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


  1. Personally, I don't think the way for universities to cut costs is to reduce faculty or other academic inputs that could have the potential to significantly affect educational quality. Instead, what is often the largest drain of university resources are the athletic programs. Universities invest millions in full-boat scholarships for everything from lawn bowling to ultimate frisbee to swimming, not to mention football. Massive fundraising and endowments go to fund the construction of 80,000 seat football stadiums, athletic facilities and exorbitant salaries for coaches. This would seem a more benign route to go to address spiraling costs.

    Also, it's long been speculated that Ivy league and elite private institutions are the ones driving up higher education costs for everyone. They have such great resources at their disposal, and they are essentially able to charge any tuition they want because wealthy parents around the world will always pay whatever it takes. The middle and lower tier universities often feel forced to invest more and more to be able to compete for quality students. Maybe perversely, one of the major criteria used to rank universities in U.S. News and other rankings is the number of students they turn away each year; the lower the acceptance rate, the more students that are applying and the higher the attractiveness of the university. So maybe one way to address rising costs is for the government to place caps on the amount that universities can charge in tuition, though this would probably be politically unpopular.

    A lot of conservatives and libertarians argue that the widespread availability of federally funded scholarships (Pell grants, etc) and loan programs is the cause of rising costs; universities can charge whatever they want because they know the government (taxpayers) will be there to foot the bill. However there is mixed evidence for this especially on a wide scale/across many institutions, and more broadly, one has to wonder about the implications of reducing federal efforts at promoting higher education access. The U.S. already has the highest level of income inequality in the developed world, and it's hard to see how something like this wouldn't significantly exacerbate it.

    1. Dear Traneman618,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. Your comments are well taken. Doubtless, there are several pressure points where savings could be realized in higher education costs. The simple truth is that many private universities, and especially, as you point out, the elite ones, have little incentive to cut expenses. One method, as I explained, is to look at the basic structure of an university education and ask, Has the traditional model become obsolete? Is it possible to entreat the professoriate to accept economies of scale which might even improve the student learning process at the same time?

      Excessive college athletic expenditures, though perhaps attracting higher alumni donations, is another pressure point. The sheer number of degree-granting institutions in the US and Canada is a third: many of the bottom feeders promise everyone a degree, even though significant numbers of their students are unlikely ever to complete a 2-year or 4-year program. Alas.

      Professor Academe

  2. In order for the MOOC to become the standard model of university instruction, you have to figure out how student work would be evaluated. Sure, some superstar professor from Rutgers Newark could offer the Beethoven's Ninth of Poli Sci courses, but that professor certainly wouldn't be grading the exams and papers written by thousands of students and answering their questions online each semester. Would professors at the other universities then basically become 21st-Century t.a.'s, doing the grunt work?

    In a model like that, I think that the pursuit of the doctorate in most academic disciplines would become a quaint anachronism. Who is going to put in the years and energy into obtaining a doctorate, if that degree would lead to a lifetime spent at the University of Wherever, only answering the questions and grading the work of students of the MOOCmaster, while working on research that the MOOCmaster might cite at some point?

    If universities want to cut their costs, they can start by stopping the practice of offering a full-ride to students who play on the many NCAA sports teams that don't turn a profit.

    1. Dear fbslug,

      Thanks for an interesting response. Food for thought there. No doubt that savings can be realized by taming the college sports beast. Perhaps it's a sad comment to say that sports programs at some campuses actually (or reputedly) generate revenue and alumni giving that exceeds their costs (e.g. football). Yet, doubtless, many others do not. Full-ride educations for team players can become a drain on campus treasuries.

      As for MOOCs leading to professors-as-glorified-TA's, that certainly is a possibility. It's hard for me to imagine many faculty unions putting up with that model though. Under the MOOC idea, there is no limit of time and attention an on-campus prof could devote to additional lectures, class/workshop/seminar discussions and exercises, as well as one-on-one meetings with students. Too many professors pay only cursory attention to student grading; perhaps the MOOC model would free up their time to really READ those papers and essays.

      Finally, the MOOC model might reduce the number of doctorally-qualified faculty across North America. But frankly, I'm not too worried about that. Truth is, there are far more doctoral granting institutions than are needed to fill the ranks of junior faculty. And with longer lifespans, more profs are teaching into their seventies and eighties than ever before. With the exception of a few disciplines, the supply of faculty here is not a major concern. A few less TA's doing the grunt work and a few more profs actually spending time with their students might be a step in the right direction.

      Professor Academe