What would a fully integrated online state university system look like?
Rachel Fishman’s new report for the New America Foundation, “State U Online,”  offers some hints. It’s a wonderful read -- check it out here -- and what follows are just some thoughts that it triggered.
Fishman’s report is written with an implied teleology: states will inevitably follow a series of steps until they arrive at a single, unified system. Step five, the final step, even implies (though Fishman never explicitly states) that the end system would be national. The report is written from the perspective of students who are trying to put together degree programs from disparate providers, and who sometimes fall prey to the all-too-common pathologies of the transfer system: incompatible prerequisites, mismatched requirements, and simple turf battles that result in lost credits. The more integrated the system, the easier it will be for students to make their way through without unnecessary friction.
It’s a Hamiltonian vision, and I don’t mean that negatively. (One sign that I’m not from the South is that I don’t automatically assume that Jefferson is right and Hamilton wrong.) From a student’s perspective, the vision of being able to take any course from any provider, cheaply, without severing ties to a “home” institution is appealing. The combination of advanced communication technology and very real cost pressures makes economies of scale greater and more important than they have ever been.
That said, though, I’m a little uneasy with the largely unexamined assumptions that scale is good and friction is bad.
On an educational level, the heterogeneity (or entropy, if you prefer) of the current system allows room for local experimentation. When curriculum is at least partially under local control, it’s possible for one or a few faculty with an idea to try something. Different institutions can develop different flavors of courses based on local needs and talents. In my own state, for example, Bunker Hill Community College has developed an innovative series of freshman seminars, while Holyoke Community College has grown an impressive set of upper-level learning communities, some of which involve co-teaching with faculty at Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Amherst Colleges. When a system is defined at a state or national level, from-the-ground-up innovations like those could have a harder time getting started. Even in more traditionally “vocational” subjects, it’s easy -- though potentially devastating -- to overlook the importance of ties to local employers. It’s not just a matter of job placement, as important as that is; local employers can provide instruction, feedback, and internships, as well as political support. It’s not clear to me that any of those can scale up, outside of a few industry behemoths.
On a technical level, I’m still not convinced that the federal financial aid system is built to handle “home” and “host” arrangements at scale. “Consortium” arrangements are labor-intensive on the back end in a way that defeats economies of scale. This is potentially surmountable, and frankly, should be. But it would require significant change.
On a political level, I’d be concerned about state support for interstate students. Community colleges in particular derive much of their political support -- and in some states, financial support -- from local communities. That’s based in part on clear identification with the local community, and in part on the fact that most community college graduates stay in the vicinity after they graduate. (I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met in daily life who say “Oh, I went there!” when I tell them I work at HCC.) The word “community” in “community college” isn’t just an accident of history.
It’s a commonplace of political science that most Americans hate Congress, but think their own Representative is just fine. Some of that has to do with the partisan identity of districts, yes, but part of it reflects local visibility and local ties. I’ve seen something similar with community colleges; even people who make jokes about community colleges as a genre will speak well of their own local one. A few years ago, William Fischel wrote a book called The Homevoter Hypothesis that captured this dynamic in the context of K-12 public schools and property taxes. Essentially, Fischel argued that for most people, their home is their single largest investment. As such, they need to pay particular attention to anything that might affect its value. That includes the usual NIMBY stuff -- I’d rather not have a prison in my backyard, thank you very much -- but it extends positively to support for schools. When schools are locally funded, he argues, voters are more willing to tax themselves to support them. When voters see their taxes going to support schools outside their own towns, their support drops. Compare the property taxes in New Jersey, where home rule is a religion, to the taxes in California, where the state routinely redistributes revenues. New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the country, but its K-12 schools are generally quite good. California’s property taxes were kneecapped by Prop 13, as were its schools. Lose the local tie, and you lose the political support.
To be fair, Fishman implicitly prices that in. She suggests that online ventures should be economically self-sustaining, taking for granted that state support will melt into air. She’s probably right, at least in the long term, but I’m still hesitant to concede that fight. And there’s a real payoff from local identification that goes beyond direct appropriations.
These are real issues, but they’re signs that Fishman’s report is asking a host of great questions. It’s thorough, thoughtful, and incredibly timely. It’s even concrete, in a lot of ways. Read it, argue with it, build on it. I don’t know that I’m entirely ready for a “State (or National) U,” but at least I understand the question better now. Nicely done.