess the health or value by how the money flows? Because real people have to pay tuition and they can’t afford to. If we’re not careful our system will lose the gains of the last half century we’ve made, and we’ll be back to a quality undergraduate education being a luxury only for the rich elite.

    Thank you for your comments. I do know the kids you are talking about and perhaps I am being too cynical. I only wish they all my students wanted more. I’m grateful that people like you promote rigor as a positive value.

    I agree with Carey that colleges should heed what’s happening to newspapers, and I’m not proposing colleges should be a luxury for the rich elite. However, I don’t want them to follow the lead of online universities by offering what looks like the same product but isn’t. In education, as in most things, you generally get what you pay for. Colleges might not need to be so expensive–I’m sure I’d rather not pay the football coach so much!–but I hope they find a way to compete that includes boasting about what online institutions may not match.

    Thanks for visiting.

  2. I appreciate your discussion about the process of education. Learning does require a person to be uncomfortable from time to time. That is my experience, at least, and I’m grateful for my struggles.

    My reading of Carey is that he was not making a rigorous critique of universities/colleges as academic institutions, which of course they are.

    Carey was examining universities/colleges as corporate entities, which of course they also are.

    The point is that when a corporation uses a “cash cow” to subsidize other operations it is at risk.

    Newspapers’ cash cow was classified ads as well as other types of advertising. When Craigslist, Ebay and other methods of selling used goods emerged, the demand for newspaper classifieds eroded. This made the journalistic enterprise of newspapers vulnerable – no cash cow to support it.

    Universities’ cash cow is frosh/soph introductory classes. I sat in lecture halls of 200 to 400 people for psychology, science and accounting.

    The large lecture class is far from a satisfying experience. It simply is not possible to engage a class this large in any meaningful way. The struggle you describe is not possible in this format.

    The students who will most crave iTunes style lectures are the students who do want to struggle. They can stop, pause, rewind and think.

    But, again, that’s not the point. The 200 to 400 student lecture classes are the “cash cow” that supports 10 student honors classes. The math is simple 1 professor to 400 students vs. 1 to 10.

    When preferred substitutes replace the 200 to 400 student lecture class, the 10 student honors class is at risk. It becomes unaffordable.

    This is the future that Carey is saying universities and colleges must prepare.

    What will happen to the honors classes? How will they remain affordable?

    Thanks for your detailed critique.

    Yes, I’m a naive idealist. I don’t miss your math or Carey’s and recognize that Universities are as vulnerable to some of the same changing technologies as newspapers have been. I don’t even disagree that universities are corporations. I just think it’s unfortunate we have to think of them that way.

    Carey’s economic realities are realities, no doubt, so maybe I’m just wringing my hands, impotently and stupidly lamenting facts. My friends sometimes feel they’re wasting their time trying to talk sense into me, and I don’t blame them. It’s just frustrating that so many aspects of society that offer more than monetary benefits (and you might include journalism, medicine, pharmaceuticals, as well as education on this list) are now ruled by dollars. What doesn’t pay doesn’t stay. I wonder if the first universities thought that way or whether, even now, universities the world over do.

    As a teacher, I see how the business model distorts education in exactly the ways you detail—trading effective classes for ones that bring in dollars, catering to the customer when the customer might profit more from not being catered to, and seeking economic efficiencies instead of benefits in learning that, unfortunately, are not nearly so quantifiable.

    I don’t know how to make education affordable. I shouldn’t complain unless I have answers, but I’m a teacher who just wants to teach well and feels swept up in uncontrollable forces much larger than himself. From my perspective, access to good classes, thoughtful curriculum, effective teaching, and lower student to teacher ratios will always be more expensive. However, in the cosmic scheme, the alternative seems more expensive still.

  3. My experience with learning over the years, whether in a classroom, online, or in a weekend college, informal setting; is that the learning ultimately comes through reflection on the part of the learner. Learning itself is not an economic proposition. But creating environments in which learning occurs is an economic proposition whether it’s a campus, or a blended or online envrionment. Like any other learning environment, any of them can be done well or poorly. See my further thoughts on Carey’s article at .

  4. “. . . offering what looks like the same product but isn’t.” This point hits the nail on the head for me. Such a key nuance in the whole discussion.

  5. I think you’re correct in saying “As long as studying is convenient, as long as students can take classes on their time, as long as assessments like papers and tests are minimal, and as long as classes are not too expensive, too arduous, or too consuming, people who don’t particularly like school can be convinced education is worthwhile.” Do you think, then, that those “people who don’t particularly like school” would enroll in institutions of higher education if there were no other alternatives?

    And would you want to teach those people?

