Federal U & The Rising Cost of Higher Ed

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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46 Responses

  1. NewDealer says:

    A good essay.

    There is an economic reason that college costs so much. As much as people gripe about it, they tend to also associate price with quality. Most people do not pay full-sticker price for college just like they don’t pay full sticker price for a new car. However, we like that our cars and college educations come with a high-full sticker price. Macy’s ran into serious problems when it tried to replace coupons and discounts with low sticker prices. People like deals and I am not sure how to change this.

    On your other post, we talked about the end of the commuter college/university. You did mention that many still exist but are disappearing. This is true. There are still a lot of people who commute to various CUNY colleges in NYC. However as much as people talk about going to CC for two years and then to a local state university, I imagine many young people do not want to live at home with their parents. This is not because they always hate their parents but because 18-22 year olds need a place to explore adulthood and freedom while still being a relatively safe environment. Ideally college is the place to do this. It is better to play hookey from a large lecture or sleep late because of a hangover and miss class or possibly an assignment than to miss work. I see nothing wrong with giving young adults a time to let loose and make minor mistakes (like missing class and/or an assignment because of a bit too much partying or hormones).

    And perhaps I am a bit too much of a luddite and an old soul but I think people miss out when everything is on-line even if it is cheaper. There is nothing wrong with some on-line aspects to an education but it should not be everything. There are some MFA writing programs that are called “low residency”. I know some PhD in psychology that use the same “low residency” structure.Report

    • A Teacher in reply to NewDealer says:

      Just as a note on the whole “On Line” thing…

      I’m in the process of experimenting with a Flipped Classroom. I am recording my lectures/ lessons for students to watch at home. They go home and spend 20-30 minutes (in theory) reading their text and watching the lesson. Then they come to class and get to do the “raise your hand an ask questions” portion of the class followed by “homework”. The homework is worked on “in class” so that I can be there to help them.

      Now to apply this to the University of the future:

      You have students in a geographical area all watch the same lecture, and then meet up at a local coffee shop for “small group discussion/ work sessions”. Maybe you have the functional equivilant of a TA there to advise and monitor and guide the discussions/ work. In effect you get the benefit of the Harvard Professor lecturing, coupled with the convenience and cost of not actually attending Harvard.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to A Teacher says:

        Now to apply this to the University of the future: You have students in a geographical area all watch the same lecture, and then meet up at a local coffee shop for “small group discussion/ work sessions”. Maybe you have the functional equivilant of a TA there to advise and monitor and guide the discussions/ work.

        This remains probably the largest frustration from my technical career.

        20 years ago, the research part of my job involved exploring how real-time multi-media communications over IP networks could be used. At one point I had a distributed classroom running. Three media: audio, a little video window, and a smart piece of shared “paper”. The professor could lecture and use the paper as a whiteboard, although it worked best if the basic whiteboard stuff was prepared in advance and just dropped in at the appropriate times. Students could hit a button to “raise” their hand. The professor could call on them. Once called on, other students’ software would accept the called-upon student’s packets for pointing or marking and the audio for the question itself. The student’s marks could be trivially rendered invisible on every student’s screen at the end of the question. The prof also had what I called the “shut up” button to signal they were going back to lecture mode. It was straightforward for a student to record the session for future review. The biggest barrier was a good I/O device that you could write on with a stylus so that the drawing was visible under the stylus tip (there’s a hell of a visual feedback loop that enables quick accurate writing).

        As it turned out, video was the least useful of the media. But I’m a math guy, and math lectures tend to be the audio and what’s on the board/handout, not the prof’s body language. There are no doubt situations where the video is more important. Side note — I worked for a little while with a couple of Stanford researchers who told me that in some cultures small video windows didn’t work well, because the culture included stories about evil “little people,” and the video window made test subjects, particularly older ones, noticeably nervous.

        It shouldn’t be a “University of the future”. Suitable technology except for the writing has existed for 20 years. You could organize things in lots of different modes: lecture, small group conference, student side conversations that other people (including the prof if you wanted to set it up that way) didn’t see, etc. It should already be cheap, easy, and routine.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

      I don’t really see Fed U as being an apples-to-apples replacement. Those who want to go to elite private school will go there (if they can get in). A lot of those who want to go to state flagship will likely go there. But, this would provide a great “opt out” for those presently paying a premium when it doesn’t matter so much (like those going to for-profits right now). And I think that the price differential will provide some downward pressure for a lot of schools in terms of pricing.

