Wednesday, July 11, 2012

For-Profit Colleges

For-Profit Colleges 

Here’s a recipe for success. Start a for-profit corporation and call it a college. To increase sales --- er enrollments – give it a prestigious English-sounding name. How about Rumplewick University? Hire “professors” without the highest degree in their field but with practical on-the-job training --- accountants, tax advisors, chefs, graphic designers, etc. (They’re much cheaper than profs with PhDs). Require no research or publishing or grantsmanship from them. Give no sabbaticals, awards, or other honors. If you give them a “campus” office, make them share it with other faculty. Assign them classes with enrollments large enough to meet your profit threshold. Whenever possible, offer online courses. No need to rent classroom space. No need to maintain an expensive library, or sports facilities or student activities space. Build an inviting campus? That’s just a frill. Tell students to forget about 90% of the total social experience of college.

Most important for dear old Rumplewick is this: eliminate admissions standards. You don’t have a high school diploma or G.E.D.? Not a problem. No bachelor’s degree? Still not a problem. No SAT scores? Low scores? They’re just numbers. (After all, not everyone has a 98.6 degree temperature but they don’t die. Right)? Call your admissions process Open Enrollment. That way Rumplewick can wrap itself in the democratic tradition that says, “everyone gets a chance, regardless of their past record.” By democratizing college-level education, Rumplewick will embrace the Costco-Walmart philosophy which states, “Everyone can afford us. Just walk through the door.”

Then there’s tuition. If students are desperate enough, you can charge them more per credit hour than the local community or four-year college. If you charge the same or less, you’ll get even more enrollees. Where else are these wannabe students going to go?  Finally, make the courses easy. Real easy. Light reading. Give online exams. Have students self-grade. They can download term papers off the Internet. And profs don’t have to really read them – especially not for grammar, punctuation or spelling. That’s for sissies. Professors need to understand that students who flunk out are no longer Rumplewick’s cash cows. Instead, give them social promotions, just like some public schools. If they paid their fees, if they showed up in person or online once in a while, if they turned in some written work, what the hell. Pass ‘em. 

Of course, caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware) applies here. A low prestige degree from a for-profit company may not be accepted by some employers. If your credential is worthless, have you really gained anything?

One California Assemblyman insists that for-profits earn up to 90% of their income from federal student loan programs. This means that the for-profit model is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Some, Bob Wieckowski writes, pay their executives annual salaries as high as $41 million. This is many times what traditional institutions pay their administrators. Bottom line = There’s Big Money to be made in manufacturing college grads.

You may have problems with my description of for-profits. The only problem in my mind is that my fictional Rumplewick U. looks uncomfortably like many traditional public and private nonprofit campuses. If you doubt this, take a look at their continuing or professional ed websites. You can study everything under the sun on America’s campuses. From astrology and beekeeping to yoga and zither playing. University extension and continuing education divisions offer courses, certificates and degrees in a dizzying array of topics. Many -– perhaps most –- are taught not by college faculty but by part-timers. Like for-profit instructors, some of these people are very knowledgeable about their subjects and do a fine job in the classroom. Others are simply hustling a buck or padding their resume with the title “Professor.” There is very little quality control at most public and nonprofit private campuses over these continuing education offerings. Why? Because their primary purpose is to funnel cash into campus coffers. The legitimate tenured and tenure-track faculty on traditional campuses pay little attention to the continuing ed sideshows. But it is that faculty presence alone which prevents the traditionals from eroding into the for-profit model.  

These traditional colleges have become a lot like New York publishing houses. How can the latter publish the works of award-winning authors and at the same time peddle the drivel of self-help, chick lit, thriller, porn, and other dubious genres of books? After all, poetry, literary fiction, etc. are high on prestige but low on financial return. Their answer: Earnings from the trash helps us subsidize the treasures. Mainstream universities may offer degrees in philosophy, religion, physics, history and other lofty subjects, but many peddle twaddle, as well. Their defense: Some of our most exalted professors cost us more in salary and benefits than the tuition dollars their courses yield. Our dreck offerings help offset the costs of these stars.

In my imagination I hear the for-profits telling the traditional institutions, “If you guys can foist courses of little intellectual merit on people, we can too, only we’ll make a nice profit for our shareholders.” My instincts tell me that for-profits are fully capable of offering good vocational credentials in the many non-academic fields in which traditional campuses have dealt for generations. Business administration, nursing, commercial and digital design, film, cuisine, fashion, photography, and several other specialized trades can probably be taught quite effectively by well managed for-profits. However, in non-vocational fields such as the social sciences, humanities, mathematics and sciences – where a degree is not targeted to an existing career field – traditional universities are likely to do a better job.

What’s your take on this?

Professor Academe

Saturday, June 9, 2012

College Costs 101

College Costs 101

In some respects a college education today unfolds much as it did a half century ago. Students march to a classroom where the professor imparts knowledge by lecturing, leading a class discussion or overseeing a workshop or lab. Research papers, lab exercises, exams and quizzes may be assigned. Professors render grades and students move on to the next set of courses. The whole process resembles a menage of cottage industry and nineteenth century factory assembly lines. Weren’t new technologies supposed to change all this? Weren’t they supposed to improve learning while reducing costly inefficiencies?

