In yesterday’s post I wrote about how the “race to the bottom” in the free economy of the Internet was changing the way that American (and global) companies do business in many sectors. Today I want to speculate on what that will mean for American higher education–an industry that ignores market forces at its peril.
When was the last time you heard someone say, “Man, I just love teaching those general education courses!”
To be sure, there are a few crazies out there (like me) who actually enjoy teaching courses like Western Civ, but by and large, in most academic departments general education courses are seen as necessary chores–and as chores that can often be fobbed off to graduate students or adjunct faculty.
Once upon a time, introductory courses in the general education curriculum had a real and abiding purpose–to teach first and second year college students a certain set of basic things that will enable them to (a) prosper in later courses, (b) be exposed to things they might not otherwise sign up to learn about, and (c) prepare them for citizenship in the nation. Over the years, debates about general education curricula have swirled around the question of breadth versus depth, but rarely around the economic model that general education courses are part of.
And this is one of the many dirty little secrets of American higher education.
In my own university, for instance, every single undergraduate student is required to pass or place out of Western Civilization in order to graduate. For my department, this requirement is both a huge undertaking and an economic windfall. In any given semester we teach Western Civ to something like 1,500 undergraduates (all in sections of 50 or less). But, at the same time, when budget time rolls around, we get credit for filling approximately 3,000 seats in classrooms each year from this one course alone. Because George Mason is a relatively new university with little in the way of endowment, our PhD program is sustained, in large part, by those 3,000 undergraduates.
Given this economic reality, what I’m about to say will sound controversial at best, cracked at worst. I think we ought to take Chris Anderson seriously and start giving the course away. In fact, I think we ought to be giving away the entire general education curriculum at George Mason. Based on our current requirements, that means 40 credits of a college education. For free.
Lest you think that I’m the reincarnation of Milo Minderbinder buying eggs in Malta for seven cents and selling them in Italy at a profit for five cents, hear me out.
Right now the cost of providing a general education course on any campus is not insignificant. Even with graduate students or adjunct faculty teaching the course, there are still many, many costs involved. These include the fixed overhead costs of the buildings and all the support services necessary to make classroom teaching possible (IT support, janitorial services, security, etc.). And then there is the elastic overhead of discounting practices–every student in the classroom is paying a slightly different price for that class based upon a host of factors including scholarships, alumni discounts, and employer support. And every semester these costs recur (and typically go up).
So what would happen if we gave up on the mercantilist vision of higher education as a zero sum game where there are only so many students who can fill so many seats in any given semester and replaced it with what Anderson calls “an ecosystem with many parties, only some of which exchange cash”?
Can’t happen, right?
But it is starting to happen already. You can already learn from professors at UC Berkeley on YouTube–for free. You can already learn from professors at MIT via their Open Course Ware project–for free. And many institutions of higher education have signed on to iTunesU and made lots (if not all) of the content there free.
Already it seems, higher education may have started Anderson’s “race to the bottom.” In tomorrow’s post, I’ll propose a way the free economy can work for an institution like mine–one without the brand awareness or financial resources of Berkeley or MIT.