Kevin Carey at the Washington Monthly has a provocative piece about the future of higher education. It's a bit of digital triumphalism, I think. Carey makes some valid points about the place the digital classroom will have in higher ed, but I think he's glossing over the biggest stumbling block to the discount model that online universities like Straighter Line represent.

That problem is accreditation, i.e. institutional approval for the classes you're teaching. Straighter Line tried to get around their accreditation problem by partnering up with a public university, Fort Hays State, and the push back was swift, not only against Straighter Line, but against Fort Hays, both from inside and outside. Folks inside the university system decried Fort Hays's willingness to cede some of their institutional control to a private company, which is a legitimate complaint. But I think the real reason there was pushback is a bit simpler. It's about money.

Carey points out that introductory level classes subsidize the upper divisions in practically every department, which should be no surprise to anyone who's even glanced at the university system. Introductory classes (though not in composition, thankfully) are often huge lecture classes where the professor has a minimum of contact with the students. Most of the testing, grading and lab work is run by graduate students or poorly-paid adjuncts. Because universities are getting so much bang for their buck at the freshman level, they can run upper division classes at a loss, and given that roughly half of all freshmen who start college won't get a degree in 6 years, there's a fair amount of "extra" money floating around in the system in the sense that there are a lot of first and second year students subsidizing upper division classes they'll never take. (There's no extra money in any real sense, since student tuition doesn't come close to actually paying for how much a public university spends per student.)

No university with any sense is willingly going to cede that kind of money to an outside group. Universities have a fair amount of leeway when it comes to what credits they will accept from another university--some just put a blanket on the total number of credits you can bring with you, no matter where you got them. Straighter Line and other online schools offering only introductory courses are completely at the mercy of public and private universities in this way. They don't have any leverage. And the universities don't have any reason to let companies like Straighter Line dip into one of their more lucrative revenue streams. About the only way I see the future Carey describes coming to fruition is if there's outside (read: governmental) pressure to force universities to accept credits from institutions like Straighter Line.

And let me be clear--I think that would be a horrible idea. I'm certainly not going to say that the current system is all kinds of awesome, even at the introductory level. I have a colleague who's teaching a total of nine classes this semester between two universities, and I hate when I get his students because they haven't gotten anything approaching an education. But Carey, I think, gets the other side of this wrong as well.

Which means the day is coming—sooner than many people think—when a great deal of money is going to abruptly melt out of the higher education system, just as it has in scores of other industries that traffic in information that is now far cheaper and more easily accessible than it has ever been before. Much of that money will end up in the pockets of students in the form of lower prices, a boon and a necessity in a time when higher education is the key to prosperity.
This, and the paragraph which precedes it, smacks of market triumphalism to me--consumers will decide they like online classes and will demand universities accept them, and universities will explode. He presumes that the accreditation wall is one that students are enforcing, when it isn't--it's one that degree-dispensing institutions are enforcing, as a way of protecting their markets. Online classrooms will explode, all right, but they'll explode on campuses. It will become less likely, rather than more, that universities will accept credits from companies like Straighter Line. The reason that the University of Phoenix has been successful to the degree it has is because it dispenses degrees. It's not dependent on another university to accept its credits. That's also why it's more expensive than Straighter Line--upper division studies cost more than introductory classes do.

And in that way, this is a matter of basic economics. Universities control the supply of degrees, and our economy has bought into the idea that degrees are necessary for quality jobs. As long as these two things stay the same, there's no reason for universities to relinquish the monopoly they enjoy on the degree dispensing business, or to cede their most lucrative market to someone else just because it might (and I emphasize the might here) be better for the degree-seeking population.

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