The $10,000 Degree: A Response, Part II

About a week ago I critiqued the first half of the Third Way report on the “$10,000 degree“. In that post I talked a bit about bloat and some of the issues with reconstructing college positions.

Moving on, the report’s suggestions around use of blended learning and the impact of student success initiatives on cost are fairly familiar recaps of approaches readers of this blog will already know, and given the time this blog has spent on those issues, I’m not sure digging into them again is worthwhile. On the whole, I’m supportive of the idea that retention and decreased time to degree are the most promising foci for anyone wanting to increase the impact of money spent on education. And I do believe that blended approaches (combined with high-quality resources) can address some of our challenges around quality, cost, and access.

Rethink College (System) Architecture

The more interesting piece of the article, and the one I would like to talk about, is Anya’s plan to save the flagship research university by seeing the state university system as a system.

In this section, Anya details a new organization for a state college system. In state college systems as currently designed, there is a lot of overlap in roles, and much unnecessary competition between institutions. In Anya’s plan, different colleges would have more defined roles, and work together (hopefully) in synergy. Most current colleges are transformed into “Cohort Colleges”, non-residential experiences that offer a small range of general purpose degrees. Adult online is split off into its own entity, and research flagships remain close to what they are currently.

There’s stuff to like in this reformulation, though I think it’s the principle (move campuses back towards working as a system) that’s more important than the specific practice. The plan also attempts to deal with something most such plans have avoided — the tricky question of how to support research universities as we move away from the traditional cross-subsidies involved in higher education. In the system as outlined, flagship research universities exist in a very similar form to today, serving the specialized needs that the cohort colleges cannot provide. As an interesting solution to the research university problem, the research universities continue to be heavily subsidized in return for providing educational services to the rest of the system: open content, analytics, assessments, infrastructure.

This is very much the direction we need to go — the fact that states are not currently producing such materials is criminal. Moderate investments in the production of such resources could improve the quality of education, and could reduce total cost of attendance immediately through providing high quality textbook replacements. Keeping those materials open would allow faculty to make the materials even more effective.

Of all the ideas in the paper, it is this one that intrigues me the most. It is one of the best attempts I’ve seen to save the research university from unbundling.

At the same time, the concept needs some tweaking. The system as described looks a bit too much like the MOOC system of today — elite institutions pushing out materials to smaller institutions in a broadcast model. We know that successful models will have to be more collaborative in nature.

There is also the question of whether flagship research universities are best positioned to build such materials. Anya notes that the lack of diversity of students at such institutions must be addressed if the materials they produce are to be relevant to a general population, and this is true — we saw this most recently with the San Jose State Udacity pilot, which made farm league errors in implementation that your average community college would have known to avoid. But you can’t just swap in different students. The faculty that build digital resources to teach the general population should ideally have expertise in teaching the general population, and expertise takes years to develop.

Who has that expertise? In certain disciplines, a community college professor ten years into a career has likely taught 100 sections to a research university professor’s twenty. They’ve also likely taught a broader variety of students, have more exposure to blended and online modalities, and received more instruction on teaching than their more research-oriented colleagues.

If the flagships truly hire the best instructors they can find to develop and test materials, the likelihood is that many of those instructors will be from outside the flagship institution. This is in no way to disparage faculty at research universities doing wonderful things in the classroom — I work with such individuals every day. But everything we know about expertise says that many world-class *teaching* experts are likely to come from the pool of people teaching multiple sections of the same class semester after semester.

And this is where the model begins to crack. The best teachers aren’t going to be the best researchers, so to the extent we hire the best teachers to put together these courses, our research cross-subsidy disappears again.

Still, I think this idea has merit. There’s at least a small need for subject matter experts in esoteric disciplines, and in the end, perhaps society has to just learn to eat the cost of research. Certainly the idea that state university systems should be in the business of producing materials is a strong one; the best configuration to achieve that is murkier.


On the whole, there’s a lot in the paper that will look familiar to those following the policy debate of the past couple years. The two recommendations that stand out — for restructuring work roles of employees and restructuring institutional roles within the system — are problematic, but provide some creative thinking and good starting points for discussion, which is what a paper like this is supposed to do.

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