      If South Alabama charges too much, they would run a risk of potential students saying “screw it” and enrolling at Birmingham Federal University. That would then apply pressure to UAB, which may then apply pressure to Auburn and Bama.

      I don’t think it all has to be online. I think that would be the cheapest route, but there’d be room for the University of Phoenix model, using office buildings, or even the Neumont University model with dorms and all. Except with a real eye on keeping costs down.Report

      • DBrown in reply to Will Truman says:

        One issue when the U of stealing (Aka university of phoenix) is offered as any model; their only concern is grabbing as much federal money thru student loans and rarely awarding degree’s to said suckers … whoops, their name, I mean students. That is surely the best way to keep cost down – create massive loans on students who never get a degree – great logic.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to DBrown says:

          I said,

          University of Phoenix model, using office buildings, or even the Neumont University model with dorms and all.

          It seems clear to me that I was referring to UoPhx’s delivery model. Using office buildings in addition to online instruction.Report

  2. Shazbot3 says:

    Hey Will,

    Great post. That Atlantic essay on costs and competition is great, too. I would say the conclusion to draw is this: the moment all of the state schools and non-ivy private schools started to compete like businesses compete, e.g. hiring marketers and admin who would run the school like a business, costs and thus tuition (while tuition subsidies were cut or not kept pace with inflation) went insane.

    The solution, then, is to coerce/pressure state schools (and as many private schools as you can) to stop competing like businesses for the best students and the most tuition. I think we could do this with carrots and sticks. Here’s my plan: Have a federal auditing agency that looks at school spending. If salaries go too high or spending on research and fancy buildings gets too high, the school loses access to state tuition support, federally subsidized loans, federal grant money, and in some cases has to pay tax penalties that then fund subsidies for the other schools who are keeping costs low. (The tricky part is how you define “too high,” but there are a lot of good ways to do it.)

    Thus, if you try to have a better U of X in Oceania than U of Y in Atlantis, you have to pay taxes and fees that subsidize U of Y. (Schools that don’t fall in line could lose accreditation, or not, as we see fit). That would do it, I think.

    My plan would require administrators to see themselves as working with administrators of other schools in collaboration to provide low cost education (and research) for the whole country instead of seeing themselves as competitors who are trying to make a university that is better (and therefore more costly) than the universities run by other administrators.Report

    • The Cardiff Kook in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      I haven’t been following any of the discussions on education, so apologies if I am restating the obvious, but I think a simple solution would be to establish a requirement that in order to get any tuition aid, loan subsidies or grants that you must also offer a very low cost online degree.

      Lectures free. Textbook materials free. No bricks and mortar. Computerized testing where possible. Support from TA’s working toward an education. Support networks between students as part if the required curriculum. So on and so forth.

      There is no reason a good? bachelors degree couldn’t be had for less than a thousand a year.

      This won’t be for everybody, and shouldnt be. Maybe the results will be worse than standard education. Maybe better. The results can be available to employers, who can compete for the best students. Various colleges should be compared on how their students fare, allowing students and employers to select the best online educational programs.Report

      • $1,000 a year sounds a little cheaper than I think is feasible. The idea itself intrigues me greatly, though, even if the prices are closer to WGU’s.Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to The Cardiff Kook says:

        But online isn’t much cheaper.

        If the online “degree” is just videos and a test (presumably done in person) with no one on one teacher time, it could be cheaper, but even cheaper would be to give people a library card and tell them their will be a test in a year.

        No instruction time in a classroom with others and with a teacher is necessary and can be suplimented with books, videos, and online stuff.

        Kotsko is correct here about what good education is and his “radical plan” to create good education:

        “First, you need to read good books. To get the most out of those books, you need to talk about them with other people who are also trying to work their way through them. In addition, you need to write about them in a disciplined and focused way. Both of these tasks require supervision and guidance by more experienced learners — preferably those who have already gone through an educational program that takes both discussion and written analysis to the highest level.

