Friday, June 10, 2011
Bertie Goes to College
Though details remain sketchy, it looks like the business model relies on drive-by lectures by famous people for the marketing appeal, and actual instruction by adjuncts to keep costs down. Given that it costs several multiples of what British universities typically charge, I can only imagine P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster -- more money than brains -- as the prototypical student.
I’m drawn to the story because it combines a few of my pet obsessions. As regular readers know, I’ve held for a while now that the Next Big Thing will be the upscale proprietary. This appears to be a varation on that. The story also gives me an opportunity to name-check Wodehouse, which doesn’t happen nearly often enough.
(Bonus to Wodehouse fans: check out Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. Quoting from memory: “People accuse me of loathing work. Nothing could be further from the truth. I could watch other people work for hours.”)
I don’t see the British model working in its current form, though it’s likely to evolve quickly. The only American attempt I’ve seen -- Founders College -- crashed and burned within a year. But one failed implementation does not disprove a concept.
An upscale proprietary could work, I suspect, if it combined very selective admissions with low class sizes, an extremely narrow set of curricular choices, hotel-style student housing, and a clear identity. The “hear occasional lectures by famous people” hook won’t cut it, since anyone who wants to can go online and subscribe to TED talks for free. The structure would have to be intensely student-centered, with the hook being something like “project-based from day one.” The value proposition, aside from the self-fulfilling value of exclusivity, would be that if offers what the online world can’t. I’m envisioning something close to “spend four years in close quarters with smart people doing self-directed projects.”
In the meantime, though, the for-profits have clustered mostly on the low end of the prestige hierarchy, competing with community colleges. The community colleges have a significant cost advantage that would be even more significant if they didn’t keep taking body blows from state budgets. But either way, the open-admissions end of the market is amply covered. But I don’t think that celebrity guests are enough, at this point, to claim prestige.
So no, I don’t see the new British version working in its current form, but I’m fascinated at the attempt. I consider it version 1.2 of the idea; version 2.0 will be the breakthrough. (Any VC’s looking to make a splash, I’d love to hear from you...hint, hint...)
Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there merit in the British proposal that I’m just not seeing? Or is it doomed to be yet another quixotic episode for Bertie?
Britain has taken the common application one step further. One applies completely centrally. The application gets sent to UCAS which then sends it on to the half dozen Universities (actually departments within them) to which you're applying. They make you conditional offers (or not) through UCAS. The offer is conditional on some specific performance in the exams you'll take in June. UCAS lets you accept only two of these offers. One, a "firm acceptance", commits you to going to that University if you meet the conditions. A second, "backup acceptance", commits you to going to that University if you fail to meet the conditions for your firm acceptance, but do meet the (necessarily lesser) conditions for the backup.
There are always applicants who are over optimistic in their backup and, come August, when the exam results are announced find themselves without a place. There's a hurried matching of students without places and Universities with unfilled places, called Clearing, which everyone agrees doesn't work too well.
NCH will not be part of UCAS. You can apply to it in addition to your six UCAS applications. You can accept an offer from it in addition to your two UCAS acceptances. If it turns out that your actual exam results won't be enough for your Oxbridge offer or even your backup offer from Bristol, NCH will still be there.
They will have yield management problems, which have hitherto been unknown in Britain. They will have an interesting attrition problem (though Britain doesn't have a credit transfer system). But adjunctification will help them manage those problems.
They aren't looking to be very big at first. An entering freshman class of 200 has been mooted. Most British Universities matriculate in the thousands each year.
The initial PR has been very bad, but they aren't actually starting until Fall 2012, so if it dies down, they have a real chance of making it.
The University of London lets you register as an external student; if you do, you can take UofL exams and get a UofL degree, and study whereever and however you want. NCH plans to use the UofL degrees, not it's own.
This thread on Crooked Timber is very helpful, especially comment 113.
It’s an absurd contrast that those who compete everyday in the market system creating wealth and subsequent tax revenue, while others advocate against educational choice in an effort to preserve the publicly funded schools that employ them.
Imagine the nightmare scenario of nationalizing all grocery stores, with powerful organizations created to lobby politicians, and fight viscously against the formation of any private enterprise grocery store.
It would be the same tired “crabs in a barrel” argument because it’s easier to pull others back down into the barrel of mediocrity, the the perseverance and energy to pull oneself up.
We should all welcome “for-profit” schools, encourage their success, and relish the competition.