I first heard about Rio Salado at a conference about seven years ago. Now the Chronicle has an article profiling it, and it's profoundly disturbing.
Rio Salado college is a single campus of the ten-campus (!) Maricopa County College system, in and around Phoenix, Arizona. According to the Chronicle, and this gibes with my memory, the college has an almost-entirely-adjunct faculty. (Approximately 99 percent of the courses are taught by adjuncts.) What few full-time faculty it does have barely teach or do research; they function mostly as course managers, ensuring standardization and quality control for all those adjuncts.
It's fully accredited.
Rio Salado is attracting quite a bit of positive notice from foundations looking at some of the usual issues: access for non-traditional students, cost/tuition control, and technological innovation.
I like low cost, technological innovation, and access for non-traditional students. But there's something about this that really rubs me the wrong way, especially when it appears the same week as the New York Times' story that Wal-Mart is moving consciously to a more heavily part-time workforce. (One Rio adjunct quoted in the article compares the college approvingly to Starbucks, where she works as a barista thirty hours a week.)
Regular readers know that I have my issues with tenured faculty, but this is not what I have in mind at all. (I prefer full-time positions on renewable, multi-year contracts, for those keeping score at home.)
If we get to a point where most people who teach at colleges have to work as baristas thirty hours a week to feed themselves, our entire higher ed system will collapse.
The dream of tenure makes possible the constant replenishment of the reserve army of adjuncts. If not for the (often false) promise of secure full-time work, I doubt that very many people would endure the rigors and deprivations of graduate training in the traditional academic disciplines. (Disciplines with high demand outside of higher ed, like pharmacology, would probably be fine.) Right now the reserve army of adjuncts is big enough that a college like Rio Salado can feed on it and be fine. But the Rio model can work only as long as plenty of bright twentysomethings believe they have enough of a shot at full-time work to go into graduate programs. When the pipeline starts to dry up, the Rio model will quickly become unsustainable. And the reality of graduate training is that it doesn't – and shouldn't -- fit 'just-in-time' production.
In olden times, faculty at many colleges weren't expected to try to live on their salaries. They had taken vows of poverty (literally!), or were the slumming rich, or were sustained by their families with considerable embarrassment. The emergence of a professional faculty on any significant scale was a twentieth century phenomenon. While it's not without its costs – again, I may have mentioned some of those once or twice – the emergence of a professional faculty allows for people other than the slumming rich to teach. This is no small thing.
The underlying assumption of the Rio model seems to be that education is training, and nothing more. It can be reduced to standardized modules that anybody can deliver at any time. If education really is just training, then who needs full-time faculty?
IHE published a truly stupid report yesterday saying that employers find graduates of two-year colleges less capable than grads of four-year colleges. (One possible explanation: maybe some learning occurs in those third and fourth years?) Still, the nugget of value in the report was that employers are finding that the technical skills with which grads are armed are generally pretty good; the 'general education' skills are where they fall down. In other words, they're pretty well trained, but they aren't educated. To me, that's the logical consequence of treating higher education as nothing more than job training.
Back at Proprietary U, students frequently asked me why they had to take Gen Ed classes (such as mine). I responded that your technical skill gets you your first job, but your communication skills get you promotions. If we academics don't want the rest of academia to follow the Wal-Mart/Rio Salado model, we need to start making a serious case about the economic value of actual education, taught by actual educators. This isn't just self-interest; the Rio model still needs administrators, so I'd be fine. It's a recognition of what can happen if we start to mistake the periphery of what we do for the core.