This morning, I stumbled across a “guest blog” at University of Venus (part of Inside Higher Ed) by Terrance Bradford-Muhammad titled “Creating a Degree for 10K.” Apparently, Texas Governor Rick Perryhas issued the “challenge” to his states’ universities to create a $10K college degree, one that included tuition and books. Right after that, Perry issued a “challenge” to Texas cattlemen to produce a steer with steaks that taste like unicorn and that poop cherry jelly beans.
I jest, of course. A $10K degree is ridiculous.
But Bradford-Muhammad takes on the challenge and suggests that maybe the way to get to that $10K degree is by following the outsourcing techniques suggested by none other than Tim “The Four Hour Workweek” Feriss. Here’s a long quote to give you an idea what I mean:
In Timothy Feriss’ 4 Hour Workweek, he discusses the idea of “Automation,” meaning building a sustainable and automatic stream of income. It includes several techniques like drop-shipping, Google Adwords and Adsense, and outsourcing, all techniques a university could use (Timothy Feriss: Outsourcing Life). In some cases it has already begun.
The private (for-profit) sector residence life program I worked for was outsourced to a third party housing provider that leased land from a university. The company built and maintained the buildings, operating the program with its own employees. This cost the state nothing and, instead, put money in the state’s pockets (if a state can have such things).
Still not a believer? Think of this. Drop shipping is a product delivery method where the seller accepts payment for an order, but the customer receives the product directly from the manufacturer. In these arrangements, the retailer is the middleman between the manufacturer and the customer (Wise Geek). Think of online universities and of the professors who teach part-time from their homes. The state could rid itself of “brick and mortar” classrooms and arrange a teaching contract between the professor and the students, allowing the professor to decide where, when and how learning would take place. Cost to the state? Nothing.
By the way, Bradford-Muhammad is a PhD student in “student affairs” at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Not sure how that studying is going there, frankly.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Feriss’ system is foolproof and sound, so simple that all you have to do is describe it and it works. It’s not that Feriss does not have any good points– I’ve written about some of them before— but I think it’s going to take a wee bit more than referencing a chapter in a pop self-help book to make it so. But still. Also, let’s just assume that a) the compensation for this kind of work was comparable to what professors earn now, and b) all of the other key trappings of the “real job” aspect of things– minor details like insurance and retirement plans– could be addressed. Two more mondo-huge assumptions, but again, let’s just go with it.
On the one hand, this system would be pretty sweet: “the university” then becomes more or less a broker matching up students to instructors, and the students/instructors work out the details. In fact, in a broad sort of way, this is what is happening now in the realm of teaching part-time and online: you pick up an online class here and an online class there, and through that, the instructor cobbles together some version of a paycheck. Hypothetically, someone who either negotiated a higher salary than the usual per-class rate or someone who was willing to take on a ridiculous number of classes could make some very good money.
But Bradford-Muhammad is forgetting one critical thing about the way universities operate. At least two-thirds of my time as a tenured professor is spent on things other than teaching. Besides teaching (and by “teaching,” I mean assigning things, leading discussions, creating assignments, and the tons of reading/grading I do associated with specific courses, all of which I am doing online currently), I have lots of responsibilities involving things like meetings that make the “business” of the department go ’round; I advise students about degree programs or particular classes; and I work with my colleagues on developing and changing curriculum. And by the way, these other “not teaching” things today occupied more of my time than the teaching things yet again today.
Oh, and I didn’t mention any assessment or program review work, also stuff we need to do nowadays in part to satisfy people like Rick Perry who are demanding accountability in public educators. That’s not an unreasonable demand, even if the the process of institutional assessment/program review is often pretty goofy. But it is also not a cheap demand to satisfy.
Anyway, it’d be nice if drop-shipping and outsourcing could work in this setting. If it weren’t for the fact that most of the cost of higher education has nothing to do with the teaching.
Incidentally, in my more grumpy academic moments, I’ve wondered about the finances of this kind of approach on a personal level: that is, how many courses would I have to teach in the shady world of proprietary and/or online universities to get to the break-even point relative to my current salary and benefits? Twice as many courses a year? Would the trade-off of not having to deal with any of the non-teaching stuff make it worth it?
And say, what if I followed Feriss’ advice and outsourced some of my own grading and other paperwork in the process? Can a part-time instructor hire a subcontractor? Hmmm… that’s just crazy enough to work….