Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Coase and Carey: Be Careful What You Wish For

I’ve been a fan of Kevin Carey’s for some time.  He gets a lot right, and even when he’s off, he’s interesting.

This week, he’s true to form.  

In response to President Obama’s hinted-at plans to open up financial aid for higher education providers other than traditional colleges, Carey developed a wish list that’s well worth reading.  He’s almost certainly right that direct government price controls on colleges wouldn’t work, or at least, wouldn’t work in a constructive way.  (Employer-based health insurance was born as an outgrowth of wartime price controls.  How’s that system working out?)  Real innovation typically comes either from new entrants into a field, or from panicked incumbents threatened by new entrants.  Without new entrants, you don’t get major change.  Opening up the financial aid system to new providers with new methods doesn’t guarantee a good outcome, but it certainly improves the chances.

Carey starts from that correct observation, and moves quickly to “and here’s how to do it.”  And that’s where he gets...interesting.

On the one hand, he calls for accreditation to move from institutions as wholes, or even degree programs as wholes, to the course level.  As he put it, “what if you want to specialize and provide nothing other than the world’s greatest Linear Algebra class?”  

I’ll flip the question around.  What if you wanted to be able to offer a whole host of courses in a bunch of different majors?  You’d have to go through the accreditation process for every.  single. course.  The administrative overhead -- assessment, documentation, verification, and the like -- would skyrocket.  It’s even worse if you want to offer something outside the traditional disciplines.  Linear Algebra is pretty well established.  But what if you want to offer, say, a philosophy course on the St. Louis Hegelians?  (Worst baseball team ever.  “There is nothing in the essence of the knuckleball that will not become evident in the series of its appearances...”)  Where would you even find the standards to follow?  What if you wanted to offer a course on the latest cutting-edge findings in a field -- the stuff that hasn’t been standardized yet?  I get a headache just thinking about it.

Worse, students would be left on their own to cobble together coherent and recognized programs of study from the scraps provided.  Many years ago, the economist Ronald Coase noted that the great utility of the “firm” in economic terms is that it reduces transaction costs.  It routinizes, which is its great strength.  Shatter firms, and every transaction has to start from scratch.  In a market with a severe information asymmetry, such as higher education, the idea of loosing untrained 18 year olds (or busy and distracted 38 year olds) into the virtual wilds to piece together what they can is a recipe for disaster, even assuming that each individual piece is good.  

Colleges as “firms” provide more than just courses.  They provide structure.  They provide guidance (usually called “advising” or “counseling”).  They provide legibility.  They provide social support, quiet places to study, and the reassurance of knowing that others have done what you’re trying to do.  They allow for the serendipity moments of discovering that the course of study you thought you wanted wasn’t really for you, and that you’re actually much more fascinated by something else.  

Offload all of those costs onto students, and you’re creating an inefficiency of monstrous proportions.  Worse, the students who would lose the most are the ones with the fewest resources at the beginning.  The wealthy, well-prepared, well-connected kid may be able to fend for himself relatively well in the virtual wilds; the poorly prepared and unconnected will likely either fall prey or fall out.

The one virtue of the course-by-course approach is that it could conceivably open the field to a host of scrappy new providers.  But then Carey falls into an uncharacteristic bit of wealth worship:

Organizational capacity. If Harvard and MIT form a non-profit to do this, their capacity, academic and financial resources should carry weight. If Carl Wieman wants to get in the Physics 101 business, his status as a Nobel prize winner and researcher on best practices in teaching introductory physics should work in his favor. If Pixar wants to teach computer animation, Wall-E should count in their favor. (Cars 2, less so.)

Um, this is not helpful.  The problem with the current system is not that Harvard, MIT,and Pixar are somehow shut out.  They do just fine.  The problem is that scrappy new providers -- and, to be honest, scrappy existing providers -- would be crushed by the wealthy and powerful.  Only the wealthy and powerful could afford to run separate accreditations for every single course, and only the wealthy and powerful would have the name recognition to grab the uninitiated from all over the country.  And as that happens, the argument for public support for access for everyone will get harder to sustain politically.  As both a citizen and an educator, I have to call that a disaster.

Where I draw hope from Obama’s message -- keeping in mind that it’s a long way from footnotes from a speech to enacted legislation -- is in recognizing that innovation requires new blood.  It does.  Creating space for new providers to try new things -- and thereby put some useful pressure on existing providers to get more experimental -- strikes me as a genuine good.  Let’s just not forget the strengths of what we have in the excitement of the possible.

"What if you wanted to offer a course on the latest cutting-edge findings in a field -- the stuff that hasn’t been standardized yet?"

Bingo. This happens all of the time in graduate level courses, and not just ones called "special topics". It is quite common for the content of a course with a generic name to change drastically with major changes in a field. I remember huge changes when quarks were established by experiment. Would each course have to get new approval with each change in content?

But this also happens at our CC level. Features of a local area can require courses that might not exist anywhere else. It is hard enough to set up and justify the outcomes within an existing institution on a practical and responsive time scale. I can't imagine doing what he proposed.

Carey wrote: "If Carl Wieman wants to get in the Physics 101 business, his status as a Nobel prize winner and researcher on best practices in teaching introductory physics should work in his favor."

Only if you believe that a clicker-based lecture system would scale up to a classroom of 10,000 taking a class synchronously across many time zones. Otherwise you are back to a canned lecture, like Walter Lewin's MOOC-enshrined masterpieces, which Wieman and others argue are an abject failure. Weiman wants to spread personalized education more widely, something that can be replicated but not industrialized.
By the way, the most naive part of his proposal had to be "higher education providers would only get paid if students succeed." Talk about a race to the bottom! And it would be, if the quality assurance is done by the same sort of bureaucracy that ensures that all Medicare providers are honest. that makes the challenges of a nationally agreed-upon common syllabus for every course eligible for mandatory credit transfer pale in comparison.
Higher education is already close to being too complicated for the average student to comprehend in the limited time frame in which it exists for them (5-6 years for a BA if you include all the effort expended during the student's senior year in HS to get a grip on the higher ed realm). It needs to get more simple, not more complex, especially if we want first-generation college-goers to have even close to an equal chance. Innovation should be sought that will make the process more unified and more transparent.
I see this as effective for technical fields where an employer might choose to run an accredited course because financial aid makes it cost effective. But I have mixed feelings about this because it might make it hard for folks without aid to get training because of the new expectation that it must be paid for.
Why should course accreditation/program accreditation/institutional accreditation be either/or options? (Right now, obviously, program and institutional accreditations coexist.) Why not *add* individual course accreditation as an *option* if someone (or some institution that's not primarily in the ed biz) wants it? This makes things harder for the accrediting agencies, I grant, but not necessarily for institutions.
Dean Dad is right. A system in which courses are accredited on an individual basis would be a nightmare to administer. How does one insure that each of these courses fit into a coherent major program? I can see that one might want to be able to accredit an individual course which is designed to fit into a specific niche and is more-or-less standalone, but do you want to handle each and every course in the curriculum in this manner? How does one ensure that the courses for a given major all fit together to make up a coherent program, one where one course feeds into another and mastery of one course is required before a student can take the next one in the sequence? And would a major really mean anything under such a program, one in which the individual courses are accredited rather than the major program as a whole?

Such an individual course accreditation program might work under a system that was described by Dean Dad a few weeks back, one in which individual faculty members were essentially free-lancers, being paid directly by the students who took their courses rather than by the institutions where they taught. That might be the way to ensure that free-lancing professors were not running a diploma mill.

Dean Dad should be the expert for Kevin Carey's think tank. Much better analysis of the situation.
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