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I’m trying to think through the implications of colleges "white-labeling" courses taught by other providers. It just doesn’t feel right.

As I understand it, "white-labeling" is slapping a brand name on what is essentially a generic product provided by someone else. In the context of higher education, that could mean contracting with a third-party provider to actually teach classes, but putting the university’s name on those classes. As Rutgers’s Rich Novak approvingly put it last week, students like the reassurance of a university’s name on a boot camp. It offers legitimacy.

Companies like Trilogy have built a business model on teaching courses under the names of established universities. The universities get a cut of the revenue. The students pay university-level tuition for a rebranded generic class.

I’m the last to contend that existing higher ed systems always make sense, or are morally unproblematic. But I reject the premise that if we aren’t already perfect, then we can’t make any judgments at all. Nobody’s perfect, and nihilism doesn’t strike me as leading anywhere good. (For my money, "The Big Lebowski" had the final word on nihilism: “That must be exhausting!”)  

I mention that by way of acknowledging that colleges that already farm out most of their classes to adjuncts have acceded to a certain kind of outsourcing. But the courses themselves are (usually) designed by permanent faculty, and often also taught by them. The college hires its own people, evaluates them, and sets general standards. Adjunct faculty are used to extend the work done by the college, while keeping costs down. That raises obvious issues of fairness to the adjuncts, as well as of quality control when turnover is high, but the work of curricular design is still mostly in-house.

Outsourcing the entire academic program strikes me as qualitatively different. That’s particularly true when the students are none the wiser, and are paying full freight for a name that’s little more than licensed.  

“But wait!” I hear my imaginary interlocutor object. “Aren’t you always arguing that universities should take community college courses in transfer? Isn’t that the same thing?”

No, because community colleges are accredited. They’re held to standards verified by peer review. “White-labeling” involves smuggling an unaccredited provider in under the radar. If that difference doesn’t matter, then I’d like to know why we bother with accreditation at all.

From the reports on HEA reauthorization that I’ve heard, it appears that the Trump administration wants to make it much easier for accredited colleges to contract out their educational programs to third-party providers, while still taking a cut of the revenue themselves. The argument, to the extent that there is one, tends to be around “responsiveness.” Given that curricular change tends to be slow and piecemeal -- which, admittedly, is true -- the administration’s response is to legalize end-runs around it.  

I understand the frustration, but there’s an unacknowledged danger in doing away with what’s essentially the quality control process. For-profit colleges didn’t fail for lack of responsiveness to markets; if anything, on the whole, they prostrated themselves to markets. They failed because when push came to shove, they treated quality control as an optional afterthought. In a reputational industry, once you’re known for letting quality slide, you’re done.  

As a sector, community colleges do the heavy lifting involved in actual education. They’re badly underfunded for the task, and students face all sorts of obstacles that colleges weren’t originally built to handle. (The #RealCollege movement is a response to exactly that.) But they’re trying to do the right thing, and to do it by people who haven’t always been treated well elsewhere. From here, seeing institutions more “prestigious” than mine contract-out the development of programs, and taking a cut for it, just doesn’t smell right. As a wonderful former professor of mine would have put it, riffing on Kant, it treats students as means, rather than ends. It’s fundamentally backwards.

Wise and worldly readers, is there an ethical upside to “white-labeling” that I’m missing? 

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