To be fair, universities haven’t stood still. Students today are more likely to record notes on a laptop, notebook or tablet. Instructors and students routinely e mail or text one another. Course websites permit students to check in with questions, participate in chat groups and the like. Professors use PowerPoint and other courseware technologies to illustrate and outline their lectures. And online sources convey visual and audio recordings, assigned readings, web links and the like to provide course content direct to students’ computers.

Still, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, among others, insists that there is plenty of room for cost savings in higher education. One way is to reduce duplication and other inefficiencies. Some elite universities are beginning to get this message. Harvard and MIT’s edX is one example. Instead of repeating courses over and over again, this Cambridge cabal has put their best faculty to work packaging key courses and offering them free over the Internet. edX terms these “MOOCs” or massively open online courses. Beginning this fall anyone can take a MOOC, though non-Harvard and MIT students will receive no credit for completing one. If they satisfy all course requirements however, they can earn a “certificate of completion.” Will these certificates be enough to open employment doors for edX’s “grads?” Only time will tell.

Similarly, Stanford professors will offer online courses through Coursera, a Silicon Valley startup. Princeton, Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania will partner with them. Students anywhere in the world, not just those enrolled at the participating universities, will be able to take courses and receive a certificate of completion. Cost? Right now, it’s $100 per course, less than the price of a month’s worth of Big Macs and fries.

But what if campuses around the world “adopted” some of the best MOOCs and offered them to their own students? This would permit educators to “flip” the usual routine. Instead of each campus fielding several sections of History 101, for example, why not have a single online version taught by some of the finest instructors available? Instead of diligently trooping to a classroom to record their prof’s lectures or class discussions, students could logon to their computers or other devices whenever and wherever they wish. Instead of five or ten history faculty teaching sections of History 101, a smaller number would spend less time lecturing and more time in class interacting systematically with students to answer questions, structure discussions and reinforce learning. Put simply, what once took place in class (e.g. lecturing) would no longer take up class time; what used to take place after class (e.g. homework) would now occur in class --- with an instructor there to reinforce lectures and answer questions.

So what if Professor X radically disagrees with an edX or Coursera prof about the origins of the Civil War? He or she can use face time with students to compare and contrast other points of view, thus stimulating a good discussion among students.  Universities, of course, could still field their own courses on more specialized topics that aren’t available online. The typical student might take one-third to one-half of his or her coursework through MOOC-supplemented offerings and the remainder through more traditional wholly on-campus auspices.

Of course there is nothing new about online courses. Universities and for-profit companies have offered them for years. What makes edX and Coursera different is that courses are highly affordable. (Free is especially cheap)! And they are taught by presumed experts in their fields.  If the MOOC concept catches on, it seems likely that other campuses will want to sponsor their own MOOC courses and make them available worldwide at little or no cost to students. This will give campuses across the land several options in choosing an online Chemistry or Physics 101 course, for example, for their own students.

As one who has spent more than 30 years teaching in university classrooms, I know that some faculty may not take to these ideas with great relish. Yet, the skyrocketing expense of a college degree underscores the need for economies of scale. MOOCs might offer one possible alternative.  Yes, they may lead to universities reducing the number of full-time tenure track slots in some departments. But cost savings from such measures may help administrators keep tuition costs competitive with those of other institutions.

Initially, I confess, I was reluctant to accept the MOOC/flipped classroom concept. My biggest concern about online education is the challenge of assessing student learning. Though most students are honest, the temptation to cheat on online tests and papers is great, given the ease with which such skullduggery can be accomplished. But then I realized, this is where the on-campus profs come in. It is they, not the MOOC profs, who would determine how well students have mastered course content.

With less time spent preparing and delivering lectures, on-campus instructors can provide frequent in-class assessments of student progress. Quizzes, exams, student oral presentations and the like can be carried out, giving students more frequent and personal progress reports.  Put simply, online education doesn’t have to become a subterfuge for dishonesty. On-campus faculty would still retain fundamental oversight of student learning. They would be free to supplement MOOC content, agree or disagree with it, discuss it with students, reinforce concepts and ideas, and most importantly, evaluate student progress and render final grades.

What do you think?

Professor Academe

Friday, May 25, 2012

Welcome to Campus Comment

Nearly All Things Academic

Welcome to Campus Comment. From time to time I'll post blogs about the routine, as well as the occasionally byzantine, aspects of campus life in North America. Like Lady Gaga, colleges and universities offer endless room for comment. As time permits, I may shine a spotlight on campuses in other countries, as well. Among the possible topics are: online courses, unaccredited campuses, evaluating university effectiveness in educating students, college costs, student debt, for-profit colleges, student honesty and resume fraud. If you're a college student, former student, potential student, administrator, staffer or professor, you may find Campus Comment a good place to visit every now and then. I welcome you.

Who am I? A retired professor who still teaches a little at Stanford University. In the past I've been a faculty member at campuses in Washington, D.C., Maine, Florida and New Jersey, as well as Nottingham, England. As a student I studied my way through five American campuses. It might be said that I know too much about campus life.

Please return to this site, bookmark it, and read my future postings. I welcome your comments.

Professor Academe