Economists are often criticized for treating colleges as if they were factories: using models that evaluate college efficiency in creating outputs (student completions) for a given input (cost).
In fact, in many ways a college education is like the factory production process: students start at the beginning and then, after a sequence of “inputs” in the form of courses and support services, some graduate successfully at the end.
Unfortunately, economic analyses of college efficiency typically do not look at college as a process. Economic models have traditionally tried to understand college efficiency through a simple input-per-output equation. For example, they may look at a graduation rate in 2012 and compare that to the resources available in the college in 2012.
This approach might be reasonable if college only took one year to complete. It might be reasonable if the college experience was a steady dosage, with the freshman year being the same as the sophomore year. It might be reasonable if there were as many freshmen as sophomores. Needless to say, college is not one year. First-year and second-year requirements are not the same and have different costs. And at community colleges the freshman class is typically more than twice the size of the sophomore class.
The truth is, contemporary factory managers have a much better understanding of their factory's production process than economists do of how colleges operate. Factory managers understand that it matters what happens along the entire chain of production. They know that getting more output at the front end means that the whole production chain must work better. Improvements in one area won't help if they create bottlenecks later on. They also know that efficiency does not come from sacrificing quality.
The same understanding should be applied to the college experience. Improving the quality of instruction in introductory courses won't help if students can't access high-demand majors, such as nursing. Pouring resources into one early intervention won’t help if other programs lose resources and decline in quality as a result. And increasing retention rates won't improve efficiency if it leads students to drop out in their second year instead of their first. In fact, improved retention requires more upper-level courses (which tend to cost more) and makes colleges look less efficient if graduation rates remain unchanged.
In sum, looking at snapshots is not likely to help make colleges more efficient. Instead, it would be more helpful to investigate the process of college and understand what resources are available to a cohort of students as they progress through their college years. We have begun this investigation by using detailed transcript and costs data from one college and simulating different student progression rates.
As well as providing a better understanding of what resources are needed to get a student through to completion, this model enables us to evaluate different reform strategies. We find that increasing first-year math pass rates will increase completions and make the college more efficient. But an equivalent improvement in preparing students to be college-ready has a much greater effect on efficiency.
By contrast, improving persistence rates helps improve completion rates but it does not make the college that much more efficient: many students simply drop out having taken more classes. Finally, getting “lingerers” -- students who have persisted for years and accrued large numbers of credits -- to complete their awards will significantly boost efficiency, as will ensuring that more students who transfer to a four-year institutions earn an associate degree before they transfer.
Much more work needs to be done in this area. But to better understand the economics of college completion we need to more accurately model the resources that are required as students progress through college.
Clive Belfield is an associate professor of economics at Queens College, City University of New York. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.
The rush toward the creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is catching on in higher education like wildfire. All it takes, it seems, is to wave a bit of money around, talk up the brave new world of technological innovation, bash the “failed” world of higher education as we know it, and the privatization troops have administrators in a fit of unexamined, swooning technophilia. These “courses,” however, in addition to offering false promises, also undermine shared governance, run roughshod over established curriculum development procedures and move colleges toward the era of “teacherless classrooms,” which destroy the academic integrity of our institutions and demean the value of the education our students receive.
MOOCs are designed to impose, not improved learning, but a new business model on higher education, which opens the door for wide-scale profiteering. Public institutions of higher education then become shells for private interests who will offer small grants on the front end and reap larger profits on the back end.
At present, MOOCs are being proposed as solutions to enrollment shortages, among other things, in open-access institutions such as community colleges. The MOOC crowd promises cost savings, efficiency, improved access and the answer to our “completion” woes. The concern as voiced by Arne Duncan himself is that in our quest to increase completion, maintain quality and save money: “The last thing we want to do is hand out paper that doesn’t mean anything.” Wethinks he doth protest too much.
And that’s the big lie behind this allegedly noble quest to provide much broader access to higher education and improve student learning. There is not a bit of proof that MOOCs will do so in any meaningful way. The notion is to turn community colleges into Petri dishes for MOOC experiments, principled objections be damned. There are costs to cut in the public sector and dollars to be made in the private sector.
The much-hyped arrival of MOOCs has been made possible by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a host of the usual corporate education reform suspects, who have long been involved in a full-court press propaganda campaign for their venture/vulture philanthropy.
Some of these interests are trying to figure out schemes for monetizing MOOCs in such a way that the small percentages of students passing MOOCs in cyberspace would pay institutions for certificates of competency awarded for completion of prescribed course regimens. Indeed, colleges and universities conceivably might even cash in further by recommending the most successful students to corporate interests … for fees.
