New concepts change face of higher ed

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Years ago the University of Phoenix spooked higher education. What does it mean to have a for-profit university (a subsidiary of Apollo Group)? Despite drastic enrollment declines recently, it boasted some 600,000 students in 2010 (founded in 1976).

Will this new model change the face of higher education? The answer is a definite yes. Labor costs are low since faculty members are underpaid, and quality learning is less important than the coveted degree. With many online courses offered at competitive prices, this model is thriving.

By contrast, large public universities, whose budgets have been cut, saw something they liked about this model that lowered labor costs and managed to do away with tenure. Our state funds about 5 percent of the University of Colorado system budget, and about 75 percent of it is allocated to faculty and staff compensation.

There is only so much “green savings” out of operating budgets. Tuition increases have a tolerance threshold for students and their parents as well. So, to lower costs, why not go after faculty and staff, the largest portion of the budget? Staff members are protected by state legislation, the jobs of tenured faculty are protected by law, so the wages of non-tenured faculty remain targets.

Additionally, campuses instituted large courses with enrollment in the hundreds. A professor gives a weekly lecture, and graduate students meet with sections and also grade assignments. Graduate students are cheap labor when compared to having to hire more professors to lecture and grade.

Moreover, when a faculty member retires, passes away, or resigns, replacement is always at the part-time level with huge salary savings ($80,000 to $20,000). Universities’ reliance on the army of under-employed and over-educated young teachers has been so great that, overall, fewer than 30 percent of all courses are taught by tenure-track professors.

Should this worry us? The quality of education remains the same with good guidance, mentorship, and highly qualified faculty members who cannot find full-time employment. Are they more transient? Not necessarily, because opportunities are equally thin around the country. Are these part-time employees less committed? Not at all — their good behavior could translate into a full-time job in the future.

With the advent of technology, this business model has been perfected. What in the past were additional course materials — lectures by great experts and scholars, videos of faraway places, films of historical significance — have been recently proposed as a partial replacement of faculty. MOOCs (massive online open courses) have been developed by private companies and are offered to universities, private and public alike, at various fee structures. Once adopted, are professors needed at all?

Perhaps this is part of the ongoing trend toward greater (digital) productivity; perhaps partial replacements will become permanent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, economic productivity grew 80 percent from 1973 to 2011; it grew 23 percent between 2000 and 2011. Digital technologies have much to do with it, and therefore we are facing a jobless recovery. Are MOOCs a natural wave of the future?

CU President Bruce Benson welcomes the introduction of MOOCs but proposes hybrid courses where some time is still spent in classrooms. This model misses the point of trying to increase enrollment without the need for faculty or classrooms — a virtual academy.

It’s not simply quantity vs. quality. Nor is this a self-serving rant about professors. Instead, this constitutes a rethinking of what the university is all about. When President Clark Kerr of the California system promised industry that his campuses would prepare students for future jobs, he promised skill sets and discipline. But is this really what businesses want?

Paypal founder Peter Thiel offers high school graduates $100,000 not to go to college (because the real world is where lessons are learned) as a bold retort to Kerr’s agenda: Why waste money on higher education at all?

Instead of only framing the discussion of MOOCs as a debate over labor rights and the assault on faculty tenure, we should also frame it in terms of what future citizens we’d like to live with.

Where do we teach teamwork or leadership? Where do we learn about our history and values? Where is the balance between individual rights and duties examined?

Without these fundamental lessons, we’d be lost to fear and greed; without these experiences, we’d be careless and thoughtless. Do businesses want that? Or do they want instead creative employees who one day will change the world?

The jury is still out on whether MOOCs are up to the challenge. If the ire over for-profit online learning is not directed at the right place, neither the university nor the business world is served.

Raphael Sassower is a professor of philosophy at UCCS who wrote A Sanctuary of Their Own: Intellectual Refugees in the Academy. Contact him at rsassower@gmail.com.