    Interesting questions! I’m guessing on the first, but I suspect many wouldn’t. As all the people who’ve commented on the post have reminded me, school can be a financial decision, and some students might not otherwise be able to afford higher education. Carey and many others see universities pricing themselves out of the market because they’re naive about their less cumbersome and more appealing competition.

    Many—not all!—of the people who choose online alternatives may have extrinsic motives—they want a degree or certificate more than they want to earn it. I suspect our educational system—with or without online universities—encourages extrinsically motivated students by marketing the outcomes of education and stressing its low psychological cost. But, by implying education is a convenient and painless product to be purchased rather than a challenging process willingly borne, you can create students who bristle at labor. You have to want to be educated—not to have an education, that’s different–to accept some of school’s biggest challenges.

    In the business view of education, teachers can become service-providers. The customer is almost always right, and sometimes customer/students can bully teachers into compromising their standards. A parent once said to me, “I didn’t pay all this money for my daughter to get B’s.” He was unusually forthright–no other parent has been so brazen and most of the parents I encounter are supportive–but that perspective of “return on investment” lurks in the business model as well–if the customer is paying for success, the importance of his or her own labor fades.

    That said, I love teaching students who think education could be painless. I like to think any student can be persuaded that the delights of an education are greater than its personal costs–it’s not all hard, much of it is tremendous fun. Most students discover that the delight of mastering something initially challenging far surpasses any extrinsic, balance-sheet value. And most of the time–at least when they’re sitting in front of an excited and curious teacher–students can be cajoled into working harder and learning more than they anticipated.

    I’m now quite sorry I wrote this post. I seem to have touched some nerves, and that was not my intention. I’m not saying the cost of education is unimportant, just that learning might have more to do with the student’s attitude and effort than what he or she paid for it. I meant to say that seeing education as another business and universities as corporations has hidden implications. I know education has become a business—I worry seeing it entirely that way distorts what education is and has, since the beginning of time, been.

  6. “Many—not all!—of the people who choose online alternatives may have extrinsic motives—they want a degree or certificate more than they want to earn it.”

    I agree. Or rather, they want the benefits of the degree or certificate, and the knowledge represented by the degree/certificate be damned. I wonder how many University of Phoenix enrollees pay their money and never finish the program, never get a degree, never see magical improvement in their lives.

    Sure it costs money and it’s hard work (and great joy) to get an advanced education: That always has been true. At some point thirty-some years ago, when high school graduates stopped being able to spell, “higher education” became something to which people began to feel entitled, whether or not they had enjoyed, valued or benefited psychologically or intellectually from previous years’ schooling. Perhaps the devaluation of learning, as opposed to having a degree, began then and is only noticeable now, when it seems there are many degreed people who shed, with their gowns and mortarboards, any intellectual curiosity they might once have owned. It is my observation that a bachelor’s degree now has no more significance in terms of its owner’s ability or intelligence than a solid high school education of yore.

    You are “not proposing colleges should be a luxury for the rich elite,” and neither am I. I do wonder if it might not be desirable for a college education to, once again, mean some mental growth actually has been achieved. If that means that the “elite” (I’ll go wash out my mouth with a bar of Ivory soap as soon as I’ve finished typing) are the ones who get the opportunity to earn college degrees, so be it.

    In any age, curious people gain the greatest benefit from education because, all the time they are satisfying their hunger, they are developing more. As a teacher, I can tell you the student always matters more than the teacher or the curriculum. Those who want to learn and are willing to put in the labor to do so usually find a way, and nothing inspires good teaching more than motivated students.

    Everyone should be educated, but we expect an “economy of scale” from education that doesn’t suit learning. If you’re focused on money, it’s more economical and efficient to collect students—the more the better and the internet allows that—but the interaction between teacher and student weakens with each additional desk and each additional meter between them. I suspect I could teach ten students more in an hour than I could teach thirty in a week.

    Maybe universities are corporations, but, from the beginning, one of the primary purposes of corporations has been to dissipate risk and responsibility. Corporations don’t have to look anyone in the eye and, being impersonal, can focus on monetary return without conscience—someone else is always taking care of that. Corporations can also decide as a group to address the public good—admirably, some do—but corporations are set up to reap. It’s in their DNA, and most sow only enough to reap more later. What they sow is often less important than the money they’ll receive for it.

    I’m probably looking at this problem idealistically and unrealistically—I don’t want to be accused of being a Marxist and really do wish I didn’t have this strident streak in me—but I can’t help thinking we should be putting more money into education. I just can’t see how creating the conditions to get more money out of education will improve true learning. Real learning (not conferring degrees or certifying attendance) may be—fundamentally and essentially and inevitably—a monetarily unprofitable enterprise.

    And that’s all I have to say on this subject! I mean it this time!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s