        Second, for some types of skills — such as language acquisition, mathematical manipulation, and technical lab skills — there’s no way around requiring carefully targetted and supervised exercises. Preferably, these exercises would be developed and overseen by someone with a high degree of technical proficiency and experience in the field in question, as such a person would have the best view of which skills were most valuable.

        Finally, for command of facts, limited use of rote memorization can provide a baseline, but the main focus should be on learning how best to search for information and assess the trustworthiness of the sources found. All of this is best done in close dialogue with someone who has a lot of experience with research.

        I believe that the pedagogical research* would bear all this out, and my own experience at an institution that embraces this model shows me that it works.

        Starting from these premises, certain natural consequences inevitably present themselves.

        First, we must minimize the number of full-time faculty at our institutions and rely heavily on less experienced instructors such as grad students. Second, we need to invest as many resources as possible in administration and capital-intensive projects such as new buildings and cutting-edge computer technology. Third, in order to increase access to quality education, we need to vastly “scale up” lecture courses to the point where students will have no direct contact with the instructor at all. (Indeed, we should repeatedly re-use recorded lectures so that the instructor doesn’t even need to be involved with the course on an ongoing basis.) Finally, in developing our programs, we need to be guided above all by the whims of wealthy donors — after all, if they’re willing to pay for it, it must be worth doing.

        Only by using such an evidence-based model of higher education can we continue the tradition of excellence that has made the American university system the envy of the world.”


        You can’t change that people need to work with professors to get an education. (This is why a library card is insufficient for most people to get an education.) And those professors need to be paid whether online or not. They already are making very little per student (especially given the massive use of adjuncts), so online education won’t be much cheaper (or any cheaper, really) than a well-run, brick and mortar community college.Report

        • The Cardiff Kook in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          I don’t agree.

          1) The lectures are not just free. They can be best in class, free and at a more convenient time and pace as students fast forward or pause. Most professors and most lectures today are total crap.

          2) the reading material can be free online. This could easily be handled by materials which are open sourced. Free ware. This could apply to most majors, especially the more productive ones. Math, technology, accounting, marketing… Better materials in a more convenient form, with online highlight and chat ability. Free.

          3) the “more experienced learners” can be more advanced students, with this as part of the required curriculum or development process. Part of being a senior is to help sophomores. Again, the results can easily be monitored.

          4). Computers can tailor exercises to students based upon there performance and aptitudes.

          5). Interaction and discussion can come from online virtual reality rooms. You could all meet up with assigned tasks and discussion topics and work through it as a team. Gamers figured this one out years ago. Lock them up in a virtual room and don’t let them succeed until they work out the issue as a team.

          6). Teachers would be helpful for those that still need help that an AI can’t be programmed to do, or that a graduate student couldn’t do ( again, this could be a requirement of the graduate program.

          I believe this will outperform the current system ( which is not only ridiculously expensive but nowhere like what you are suggesting) for some students, for some topics immediately. Give it a generation of improvement and technological advancement and I suggest it will outperform even your model.

          The key is measurement and competition and the requirement that it hit a target low cost. Thousands of colleges will need to disclose their actual educational results against their peers, with open records of the appropriate level disclosed to employers, parents, competitors and students. Students can choose those with best track records. Employers certainly will.

          This is going to be big if we can just get the people stuck in the current paradigm out of the way.Report

          • Shazbot5 in reply to The Cardiff Kook says:

            “Most professors and most lectures today are total crap.”

            Sorry, I stopped reading there.

            The same attack on K-12 teachers is now coming at professors, and it is even more undeserved and irrational. I refuse to accept this (crap? really?) as a tolerable thing to say. (You’re a nice guy, and that was beneath you.)

            Some video lectures might be better than some live lectures. But the liveness of real human interaction (especially in a class of less than 40 or so) is likely to draw the attention of many students more than if they were watching a video. So, I see no reason to think students will learn more from lectures or in-class discussions (especially in classes other than the ones with 300 students) that come through videos than in-class, live presentations.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              Speaking from my own experience, video classes offer a couple huge advantages. First, if I find my attention wandering, I can pause it. If I need to use the restroom, I can pause it. If I need to hear something again, I can rewind it. If I find out later I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should, I can re-watch it. If it is causing my mind to wander because it’s going through stuff I already know, I can skip through it. It is also more flexible in general.

