Tuesday, September 22, 2009

College for $99 a Month

From Washington Monthly, via Edge of the American West.

The article is about Straighterline, a for-big-profits educational company. The principle is simple and is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith--who went to Williams and Harvard, by the way, not the University of Phoenix or another online school. Here it is: charge very low tuition and make it possible for people like the 50-year-old laid-off worker Barbara Solvig (whose story is the "hook" in the article) to complete her education. The idea is that the basic Econ 101, English 101, etc. will be offered online, thus skimming off tremendous profits for Smith and his investors. Oh, and it's all for noble motives:
Students will benefit enormously from radically lower prices—particularly people like Solvig who lack disposable income and need higher learning to compete in an ever-more treacherous economy.

But is Smarthinking, the tutoring company that Burck founded, likely to hire a 50-something American worker like Solvig in this "treacherous economy," given industry's hatred for those over 30? Is it likely to employ unemployed or underemployed Ph.D. grads or ABDs in the U.S.? Of course not.
Smarthinking pooled the demand from hundreds of colleges and tens of thousands of students while hiring credentialed tutors in places like India and the Philippines. As long as “on demand” was defined as a high likelihood of being served within a few minutes, economies of scale and cheap foreign labor could be combined to drive per-student service costs to unheard-of lows.
Let's leave aside the humanities, culture, and research for a minute, just as Smith's model will leave them aside permanently, and look at something more basic: how are these online courses going to teach people to draw blood and insert catheters, not to mention even more knowledge- and skill-based practices? If you want to be an R.N., how will you learn these things?

What's that you say? That's not the job of an online course? All right, but the courses that do teach such things are expensive. They're time-consuming. They require hands-on teaching with skilled practitioners.

Dean Dad has talked about how expensive it is to train nurses, and what pays for those expensive specialized courses? The lower-division ones that Smith is proposing to take over and teach for $99 a month. How long do you think that universities are going to continue teaching money-losing but vitally important courses if they don't have a means to balance the loss of income in some way?



Anonymous said...

I guess to be in nursing students would have to pay more, as with medical school? So that certain professions would be reserved for those who can pay to get in?

Maybe the hospitals would have to start subsidizing the nursing schools more heavily if they wanted nurses, and everything could just be pegged to the needs of business, and that's that. Short sighted but...

Sisyphus said...

Ick. I love how the same companies that sell a product (education/retraining/job security) that they claim will help laid-off workers are using the same outsourcing practices that have caused all the layoffs and downsizing in the first place.

undine said...

profacero, it's more that this is a symptom of a system gone wrong: we need nurses (and other kinds of professions as well), but for-profit models like this are going to gut the systems that are necessary to train them. Shouldn't we as a society be willing to invest long-term in something that's a social good, like nursing, and prevent the dismantling of an educational system that allows that kind of training?

Sisyphus, that's all too common. Not to pick on Microsoft per se, but there are thousands of unemployed software engineers in this country (recession, remember?) and the tech companies keep yelling that they need to import workers because none are available here in the U. S. I read something recently online about how our supposed brain drain in science (people refusing to go into science careers) isn't because the students are stupid but because they're smart: they've seen those jobs outsourced and don't want to put years into a career in which they'll be told, "Sorry, no jobs."

Of course I think that a diverse international workforce is good for the U. S., and especially for U. S. universities--all that international talent--but I guess I think we need to consider the long-term as well as the short-term effects of gutting educational institutions (isn't that what the UC system schools will be protesting about, as you wrote about today?).

Anonymous said...

Well, my 1981 research insight, which was prophetic and should have caused me to change my major and win the Nobel Prize, was that it was now policy to do these things on purpose.

That research insight predicted the current crisis as the result of the neoliberal policies then being instituted. It estimated the crisis start date at 2006.

It's not short sightedness, went the insight, it's intentional. The plan, said the insight, was to widen the wage gap, create barriers to education for everyone but the elites, and so on.

undine said...

That's brilliant but depressing, profacero!

Christopher Vilmar said...

(Aha, you linked right to it!)

The part of this (large cultural problem or question) that always irks me: how these kinds of discussions never credit the role of the humanities in getting them to where they are. The results of the humanities are hard to track. Teaching them is labor-intensive and results-ambiguous. But that doesn't mean they're useless or dated. The climatological effects of a butterfly's wings were also labor-intensive and results-ambiguous until an adequate rubric was developed, right? But the destroyers of education always act as though they sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus, instead of getting an education at Harvard.

undine said...

Christopher Vilmar, I think you're right. "Fully formed from the head of Zeus"--yes, and now that they have their liberal arts education, it's time to educate the rest of us grimy proles just enough to run the machines for them.

Christopher Vilmar said...

Well, you might look at it like this: they're already PAYING you and me like grimy proles to run their silly educational institutions for them.