Drive thru U? Colleges outsourcing classes to private companies

For a long time, colleges have been searching for ways to lower costs and bring in more students. Recently, Kansas' Fort Hays State University took the next step in blurring the line between higher education and big business when it announced that it will essentially subcontract part of its core curriculum to an online company. Under this arrangement, a company named StraighterLine would administer courses and grade students. Fort Hays, in turn, would list the classes on its transcripts, essentially giving its imprimatur to the company.

This move, while radical, is not unexpected. Numerous universities are exploring ways to lower costs by subcontracting core curriculum classes. Companies like StraighterLine and Higher Ed Holdings enable schools to attract students with low-cost offerings, while saving money on instructor salaries.

Historically, higher education was designed to provide students with a wide array of general knowledge and the ability to produce independent thought. Over time, however, another goal grew to eclipse these primary aims: college became a place where students were prepared for the job market, a sort of higher-level vocational center, from which graduates would receive a degree that would pronounce them ready to work in corporate America.

After World War II, as the vocational aspect of education became more entrenched, college degrees became a prerequisite for many jobs that previously had gone to high school graduates. In the process, general knowledge and the ability to think became less prominent as collegiate goals. After all, as millions of students have endlessly moaned, a knowledge of Shakespeare's major plays is not an obvious necessity for a doctor, a programmer, or a hedge-fund manager. The same, arguably, could be said of numerous other core curricula, including geography, composition, art, music appreciation, and political science. In fact, in light of the recent financial meltdown, it's worth wondering if a knowledge of history and an understanding of basic arithmetic haven't become something of a liability for people looking for a job on Wall Street.

This vocational reworking of education has resulted in a decidedly goal-oriented perspective among students and administrators. Students are interested in getting high grades, which will presumably help them get jobs after graduation. Administrators, meanwhile, are interested in enrolling as many students as possible, and realizing the largest possible profit margin from their tuition. On the one hand, this results in students who are eager to parrot their teachers in the quest for high grades; on the other end, it results in universities that are more focused on moving students through the system than in what they gain along the way.

In this environment, ideologues thrive. After all, dogma is easy to parrot and, while students may gripe about being indoctrinated, teachers are rarely punished for promoting politically correct perspectives in their classrooms. Unfortunately, however, dogma is pretty much the opposite of independent thought, and ideologically-driven course lists often fly in the face of any concept of general knowledge. The upshot is that, at many schools, a college education no longer indicates the critical and intellectual vigor that it once did.

One solution has been to introduce standardized education at the department level. Many schools have begun requiring that all professors use a standard text, a move that guarantees a standard curriculum and promises huge financial rewards for administrators and publishers. At Virginia Tech, where I used to teach, the $90 department-authored freshman composition text (with enclosed writing guide) was required for all freshman classes. In some years, the impressive proceeds from the sale went to student scholarships and small department grants; in other years, the revenue distribution was far less transparent.

For faculty members, the great threat was that many core classes would be subcontracted altogether. Thus, instead of a 25-seat freshman composition class, in which each student would have to produce 20 pages of graded work, there would be 300-seat classes, in which the grading would be offshored to India. While Fort Hays' move isn't quite so dire, it seems to represent a first step down the road to a factory-style education model, in which dispensing diplomas becomes the sole goal of colleges.

The sad secret underlying all of this is that, for many students, the most substantive education is on-the-job training. Even students in vocational majors like engineering or computer programming often find that their work requires a great deal of further education. Further, for many professions, it isn't clear that a college degree really makes much of a difference after the hiring period. In the long run, colleges and the job market need to radically reconsider their goals and their needs, asking whether students who aren't really interested in higher ed need to be forced to submit to it.
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