              Not that there aren’t advantages the other way, such as interactivity, but I think it’s very far from clear that in-person delivery is superior. For some of my classes, I was glad to have a professor there. For others, I would have been better off with videos.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

                “First, if I find my attention wandering, I can pause it. If I need to use the restroom, I can pause it.”

                That is exactly my problem with it.

                The challenge of learning from lectures is part of college education for most of those of us not lucky enough to be good self-starters before we went to college.

                The challenge of going to lecture and learning or not learning makes going to the lecture just a bit scary. And that, the tiny bit of fear gets your attention involved.

                Really, I don’t see an advantage of video over books for a whole lot of material. You can pause a book.

                We could just have a federal test system that said if you can come on such and such a day and write a test on the following curricula, we will give you a degree, and here is a list of books and workbooks to read and do the exercises in.

                That WOULD be cheap.Report

              • Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                Now to my nap.Report

          • Shazbot5 in reply to The Cardiff Kook says:

            Actually, the Kardiff (who I like) has put me off the whole discussion.

            I now worry that this whole conversation is subconsciously motivated by animus against a highly liberal professoriate or some silly belief that college is about leftist indoctrination, leading to the charge that we need to scrap the current college system.

            The current system is not just fine, it is truly great. It needs to be tweaked to return costs to prior levels. And the curricula needs to be (as it always will need to be) slightly improved.


            I am gonna go have a nap.Report

            • The Cardiff Kook in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              You read a lot into my comments, Dr Freud.

              Let me clarify. Most of the lectures I had in college were awful. I hear the same thing today from my son. However, some are incredible.

              The incredible, amazing ones are the ones which are worthy of reproduction. Why should anyone be forced to sit through all the bad ones when we can reproduce the very best for zero cost. Why listen to the local wanna be musician when we can play Mozart?

              If you think the current education system for most students at non elite universities is great, then perhaps we have different standards. Radically different.

              I say we could do it ten times better for one tenth the cost. Obviously I did a Kimmi on these numbers, but I really believe you are just not getting the new paradigm. At a minimum, it would free up some students and professors to concentrate on those few who can’t handle the new-fangled technology stuff.Report

  3. Shazbot3 says:

    Also, I’m not against new universities run by the federal gov’t. But that is a really expensive plan. Setting up a new school (even without brick and mortar) is costly and can go really wrong. Better to modify what we have, from a pragmatist and Oakeshotian old-school conservative way of thinking, than to build new institutions.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      I think I am more skeptical of a regulatory regime of the like you describe. Not because I think such regulation would be wrong, but because I am pretty sure we’d get thatwrong.

      It’s odd, I guess, that I trust the federal government more to run universities than the regulate universities they are not running, but that’s sort of where I stand.

      But ultimately, I think the current situation needs a release valve. We need bargain options. I think trying to impose them on existing schools is more likely to lead to attempts to game the system (the formulas that make the determination).Report

  4. Shazbot3 says:

    And finally, I am not against having some online classes, but they don’t really save colleges much money, especially if you are using them to replace large lecture classes. Atrios has it right, here, IMO:

    “What’s lost in this discussion is that the cost per student per course for most professors, even relatively senior ones at relatively prestigious institutions, is relatively low. The large introductory courses MOOCs are imagined to replace really don’t cost anything, even with a (relatively) highly paid full professor doing the teaching. When I taught at UC Irvine I earned a decent pay and had a decent course load. Over the course of the year I probably taught 500 students. Throw in a couple of TAs for the big auditorium courses and total instructional labor cost was probably $140 per student. Yes, plus benefits and other overhead. But the point is the cost of paying me was tiny relative to the tutition they were paying for those courses. There aren’t cost savings here, because the costs are already really low (per student) for these kinds of courses. And the only way to have them be revenue raisers is to sell out the brand*, which won’t work either.”


