Thursday, August 21, 2014

Faith in Legislatures? A Response to Paul LeBlanc

Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, published a think piece in IHE on Monday about the possibility of a standardized, national college degree.  It’s well worth reading and chewing on at length, since it combines several strands of progressive educational innovation with a level of faith in state legislatures that could prove disastrous.

It’s a complex proposal, so I won’t summarize the whole thing.  The core of the idea is to develop a set of competencies for the Associate’s level, and another for the Bachelor’s level, and to put them online with some public support so they’re free to students.  Students would be directed to various OER options, and grading would be mechanized wherever possible.  Students who want nothing but the academic core of a degree could get it on their own time, and for free.  Students who want guidance, academic support, and/or the campus life experience could still attend traditional colleges, which would have the option of either continuing to operate as they always have, or of adopting the national curriculum and remaking themselves as wraparound support for the national curriculum.  

LeBlanc argues that a national degree would provide a new academic “floor.”  Any college whose educational offerings weren’t as good as the free option would quickly be faced with the choice to improve, to outsource, or to die.  The academically weakest providers wouldn’t be able to justify their own existence in the face of a superior, free option.  Over time, presumably, prices would gradually settle in at the value-added by the institution charging the price.  

Which is part of the problem.

Leave aside, for the moment, questions about who defines the competencies, how they might change over time, how different fields of study would emerge, and how non-mechanical grading might happen.  For the sake of argument, leave aside the question of measuring academic quality, so that anyone below the floor would be competed out of business.  (Presumably, there’s nothing preventing existing institutions from competing on quality now, except that’s it’s hard to measure and prove.)

LeBlanc refers often to Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation.  In Christensen’s theory, innovations that start off inferior and cheap, and targeting only the low end of the market, gradually move up the value chain and displace incumbents.  

Taking Christensen’s theory at face value, and taking LeBlanc’s proposal at face value, it looks like the free online national college degree would gradually displace most of the non-elite providers.  

The politics of public higher education make that outcome even more likely.  States have been on a decades-long trend of disinvesting in public higher education, with each “recovery” period failing to regain the ground lost in the previous recession.  After several rounds of two down and one up, it’s hard not to notice a sort of chronic austerity manifesting itself in the turn to adjuncts, the tuition spiral, and the incessant squeezing of everything from travel and professional development to maintenance and technology.  For a host of reasons, states seem to be happy to cut public higher education, especially at the lower tiers.  A free, online national degree would give them the fig leaf to claim high-minded motives while laying waste to entire sectors.

At that point, we’d have a much more class-stratified system than we already have, and that’s saying something.  Those who could afford the value-adds would get them; those who couldn’t, would lose a persuasive claim to financial aid for them.  Instead of trying -- imperfectly, to be sure -- to give everyone some recognizable version of what the elites get, we’d ratify the division into first class and steerage.  

I’m a fan of LeBlanc’s spirit of innovation, and a strong supporter of moving away from time-based measures of learning.  But I’m concerned in this case that the means have become ends, and the larger point has been obscured.  For all of its quirks and failings -- heaven knows, I’ve documented plenty -- public higher education is, at its core, an audacious embodiment of democratic values.  That’s exactly why some people are trying so hard to eviscerate it.  As with any idealistic endeavor, some level of inefficiency comes with the territory.  When you give everyone a shot, you spend some resources on failure.  That’s the cost of giving risky people chances.  It’s also why we’re here.

I’d hate to see concern for efficiency -- even in the name of affordability -- reduce the options available for most people to the lowest common denominator.  That’s what Christensen’s theory suggests would happen, and it’s what the trend of the last several decades of our politics suggest would happen.

Instead, I’d love to see the very real efficiencies that a competency-based approach could offer used to create _better_ opportunities for the many.  “Unbundling” offers a certain kind of cost control, but it also undoes an important political bargain. I could see the savings accrue to legislators, rather than to students, with a long-term impoverishment of our culture.  Is there a way instead to use the powers of disruption for good?

Stay tuned...