Many factors explain the endurance of higher education institutions—the ascent of the knowledge economy, their crucial role in upper-middle class acculturation, our peculiar national enthusiasm for college sports—but the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.
In the last few months, however, that monopoly has begun to crumble. New organizations are being created to offer new kinds of degrees, in a manner and at a price that could completely disrupt the enduring college business model.
The end of what Kevin Carey confusingly calls the “higher education monopoly” is coming, Real Soon Now. Maybe before the Mayan calendar ends.
From his previous laudatory comments about course a la carte StraighterLine to current comments about MITx and other massively open online
games courses (MOOCs), Carey strains to make an argument about the tipping point, the boulder rolling down the hill, the crevasse opening up in the glacier, and life dramatically changing. The truth is that in very important ways, higher education has changed already in the past 40 years, if many features remain stable. Higher education in the U.S. is not a monopolistic market, nor is the primary threat to universities and colleges the existence of StraighterLine or MITx.
First, the monopoly bit: I understand what Carey is arguing, which is the relatively low institutional wall around higher education credentials. Carey asserts that because financial aid is tied to federally-approved accreditors, who dance to the tune of their members, it’s a much higher wall than it really is. Go ask state regulators who have to deal with fake credentials from diploma mills: there are plenty of nonaccredited institutions soaking up money, sometimes even federal dollars designed for the education of veterans. Go ask the former employees of non-profit colleges that were purchased by for-profits entirely for their regional accreditation. Go ask former students of these institutions: the wall is not that high. Even within the world of accredited non-profit and public colleges and universities, there is a very broad range of curricula and goals. If you attend Carleton College in Minnesota, you get a very different education from the Community College of Philadelphia.
Now, the a la carte education: very few people want to put together a smorgasbord of courses and call it a credential. There are such programs–my institution has a Bachelor of General Studies, what is commonly called a “college completion” degree for students who have swirled through several institutions or have come back from a long college hiatus. It serves an important function for a public university with a public mission, but students in it are a very small proportion of the 47,000+ students at USF. If Carey were correct about the motivation for a different path to college credentials, then a lot more students would be using AP exam scores to graduate from college in three years–but while those programs exist, they (like completion program populations) are small in number.
Or, to put this bluntly, if Carey were correct, I could run a quickie-associates shop right out of my home: send me an official College Board record showing you have passed twelve AP exams in a broad distribution, and I’ll sign you up for four more correspondence courses and call it an A.A. I don’t think I’d be doing much business that way, to be honest. The administrators of Hillsborough Community College aren’t shaking in their boots at this prospect, I assure you. They’re far more concerned about lack of state support, and the ways their students’ lives interfere with attending classes, finishing readings, and completing assignments.
So what role do MITx, Udacity, and Udemy play? Two that I can see: first, they will provide exactly what they say they provide, open access to courses for autodidacts, with support for each course ranging from nothing beyond a video to complex algorithmic assessment and suggestions. For liberal arts, such as Margaret Soltan’s Poetry course, this provides an entry for people wanting to dive into a subject. For technically-related subjects, such as Udacity’s likely slate, this will provide concrete skills for thousands of people each year. In other words, don’t knock it for those who find value in specific areas.
Second, the massively-online courses are more likely to erode the marketability of online/for-profit “higher education” than to harm your local community college or tuition-dependent small non-profit college. I cannot imagine that someone who would otherwise go to Southern Nazarene University or Wisconsin Lutheran College would be heading over to Udacity or MITx as the alternative. Someone interested in Argosy, the University of Phoenix, or Full Sail heading over instead to Udacity? You bet. Yet Carey is making his argument based on the theoretical interchangeability of a degree from Aurora University or Chowan College with MITx. I don’t buy that.
What will disrupt the “enduring college business model” (which isn’t that enduring in any case)? For community colleges and low-status public colleges and universities, it’s declining public funding. Go ask students and faculty in California if you doubt me.