    *He means that if you make more than just the big lecture classes online, and the online classes don’t ever give you much of any one-on-one access to profs, you could save some serious money (though still not that much), but at a certain point, when students are getting no one-on-one interaction, there will be no need for the school at all.

    I should add that I see a huge potential for booming costs in online education. Look at the textbook industry. The costs of textbooks are insane. As I argued in the previous OP, if you class is taught by a lecturer (making maybe $3000), and it is a larger class (over 50 people) you almost certainly paid more for the textbook than you did for the instructor. It isn’t that much more expensive if you take the class from a professor teaching a 3/3 or 4/4.

    Cutting the instructors out of the loop doesn’t save much more money than cutting out the textbooks, especially now that adjuncts make up such a big portion of the labor pool.

    And once independent education companies start producing videos and online material, they’ll soon realize that they can mark up prices massively (as they do with textbooks), and the price of online education and videos-to-replace-lectures will sky rocket, as we see in the textbook industry (which wastes most of the money it charges).Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      I don’t think we should use independent education companies to start producing videos and online material. The software itself would be done independently, but price would be a huge focus. The same applies for books. When the incentive is to keep costs low, a lot can be done that is not presently being done.

      We already have a good model for how online ed can be really, really inexpensive: WGU. It’s not really experimental. It’s more a matter of rolling out larger programs and trying to utilize economies of scale.Report

  5. Shazbot3 says:

    Well, we also have decades of examples where non-online education was even cheaper: American community colleges (dirt cheap for decades) and most state schools (prior to the 80’s, and even some into the 90’s) for many, many decades, and many tertiary school systems around the word, still.

    Non-online education ‘s costs are low as long as administrators don’t run the schools like competitive businesses, which they never used to do, and they still don’t do in lots of places around the world. Solve that problem, which is the cause of all the other problems by using government to make schools run less like businesses and more like egalitarian social institutions.

    There is no doubt that there are individual schools that are online or non-online that are cheap and that are expensive (probably around the world, too, and not just here). The question is whether in the aggregate one is cheaper or better or both.

    The conservative in me (get out of there Oakeshott!) says that if we have a long and successful tradition of low-cost, non-online education, that is still successful in places that didn’t take the radical step of running their tertiary schools like competitive businesses, we should try to preserve and restore that tradition, instead of trying a radical new system that may have unexpected consequences when scaled up.

    For example, I think it would be very hard to keep private companies from producing the online material and videos. Suppose Prof Xavier produces the best online course in Biology of Mutation and works at MIT. Some other school wants to hire Xavier. Then a third fourth and fifth class all get in on the bidding. This is common with the best professors here and elsewhere, too. Now Xavier might get clever and say that you can all have my class, because I’m not going to teach at a school anymore, I’m going to produce videos and web-content and sell it to you on a per-semester basis. Then Xavier’s professor friends join him, e.g. someone sells their on-line class on magnetism. At this point, Xavier’s online education materials production company has a lot of leverage. They’re producing what the student’s are paying for. And they have no need to be non-proft of serve the community. Other professors will compete, but they will be better off joining other educational companies to produce and sell their own material. Maybe it all works out if you believe that markets always make things cheaper, but that isn’t the case in healthcare, nor textbooks and educational material (Kaplan test-prep is not cheap either), so I’d be very scared about possibilities like this.

    I’d say the same thing about charters. There are a couple that work, e.g quite a few KIPP schools work because of the long school day and the focus on discipline works for some students. That’s great. But in the aggregate charter schools don’t really outperform or save money, and if we radically removed the public system and replaced it with charters, there may be some scary consequences, e.g. fundamentalist religious schooling becoming much more common.Report

    • Shazbot3 in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      Sorry, this is a reply to Will’s reply above.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      Private companies can offer online materials. But part of that offer would have to be a reasonable price. If they can do it cheaper and better than it can be done in-house, sure. But I don’t see much potential for the reliance that would allow them to explode costs.

      Non-online schools can be less expensive than they are now. At least in the past, in other countries, and in theory. WGU is producing inexpensive online education right now. Which to me deflates the argument that “Really, online wouldn’t save money.”

