The $10,000 degree?

The news the other day included a story about a proposal that is currently in the NJ Legislature which would direct all colleges and universities to look into the possibilities of offering a full bachelor’s degree for $10,000. President Waldron was interviewed on NJ Public Television about this issue, and provided a clear description of the possibilities (and pitfalls) of a $10,000 degree. The limits of the medium constrained President Waldron from providing additional details about schools that have explored these types of degrees. The medium of the blog is less constraining, so we can take a few more words to look a little more closely at this idea.

What components make a $10,000 bachelor’s degree at least feasible in terms of time and money? Most of the programs that are proposed include one or more of these elements:

  • Online Education
  • Competency-based learning and assessment
  • Completion of college credits while still in high school
  • Required minimum GPA and required minimum credits per term
  • Little or no deviation from an agreed-upon four year course plan

What is not always so clear is that the $10,000 degree does NOT generally include:

  • Room and board if staying on campus; other living expenses
  • Books and supplies
  • Incidental fees for specific activities

As President Waldron noted, these $10,000 degrees are being tried in pilots, with small and select groups of students. There are few large scale operations, though Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State, and schools in the Texas and Florida system are looking closely at trying to scale these programs to larger audiences.

The impetus for these degrees is, largely, a response to the growing costs of higher education to students and families (costs which, again as President Waldron noted, have been driven by shifts in how public higher education is financed). Less attention, unfortunately, has been paid to the educational components of these types of degrees–in simple terms, we have not really studied nor do we know how educationally effective these types of degrees would be. When educational effectiveness is discussed, it is usually a matter of talking about competency-based learning, with the idea that students should advance in their programs of study based not on credits or seat-time, but on demonstrations of their competency in a subject.

The simple matter of cost is going to continue to drive this discussion. As educators, we need to make sure that we do not let dollars drive all the discussion. There are educational issues that are part of this discussion that we need to explore and research.

There is little disagreement that the financial model of public higher education is fraying, if not already breaking. Let’s make sure that the educational model is not torn apart as we work with new financial models of education.



The student as customer

And just to follow up on the earlier post on business tools and education: let’s talk about the metaphor of student as customer.

I think there is some power to this metaphor, but I offer a specific reading: Let’s think of our “business” (education) as akin to another business–a fitness center (think of us as a fitness center for the brain).

So to extend the metaphor: I can join a gym. I can join two or three. I can pay money to belong to those gyms (like tuition). But it doesn’t matter how much I pay or how many gyms I belong to, unless I actually ACTIVELY PARTICIPATE at the gym.

So–back to education: We at times hear the statement, “I paid for this class–I deserve (fill in the blank).

Well, yes–you paid for this class. What you deserve is the opportunity to learn, and what is required is active participation in the learning. Neither type of fitness, physical or mental, is passive–there is no osmosis of fitness by hanging out at the gym, and while there could be an argument made about mental fitness osmosis (hang around smart people who talk about their topic and it might actually rub off on you), learning only really takes place by activity, just like physical fitness.

So yes–a student is a customer, and we provide a service. But the relationship between “customer” and “business” in education is not like Starbucks or Target or Best Buy or Apple.

We are the “Y” of the mind, and unless you climb on the treadmill or lift the weights, nothing will happen. And unless “customers” of education take an active role in the learning process (and the weights are just as heavy and the treadmill is set at a pretty high incline and quick pace), nothing much will happen.

The “business” of mental fitness? Happy to be a part of that business.

Business Tools, business model and the metaphor of “student as customer”

An interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week entitled “The Unintended Consequences of Borrowing Business Tools to Run a University.” You can find it here, but it may be behind a paywall.

More than a few interesting statements, but let me highlight a couple:

“Techniques borrowed from the business community can significantly improve an institution and what it provides. Focused on administrative functions like housing and dining, technology infrastructure, health services, and facilities management, those strategies can enhance the services we offer students while reducing operating costs. Ideally, the resulting improvements allow institutions to reach a crucial goal: greater affordability for more students and families. Business tools also provide important insights into many issues that face the academy, such as how to academically support students through graduation and improve their lives on the campus.

However, when management philosophy and operational concepts are extended across the academy, do they truly improve the learning we offer our students? Do they enhance our ability to prepare students for successful, meaningful lives in this rapidly changing world? Might they even compromise what makes a college or university distinctive? Could they threaten a pluralistic learning community, where all members have a chance to thrive?”

Whole books can (and have) been written on the concept of university (or higher education broadly) as business, with the continuum from despair to delight. I’ll be brief: Of course higher education is a business–people pay (students via tuition and the state via allocations) for a service, people are paid to provide this service, and none of us would be here without higher education as a business.

And of course higher education and the university is MORE than a business–or at the least a very special type of business arrangement. Later in this same article, the author notes that one of the primary goals of a business is to “delight” the customer, yet one of the primary goals of education is often to challenge the “customer” (student). (And the idea of student as customer is a concept worthy of additional comments).

Sure–we are a business and we have to operate financially as a business–we can’t spend what we don’t have, we can’t spend more than we have, and we can’t cost more than the market is able to bear. And at the same time, we are always more than a business as we are always focused not on “delighting” the customer or simply enhancing the bottom line–we are focused on student learning, student growth and the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Our ongoing challenge, especially these days, is being able to balance our need to educate with the resources we have available.