Why Kevin Carey is (mostly but not entirely) wrong (again)

Last week, HuffPo published an article by Kevin Carey called “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education,” and, if that title wasn’t provocative enough, it also included these two sentences above the story/as a subtitle: “Just a few years ago, universities had a chance to make a quality education affordable to everyone. Here’s the little-known and absolutely infuriating history of what they did instead.”

The basic contours of Carey’s argument here are based on his book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. I talk about this book in a book I have coming out in fall 2019 about MOOCs and distance education, More Than a Moment. In his book and in this article, Carey makes a lot of good points, but he is just as often quite wrong– and he was/is really wrong about the potential of MOOCs to make college free and “everywhere.”

First off, some things Carey is right about.

It’s hard to disagree about college tuition being too high. Carey’s assertions as to why tuition is high and his solutions to this problem are way way off, but no sensible observer of American higher education would disagree that college is too expensive.

He’s also right that Online Program Management firms (OPMs) are potentially troubling. I think his characterization of OPMs is simplistic and he forgets that non-profit higher ed has had some complicated and fraught arrangements with for-profit enterprises for at least the last 150 years. Carey is alarmist in this article, I suppose in part because it’s HuffPo. It is true that the arrangements between OPMs and universities are often problematic. EMU’s relationship with the OPM Academic Partnerships is an example of this– and besides talking about this in the last chapter of my book, I blogged about it a while ago here,  and I take this issue up again toward the end of a presentation I gave at the Computers and Writing Conference in 2018. 

So he’s not all wrong. But Carey is spectacularly wrong in other places in this article.  I’ll focus on three of these claims.

 

After accurately pointing out the high costs of tuition, Carey asserts the answer is simple: online courses with thousands of students in them. He writes:

[T]here have been remarkable advances in online learning in the last decade. Nearly every prestigious college and university now offers multiple online degrees taught by skilled professors. And many of the courses are really good—engaging, rigorous, truly interactive. They are also a lot cheaper for universities to run. There are no buildings to maintain, no lawns to mow, no juice bars and lazy rivers to lure new students. While traditional courses are limited by the size of a lecture hall, online courses can accommodate thousands of people at a time.

Um, no.

MOOCs (or “online courses that can accommodate thousands of people at a time,” whatever you want to call them) are useful and interesting for all kinds of different reasons, but they clearly do not work as a way of delivering “really good” classes applicable to undergraduates. In my book, I argue that the failure of MOOCs demonstrated that institutional education does not scale– or at least it doesn’t scale well enough and not in enough subjects. Content scales great, but interaction with peers and faculty along with the labor of assessment (that is, the actual nuts and bolts of “education”)  does not scale well at all.

It’s also odd that Carey ignores the fact the dropout/failure to complete the course rate in MOOCs was somewhere between 90-95%. That doesn’t matter much if MOOCs are free learning experiments that students can take or leave, as “edutainment.” But as “the university of everywhere” as he suggests in his book or as the “chance universities had to make education affordable to everyone?” No.

It also turned out that one of the major problems of MOOCs is they are expensive to create and run. Again, there’s been a ton of research already on this, and this was a significant topic of discussion in the interviews I conduced with MOOC faculty, but this is also why the for-profit providers have shifted away from online courses with giant cohorts. Those once open, free and “massive” courses are no longer free and are now essentially online textbooks designed for individual study, and the interaction between students has been replaced by tech and expert support to answer specific questions and and conduct assessments.

As for why college costs so much: it’s complicated and I’m not going to go into it here, but it ain’t lazy rivers. And by the way, I’ve read several different articles Carey has written over the years and lazy rivers are always his go-to example of completely unnecessary and costly “student life” indulgences. He must really hate waterparks.

A bit later in this essay, Carey writes:

Universities aren’t like restaurants that rely on repeat customers: pretty much nobody gets two bachelor’s degrees. If you choose the wrong place, as many students do, it’s not easy to signal your dissatisfaction by transferring to a competitor.

Once again, no.

Students are not “repeat customers” in the same way that I am a “repeat customer” at my go-to local restaurant or coffee shop, sure. But the multiple undergraduate or graduate degree student is more common than Carey is suggesting, and students transfer from one school to another all the time. This is particularly true at “opportunity granting” institutions like EMU. Somewhere around a third of the students in my first year writing class last fall told me they were planning on coming to EMU for a year or so and then transferring– though the number of students who actually carry through on that plan is certainly low. EMU takes in a lot of transfer students too, particularly from area community colleges. This probably happens less at the more elite universities because students who are admitted to those places tend to be satisfied, and also because most of these elite universities make it more difficult to transfer into them from another university or community college.

But just to carry out this restaurant metaphor a bit too long (because I also carry this metaphor out in my book): to the extent that the for-profit MOOC providers had a “plan” on taking on traditional universities when they got started, that plan was to provide a cheap, convenient,  mass-produced and no-frills educational experience. It was never about quality. MOOCs were trying to be McDonalds (or insert your favorite fast food place here). This kind of dining option has its place (I’ll admit, I like a Big Mac once in a while), but no sensible person thinks this food is “special” or “unique” or “good for you” or “nutritious,” and no one takes a date or celebrates a special occasion at these kinds of restaurants– well, unless it’s a goofy date or the special occasion is a small child’s birthday.

The fact that traditional undergraduates mostly rejected MOOCs and other large online programs suggests to me that the price is not actually the main reason why someone decides to go to one university over another. Students (and their families) are willing to pay for a college experience that will be “worth it.” Students want the whole experience, a university more like a real restaurant where there are multiple courses, where people wait on you, and where you eat in a pleasant atmosphere. How “fine” the dining experience does depend on the budget, but on the low-end in this category, students at least want at least an educational experience like an Olive Garden or Red Lobster, and on the high end, they want to go to that top-rated and very expensive restaurant where you either have to know someone or get a reservation months in advance to get a table.

And third, I think the title and the two sentences after that title– “Just a few years ago, universities had a chance to make a quality education affordable to everyone. Here’s the little-known and absolutely infuriating history of what they did instead”– are just flat-out wrong. Corporations aren’t “devouring” higher education, and the failure of the MOOC experiment proves that online courses do not make higher education more affordable. This is all fear-mongering and wishful thinking– again, not unlike his book The End of College.

I’ll say this though: Carey is on to something in that this is a much better strategy for selling books and HuffPo articles.

In my book, I try to take a more nuanced and historic view of how OPMs, MOOCs, and other earlier distance education innovations have always been both a way to extend access to higher education to disenfranchised students, and a way for universities and their entrepreneur partners to make a buck. It’s not all bad, it’s not all good, it’s complicated. On the other hand, Carey’s mostly wrong argument about why college is expensive and how corporations are making it all worse confirms the misperceptions and fears held by large swaths of the public and hyped by the mainstream media. My argument is one that (hopefully) mostly appeals to fellow academics, and because of that, I’ll probably be lucky if I end up selling more than a couple hundred books. Carey’s argument presses all the right buttons so he gets covered in The New York Times and interviewed on Fresh Air and sells a ton of books and gets articles like this in Huffington Post.

Which I suppose is all another way in which Carey is mostly but not entirely wrong again.

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