      The closest thing we have to a working model currently for brick-and-mortar are community colleges. If we wanted to try to expand those to four-year schools, I’d be open to it. Except that I fear the mission creep that usually comes after that. I am far less confident than you are that we can regulate these incentives away.

      Not surprisingly, we disagree on charter schools, too. 🙂Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

        “better than it can be done in-house, sure. But I don’t see much potential for the reliance that would allow them to explode costs.”

        Textbooks already show how this works.

        Already schools compete heavily to buy the best professors (just not on the value of their teaching, yet). If one set of professors has the best material, any college that doesn’t have ot will be perceived as second rate. Effectively the private company, by having control over the online content would control the whole system.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          Except that under the federal plan there won’t be competition. It would be competing with traditional universities, sure, but it would be doing so with the specific purpose of cutting the frills for the sake of affordability. The frequent desire to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade would not really apply here. Recruiting the flashiest professors, getting the neatest toys, would all be beyond the scope of what these schools would accomplish.

          Seriously, if the government cannot set up a school and keep costs low, I see no reason that it will be able to force third-party universities to keep their costs low. It means the will isn’t there.Report

          • Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

            I mean the point about online education to apply to classes in general, where there will be education. In the current environment, your college might not get anyone to attend, sadly. And in order to compete for students, it would have to enter the competition, thereby having to pay for fancier courses and professors and online material, thereby not solving the problem: which is too much competition.

            But let’s forget all that. My point is this: If the feds can create an online school that enrolls 1,000,000 students for cheap, they can also create 200 loca brick and mortar schools that enrol 5,000 students each for roughly the same cost.

            I am fine with your federal schools, but there is no reason to believe online will be cheaper.

            Not sure I agree about about your claim about the gov’t. I think there are places where the government can effectively regulate the market place (and create efficiency overall) but would do a bad job (and become wasteful) if it tried to create an alternative to the marketplace that was wholly government owned and run. For instance, I don’t think a massive federally owned set of coal mines, oil wells, and nucleat plans that owned, say, half of the energy in the U.S. would be a good idea for energy prices. However, I do think the government should have some regulations of energy for environment, preventing cost manipulation as in Enron, etc.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              Shaz, I think that Black is looking at a particular kind of course in a particular kind of way. I see considerable opportunity for savings with the online model. Even leaving aside the man-hours aspect (even if grading is the same, lecture time isn’t), you also have less overhead (physical plant cost and maintenance, for example).

              Classes are going to run a gamut. Some of which will need more supervision, others will need considerably less. A lot of the ones that need less are not presently lecture hall courses already stretching to capacity. I took a handful of distance classes in college. All that was required were, testing, and grading. There were a lot of classes I wouldn’t want delivered that way, but a lot of them can be.

              And some students are more self-directed and we can save money or save them money by letting them demonstrate mastery rather than being hand-held.

              But, let’s say that I am wrong and it saves no money. I’d point out two things. First, online offers a great deal more flexibility. Which is why I ended up taking the courses I took that way. It would also be great for people who don’t live in one of the areas where you would have the government buy a community college.

              Which brings me to the second, which is that as I said in the post it doesn’t have to be online or completely online. We can use the Phoenix model of combining online with B&M. I have my issues with the for-profits, but one of the things they do that I admire is flexibility.

              Ultimately, I’d want the cost of a course more commisurate with the cost of delivering that course. If online is less expensive to deliver, then it would be less expensive to take. If as you say it doesn’t save money, then it won’t save money.

              Would anyone go to the fed school? Well, considering that people already go to for-profit schools and community colleges, I don’t see why not. Prestige matters to a lot of people, but others care more about cost and flexibility. Right now the latter are limited mostly to for-profits and community colleges, each of which have their drawbacks. But that’s the kind of model I’d like to roll out: the flexibility that for-profits offer, and cost (combined from student and government) more analogous to community colleges.

              While they won’t have the prestige of a lot of more traditional schools, I don’t think they’ll be viewed the same way that for-profits are if we can maintain standards. The problem with the for-profits isn’t the teaching, it’s the standards. The pressure to pass kids. This, more than anything, is my actual concern with fed schools whether they are online, B&M, or something else. The refusal to fail people.

