Briefly Noted: Faculty-Free Universities & A Buyer’s Market in Higher Education?

Faculty-Free Universities?

We don’t make these things up, you know. The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 12, 2013, p. A6) informs us that the state of California is considering endorsing a “faculty-free” division of higher education. The California Assembly has in front of it a bill proposing a fourth division of the state’s higher-education system, a “New University of California,” which would have no faculty members but which would still grant degrees based upon students passing examinations.

This New University of California would be governed by the same chancellor and board of trustees that oversee the other universities.

Under this proposal students enrolled in the New University would be able to “obtain the necessary knowledge and skills to pass the exams from any source, including paid courses, self-directed study, and . . . MOOCs.” When students felt prepared enough they could then pay a fee and take a test to get credit for the “course”–if they pass. Legislators hold mixed opinions on the bill while the California Faculty Association expresses concern at the bill. Most of them argue that increased classroom support and resources, not online options would better serve California.

In response, I note that this sort of mix-n-match system poses several challenges, of which I’ll limit myself to two: (1) the faculty-free university poses the same challenge as online degrees: how can students flourish if the human elements of the degree program are further removed and mostly electronically-mediated? At least in an online degree the institution can build in relational elements, but in the mix-n-match system this will be difficult, if not impossible, to do. (2) The Western university increasingly is becoming a pluri-versity. Even Christian universities are experiencing an ever-increasing worldview disintegration and disciplinary fragmentation which keeps us from building an increasingly unified and God-centered body of knowledge, that it further handicaps the specialized disciplines themselves, and that it impoverishes human existence by separating out what ought to be held together.

A Buyer’s Market in College Education?

The same edition of The Chronicle includes an article “Colleges Must Prepare for a Buyer’s Market” (p. A60). The author, Jeffery Selingo, argues that colleges must get better at answering the questions of increasingly savvy prospective students and parents. On the basis of increased resources, such as the U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard, and the hyper-speed growth of online education, Selingo offers the following as questions colleges ought to prepare to answer.

First, colleges must be able to answer “What is my return on investment?” That is, colleges must describe to prospective students the relationship between the quality of the education and level of debt they may incur while attending that college. Second, “how mobile are the academic credits earned on your campus and elsewhere?” Selingo notes that with the rise of online education, particularly MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), colleges should “expect students to ask what happens if they come to your registrar seeking credit with a certificate . . . from a MOOC in hand.” Third, “how tech-savvy is your institution?” Here colleges must answer to the rising tide of course delivery options and thus should be prepared to answer questions about how technologically and pedagogically savvy their professors are.

Fourth, prospective students increasingly ask, “What are your college’s priorities, and does academic rigor rank at the top?” That is, more informed students and parents will sniff out an emphasis on prestige or tradition over academic rigor. Selingo suggests that colleges provide an honest appraisal of their grade distribution among the student body and faculty instruction. Fifth, colleges must grapple with the reality that the hot jobs of today may not exist in twenty years. Thus they must be prepared to answer: “Does your college prepare students for their fifth job, not just their first?”

Sixth, if money is king in the decision process, the king often makes his real face known late in the game. That is, most families do not know the complete financial-aid package and thus their expected contribution to the cost of education until a few weeks before the deadline for a decision. Hence colleges ought to answer, “How easily does your institution allow admitted students to compare financial-aid offers?” Finally, in light of the fact that one-third of all colleges in the U.S. are “significantly weaker than before the recession and are on an unsustainable fiscal path” prospective parents especially will wisely ask “Is your college transparent about its own financial health?”

Selingo’s article raises a praetorian guard of further questions and discussion points. I limit myself to this point: Selingo is right that colleges must learn to be increasingly consumer-friendly while at the same time unflinchingly sound academically and pedagogically. The learning curve will be steep, but if we navigate these waters wisely, we might just come out stronger in the end with an increased ability to give our students a strong and consistent return on their investment.