Why Make Berkeley More Like Kaplan?

What surprises me most about the UC-AFT’s recent agreement with the university system, that they claim will give them the power to veto expansion of online programs, is how blatantly protectionist they are of their members. Quote:

We believe that if courses are moved online, they will most likely be the classes currently taught by lecturers, and so we will use our collective bargaining power to make sure that this move to distance education is done in a fair and just way for our members.

There is not much of a nod to the larger societal concerns, nor any real attempt to argue that online courses would be bad for anyone other than members of the UC-AFT. The approach is typical of unions, eliminate employer opportunities that might threaten current jobs. But in a market with high competition this will not work for long, only weakening the UC system to the advantage of its competitors. That is assuming there is something to be gained by offering online education. When’s the last time anyone heard of a prestigious online university? And what would that even look like?

There’s a huge difference between offering courses for credit and not-for-credit. Stanford and MIT already offer extensive, free online courses. Harvard has placed one of its most popular classes ever on YouTube. Many universities are happy to give away education, just not credit. Harvard has in fact attempted to sell only some of its prestige by offering an extension program which confers a less prestigious online Masters in Liberal Arts degree for less, but still with the name Harvard at the top of a diploma.

The UC fight is over who gets what portion of the rents of an accreditation monopoly. Currently college professors and administrators split the lion’s share. However, administrators have a rare opportunity to make the college process cheaper by adopting a new technology. This is not something you often hear about administrators. Adminstrators are the closest thing to “management” a college has, but that does not mean they should be entrepreneurial in the same way. Administrators are known, by professors and students alike, for being rather wasteful of resources but perhaps there’s good reason. Perhaps what looks like waste in to the entrepreneur is exactly the point at a university, and vice versa.

For one thing, attempting to cut costs on teachers in an industry like education seems to misunderstand what a college education is all about. The signal is the important thing and giving the same degrees to online students will dilute that signal. Students go to Berkeley because that’s where the best and brightest people in the world do their research. Not because that’s where the most skilled teachers do their teaching. Plenty of professors don’t teach at all and arguably confer more prestige (and add more value) than a dozen teaching professors do. College education isn’t about learning its about associating with greatness and sending a signal to employers and the wide world that you can be associated with such brilliance. It also sends the signal that you have the social and financial capital to take four of your most productive years and devote them to study. So the two most important dates in a college career are acceptance and graduation. Beautiful campuses with columned buildings and manicured lawns also seem to confer prestige via signalling.

In sum, in higher-education value is added the same way a peacock adds value through wasteful signalling. This is what the schools are doing and what the students are doing with all that money. Universities do not add value by improving teacher quality or by cost cutting in ways that send the signal that the need to cut costs, and online education for credit is just such a signal. Online learning is easier and more convenient than traditional college and requires less sacrifice from the student. The student need not ever meet their professors or their classmates and can be conveniently forgotten by the institution entirely.

I predict that online courses will not actually save the university money or shift profit-shares over to administrators, at least not in the long run. The modern resort-hotel university should be plenty of evidence that schools can never quit buying prestige and certainly not by cutting costs. The surplus must be spent on ever brighter feathers and online education not only fails to confer prestige, it wrecks the signal already in place.

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One Response to “Why Make Berkeley More Like Kaplan?”

  1. Katherine Says:

    Isn’t the point of their quotation showing that they don’t want their online programming to have the same value as the brick and mortar university–that’s why only adjuncts are teaching it…

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