              The middle class and upper-middle class will have to decide for themselves whether they want to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a lush school or take a more cost-effective solution. I really don’t see a feasible way of changing that.Report

            • Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              Hey Will,

              Yeah a mixed model is fine. And correspondence internet courses need to exist for the very rural. (My very rural G-ma got her education through correspondence, but had to go to school for one semester a long, long, time ago.)

              The problem is that some people think online is a significant cost saver without impacting education quality. It isn’t.

              The for-profits (many of them, anyway) skirt the line between good and bad education. And many of them are hucksters selling a junk product to unwitting customers. The whole thing may about to come crashing down:


              • Will Truman in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                We don’t really agree on the potential cost-savings of online ed. I think that, in time, we will find out one way or the other. I think the costs of online classes should reflect the cost of delivery. If that saves money, then it should be less expensive. If it doesn’t then it should be about the same.

                I am not a big fan of the for-profits as a business model. In researching for this post, I saw that UoP is pulling back a lot of their operations. I am not sad about that at all (if anything, kinda glad).

                There are some things I don’t want to emulate (loose standards, profiteering under shady premises), but I do think they got some things right. I attribute a significant part of the “junk product” aspect to the loose standards and profit-motives. I don’t think the education they actually offered – for those who wanted to learn or were otherwise ambitious – was actually the problem.

                I think that online ed, with the right standards and with an eye towards lowering costs rather than making money, really don’t have to be second-rate. At all. And I don’t mean hiring a bunch of tutors. I mean, rather, as a signal that someone shows the initiative and discipline to get a degree without their hand being held. If I were an employer, that would grab my attention.

                The current bane of online ed, in my view, is that it doesn’t show much initiative or discipline to get a degree from a degree mill. Too many of the for-profit schools are just that.Report

          • Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

            In other words, I really think you can’t create a school that will undermine the competition that exists in the U.S.

            If too many people see this federal program as cheap government cheese, few will enroll. Or if they do, the degree they get might be seen as even worse than some of the degrees that the online for-profits are putting out. This will be especially true of the program has, say, 1 instructor for a 1000 students, whose job is just to grade. The rising costs in the current system are caused by people in the middle and upper-middle-class wanting a leg up. They won’t get the leg up in this federal school if it is a cheap knock off.

            On the other hand, if the school is going to compete, it will have to get professors and online material from, ultimately, the same market that local state-run community colleges and universities do. So it will likely end up costing about the same as, say, City College of San Francisco.

            Maybe a better way dor me to put my point is this. The feds might have an easier (and less expensive) time buying and running existing brick and mortar community colleges, less-expensive state schools, and even for-profits, and running them all as a non-competitive system, than trying to create their own thing from scratch.

            The advantage of my plan is that the feds don’t have to buy or createanything. They just regulate to prohibit competition and encourage collaboration.

            But I am a bit all over the place. I will retire from this (very fun) conversation for now and think about it.

            I do think a federal system could work. Just all online isn’t better, necessarily. And maybe buying or regulating the existing system is cheaper and easier.Report

          • Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

            Finally, my link to the Kotsko piece was meant to show that cheap online education will become bad education if you make it a lot cheaper than brick and mortar.Report

  6. Recovered Republican says:

    Thanks to several friends who went back for master’s degrees I know one fact. WGU and U of Phoenix both are barely-accredited diploma mills whose diplomas aren’t worth the paper the pdf is printed on.Report

    • trumwill mobile in reply to Recovered Republican says:

      Phoenix has a pretty shoddy reputation (their accreditation us under review), but WGU has been getting a good reception. Burt Likko is apparently noticing a significant difference.

      In the event you’re right, that’s a shame because WGU is something liberals (or recovered Republicans) should be okay with: the affordable, nonprofit school that helps people who would otherwise have trouble getting a degree do so.

      If it’s a scam, someone needs to let the Obama Administration know. They’ve been sort of pumping it up.Report

  7. Peter says:

    A prototype for quality, free online learning already exists in Khan Academy.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Peter says:

      Yeah, I was thinking of them as I wrote this. Those classes are well done. And free! It doesn’t seem to me that it would be too hard for someone to incorporate them (and things like them) into an actual academic system.Report

      • Shazbot5 in reply to Will Truman says:

        Incorporate as a supplement, yes. Use to replace the things that cost money like one-on-one instruction, no. IIRC, the Khan academy see their interactive videos as a way to lower lecture time and increase on-on-one time: the flipped classroom, or whatever.

