Brad DeLong cites Jonathan Chait citing Jonathan Rees on Obama’s promise to shake up higher education. Rees doesn’t like MOOCs. Chait thinks they can play a role and that education policy should be for students, not faculty. DeLong thinks that lots of professors are student-oriented and will side with Chait. I think the whole MOOC thing is a distraction.
Yes, MOOCs loom large on the horizon. If they can be made to work they will play a significant role in the higher ed ecosystem of the future. But what we see today are crude prototypes, and they are far from delivering the goods. It’s a dirty secret of online education technologies as they currently exist that they are as costly as the old-fashioned face-to-face methods, if not more so. MOOCs are a glorious future and they will remain that way for years to come.
If you want to know what Obama has up his sleeve, take a look at this recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the agenda of the Gates/Lumina/Kresge foundations. It’s about tying financial support for colleges and universities to completion data and pushing “competency-based” criteria to replace credit hours. Both of these, I can assure you, will piss off lots of professors because, in the end, they remove control over curriculum from faculty and install a lower common denominator for standards in the name of access and efficiency. I won’t get into a longer discussion of them here, but at least we should be clear about what’s on the table.
As for the rising cost of tuition, two points. First, the biggest single driver by far for public institutions is the decline in public funding. This is only partly a result of the fiscal squeeze on the states; it is also what the policy gurus are calling for. In their view education is primarily a private good, as reflected in wage differentials between grads and non-grads. Fairness and economic efficiency, they argue, both require that this good be priced according to its return. In their world the only acceptable basis for reducing tuition is cost-cutting in degree production, not cost-shifting back to the public sector.
Second, you should look at tuition in an international context—after all, the technologies and salary structures in higher ed are not that different across the developed countries. I’m writing this from Germany, where the trend is to eliminate the very small tuition charges introduced in the past decade, a victory for the principle that education at all levels should be free. Incidentally, German universities also pay for the cost of textbooks, and for the same reason. Germany, of course, is currently doing pretty well economically, but its GDP per capita remains below that of the US: it’s not that they can afford to subsidize higher ed while the US can’t. The difference is one of principle and, to a considerable extent, economic strategy. Germany intends to remain a surplus country on the basis of a well-educated workforce and tight integration between research and production. Correspondingly, the US intends to remain a deficit country on the basis of debt-financed consumption, including consumption of education. Let’s see how well that’s going to work.