Critics, meanwhile, are easily dismissed as part of the corrupt old world of failed higher education, troglodytes as afraid of this bold new magic as cavemen were of fire. And to the consternation of the self-proclaimed “change agents,” those reactionary faculty shielded by union contracts and powerful academic senates stubbornly resist the next new wave. Never are the implications of the MOOC offerings — typically announced with fanfare — outlined with respect to faculty and classified staff workloads (e.g., registering students and setting up and maintaining the technology infrastructure for individual course sections which, in some cases, have enrollments in excess of hundreds or even tens of thousands of students). Students will grade each other, or course work will be evaluated through word recognition computer software programs. Faculty, the promoters tirelessly stress, just must stop lecturing, instead becoming “facilitators” for student engagement in experiential education. And what of the student support services? Or, perhaps, in this idyllic (or should that be dystopic?) educational space, those needing support are just left out in the cold, after corporate partners first have made their millions though software sales.
In the San Diego Community College District we have dared to step in front of the vaunted train of progress that many of us see as nothing more than a repackaged Taylorism for academia. The San Diego City College Academic Senate recently passed a resolution decrying the move toward MOOCs. The resolution followed on the heels of a faculty presentation at the San Diego Community College (SDCCD) Board of Trustees meeting in response to administrative attempts to circumvent the departmental and collegewide shared governance process so as to rush through grant applications for MOOCs at both City and its sister college, San Diego Mesa College, before any campuswide discussion had occurred. This resulted in Chancellor Constance Carroll declaring a one-year moratorium on MOOCs in the SDCCD while a task force investigates the appropriateness of this new form of instruction for our district.
In our view, the central philosophical flaw in the MOOC paradigm is that proponents believe that there is nothing to be lost in turning professors into glorified tutors, parts of a larger information delivery system. What this misses is the key fact that the heart of what we do as college educators has to do with the immeasurable human interaction that we have with our students and the vital social experience of the face-to-face classrooms. This is something that simply can never be reproduced by a new technology, no matter how advanced.
Demoting professors to the level of information delivery systems may be gratifying to our detractors and financially attractive to bean-counters but it won’t improve education in the process of “transforming it”; it will degrade it. But to the academic Taylorists, who don’t believe in anything that can’t be quantitatively measured, this kind of thinking is destined for the dustbin of history.
No doubt the brave new world of MOOCs will give lots of people who can’t go to Harvard access to “Harvard,” but it won’t be same. Indeed, the future of higher education will be less egalitarian and far more two-tiered with the sons and daughters of the elite still receiving real top-quality educations while other folks will get something different, quick, cheap and easy.
But this tale of two futures is perfectly in line with the thinking of the plutocrats who brought us the “productivity revolution” in the business world. There they got a smaller number of American workers to labor longer hours for the same money and fewer benefits while increasing productivity and bringing record profits for those at the top. In the realm of higher education, they can blame the colleges for the fact that fewer graduates are prepared for employment in the austere marketplace that they fostered while milking our schools for profit and transforming them to their purposes at the same time. It’s nice work if you can get it.
In the meantime, our job as professors, according to the dictates of the emboldened technocrats, is to become rope-makers for our own professional hangings. The debate here is not really one about technology and higher education, as most of us know that online education is now a permanent part of the educational landscape with legitimate uses. No, what this MOOC debate is about is whether we blithely open the door to the gutting of what is most precious about what we do.
If the unthinking technophilia and new Taylorism which MOOCs represent ends up killing face-to-face education as we know it, it won’t be because the technology offers a superior form of education. It will be because our visionless political and educational leaders have almost entirely abandoned educational values for market values. As many scholars have noted, in the era of neoliberalism we have just about given up on the notion of education as a public good rather than a mere commodity. Let’s hope we don’t allow this near-total triumph of market values to destroy one of the last public spaces in our society not completely determined by greed and instrumentalism. As opposed to the creed of the forces of privatization, we believe that there are still things whose value cannot be determined by the market and that education in a democratic society should be much more than an instrument of our economic system.
Six community college faculty members
Jennifer Cost is chair of English department at Mesa College.
Jim Miller is professor of English at San Diego City College.
Jonathan McLeod is professor of history at San Diego Mesa College.
Marie St. George is professor of psychology at San Diego City College.
Peter Haro is president of San Diego City College Academic Senate.
Jim Mahler is president of the American Federation of Teachers for the San Diego and Grossmont–Cuyamaca Community College Districts.