        In my time, we had textbooks with workbook questions, many of of which had the answers at the back. I’m sure what they’re doing is better, but not fundamentally different or revolutionary.

        Actually, you don’t need the internet. You can (The Brits IIRC have had a good “Open University” for a long time) run a course through the mail and telephone, i.e. through correpsondence courses.

        The problem is when you try to scale up correspondence courses (electrified or in the mail) to cover more students, some of who may need the structure that comes with going to class.

        I still need that structure. I tried to take an online class a while ago and dropped it because I couldn’t get the energy up to do the reading and stay involved. I took a different class ata a college amd the fear of being in class without the reading done, and the fact that I had the class on my schedule, and that I would see other people with the reading done, kept me doing the reading.

        Also, running clubs have helped me be a runner. Book clubs have gotten me to read some good (and some awful) novels I wouldn’t have read.

        For many people the social aspects of the classroom and the organizational structure it adds to life are a good thing.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          You don’t need the Internet (four of the five distance classes I took involved video tapes), but it’s generally going to be a superior delivery mechanism. It provides opportunity for collaboration. It’s more immediate and flexible. You can have timed tests (that prevent people from looking up all the answers). The only advantage to pre-Internet distance ed is that it doesn’t require a high-speed connections.

          I get what you’re saying about the social aspect. That’s going to vary from person to person, though. I didn’t need the structure. For some things, it’s more fun and better to do in groups. But lots of this stuff can be done alone.Report

  8. Kolohe says:

    The federal government does run universities, about 5 of them. They are considered prestigious, they are (for all practical purposes) free for the students, and they cost considerable expense to the taxpayer (on a per student basis) to run.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Kolohe says:

      Yeah, though they’re one-offs for specific purposes. I wouldn’t replicate that nation-wide, because the academies aren’t appropriate for most people (even if you take out the military part) and a goal would be to save money.Report

    • George Turner in reply to Kolohe says:

      You could throw a huge wrench in the works with academies aimed at producing particular types of federal employees (diplomatic academy, HHS academy, etc) and massively favor in-house graduates. They start to attract all the kids looking for an easy major and a government job with nice benefits and a big pension, and the academies could be conveniently located in and around the beltway.Report

  9. Damon says:

    Most of the discussion went down the well of online vs. not and such, but I want to comment on something else. It was briefly talked about at the beginning: cost.

    As was mentioned, there is little incentive to mitigate cost and every incentive not to. State funding for schools has continued to rise (public education is a perceived positive by the populace) baring recent pull backs/steady state funding from the recent economic situation. When your budget is going up you have less incentive to manage costs.

    Additionally, the massive generation of cheap and easy money has made education loans easy to obtain. When it’s easy to get debt you’re less likely to question the cost–you’re paying someone else later for a consumed good now. (doesn’t this sound like health care?)

    One cost reducing pressure would be to eliminate or reduce easy debt for education and or limiting or holding flat public college funding.Report

  10. Morat20 says:

    I might have missed it in the comments, but….

    How do you do labs in an online course? I mean some — (software engineering) you can do group projects or individual projects online only easily enough, but it’s pretty darn hard to do a chemistry lab or dissection online-only.

    Sure you can make virtual substitutes — but when it comes to graduating with that shiny degree, and you trundle off to your vastly underpaid STEM beginning level position (being a bottle-washing lab flunky in the sciences sucks, I have been told), you’re up the proverbial creek in that you’ve never actually handled the tools of your trade.

    Sure, you’ve used virtual microscopes and practiced identifing features, but that’s not exactly gonna help you prepare a slide.

    Some stuff has to be hands on, at least in sciences and engineering, and a lot of that hands on is expensive hands on. Labs aren’t cheap.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Morat20 says:

      Lab-intensive majors are probably not suitable for online education. If you have a major that requires a lab or two, then probably arranging to take the course at a community college or something. Or replacing the lab with something else (or a couple of something elses).Report