Having dared to question university administrators' edifice complex, those congenitally committed to building, he's already concluded that he should veto the appropriations for some current proposals to plan even more.
While I disagree with his answer, I agree with his question.
As a declaration of interest, and conflict, I am a child (and adult) of the University of Iowa: born in its hospital, to parents who were Iowa grads (one of whom would become a UI professor), a young guinea pig in its Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, and later its University Elementary and High School, during my years in Washington often invited by the University back home to speak (including the last commencement address before U High was closed), and teaching at its law school since returning to my hometown (and the house I grew up in).But none of this detracts from Branstad's sharing Bob Dylan's sense that "you better start swimmin'/Or you'll sink like a stone/For the times they are a-changin.'"
Over the years I've also picked up some understanding of how hard it is to get money from the Iowa Legislature for buildings. My grandfather played a major role as a legislator in getting the money for the University of Iowa's research library. It's never easy. So when the University says it needs a new pharmacy building, my bias is to give administrators the the benefit of the doubt.
For starters, there may be an online alternative to students dissecting frogs in a lab or classroom in a multi-million-dollar building. And there may be online global collaboration, and many other contributions from computers, for professional researchers working in scientific lab facilities. But it's a little difficult for them to do the hands-on research they do without a building to do it in. And a goodly proportion of the University's square footage in buildings is devoted to that kind of other-than-classroom purposes.
“I just think we need a very thoughtful approach,” Branstad told reporters. “We need to look at the long-term needs, and we need to look at how much of the learning will take place on campus, how much of it will occur online and elsewhere.”Jason Noble and William Petroski, "Branstad defends trio of spending plan vetoes," Des Moines Register, June 25, 2013.
“I guess what I am trying to do and say is that the answer is not to keep building more huge, expensive buildings on our college campuses. I think we need to recognize that changes are taking place in the way that people learn. Rather than have a lot of buildings that are going to sit empty in future years, we need to really decide: Are these absolutely essential?” Branstad said.
Let's start by identifying a number of distinct topics and issues here.
1. Conventional schools' technology in the classroom. Educators took a ribbing 15 or 20 years ago, with lines like, "It took educators 50 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom." Fact is, today, there's lots of "technology" (as they call it) around most conventional K-12 schools, colleges and universities. Indeed, some of today's educational critics suggest there's all too much, as students sit in lecture halls working on their Facebook pages with laptops and smartphones. Many classrooms now have electric outlets for students' laptops; lecterns with instructors' control of large screens, projectors, computer access to the Internet, including live connection to remote sites for interviews with experts or other classrooms, and presentation of Power Point slides, or other audio-video material. There are electronic systems for providing the instructor real time quiz results, or other feedback from each student, throughout the class hour.What I'd like to focus on are what are identified, above, as 4 and 5 -- free instruction with college-diploma equivalency certification.
2. Conventional schools' online offerings. By "conventional schools" I mean colleges in the 20th Century model, with residential students, a campus, large buildings with classrooms, and a library filled with books. These schools may today offer their students various online services, such as registration, course-related material (that might formerly have been in a printed packet). They may offer online courses, with lectures, textual and video material their students can access with computers, whether on-campus or away. This may, or may not, require occasional conferences with professors, or group meetings. It may, or may not, require that participants be registered as regular, on-campus students.
3. For-profit universities. The University of Phoenix, cited by the Governor, may be best known for its online offerings. And it certainly has those. But in addition to its online offerings, it not only has "a campus," it maintains 100 locations in 41 states -- including Iowa, in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines -- probably more buildings than any other U.S. university. Phoenix, and other for profits, are criticized for a variety of reasons (e.g., quality of instruction, respect for degree, difficulty for many students maintaining the self-discipline). The Des Moines Register's Kathie Obradovich said of Governor Brandstad's Phoenix endorsement, "if he considers the University of Phoenix an example of the future of higher education, his argument crashes and burns." Kathie Obradovich, "Obradovich: U of Phoenix reference torpedoes veto argument; Branstad, who vetoed cash for university projects, holds up troubled school as higher ed's future," Des Moines Register, June 25, 2013. Nonetheless, at least 300,000 individual students seem to be sufficiently satisfied to go on paying tuition.
4. Free online quality college courses. There are now a number of sources of free, quality college instruction. Among the drawbacks, such as the need for self-discipline and the lack of contact with professors and fellow students, the most significant is the absence of college credit and diplomas.
5. Free college-level instruction with credits and diploma-equivalents. As I predicted over three years ago, opportunities for college credit and diploma-equivalents are now appearing. See, "From SUI to ACT: Higher Ed's Crumbling Monopoly," January 31, 2010.
Let's start with the realization that a good many kids on college campuses aren't there to pursue their intellectual curiosity. Some are, of course, but not most. So why are they there? Because however little they know, however little they care to learn more, what they have figured out is that they don't want to go through life asking, "Do you want fries with that?" And the best way to avoid that fate, they've been told by counselors and parents, is to go to college. Of course, it's not the going to college that is the most important part. It's the finishing of college, which entitles the graduate to the piece of paper called a "diploma." They can then apply for jobs as a "college graduate" -- and if challenged, produce a piece of paper that proves their assertion to be true.
Let's forget the vicious circle in all of this for a moment. Why were they willing to obligate themselves to pay back loans of as much as $100,000, $200,000 or more (if going through graduate schools, and depending on their spending while in school)? Because they wanted the diploma. Why did they want the diploma? So they could get a job that paid more money (a triumph of hope over experience, which may or may not work out for them). Why did they need a job that paid more money? So they could pay back those student loans.The first complicating irrefutable fact for our Regents universities, is that the education we provide for ever-escalating tuition dollars -- the knowledge, the skills, the exposure to great minds -- can now be obtained by our students, for free, from professors at some of the world's greatest universities. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not asserting free online instruction is the equivalent of what we provide. It's hard to get to know one's professors online in the same way you can on a residential campus (if and when that's possible anywhere). The intellectual and social interaction with other students is different. Especially is this true for those seeking binge drinking opportunities at one of the nation's top-ranked party schools.
In addition to which, those exclusively financial motivations and goals entirely miss the point: the enriching impact of a diverse, broad and deep "liberal arts education" on the quality of one's life. What it enables one to see, hear, and feel is as if one went from silent, two-dimensional, black-and-white photographs to full-color, high definition, video with surround sound -- and holograms of people walking around your room.
But for those who are motivated more by their intellectual curiosity than their desire for "a job," those who have the self-discipline to stick with it, those who can't afford the combined expense (tuition, living and travel expenses, the opportunity cost of four or five years' lost wages) and are disinclined to take on massive debt, a free online college education makes sense.
Phoenix University's enrollment of 300,000 is impressive. But the free operation called Coursera is so popular it now has some 4 million global students (or "courserians," as they call themselves), choosing from 400 courses taught by professors at over 70 top universities around the world. To pick a handful of the U.S. schools, the list includes Cal Tech, Chicago, Columbia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Yale.
The story behind the Kahn Academy is delightful. A hedgefund manager, Salman Kahn, in Boston, started tutoring his cousins, in New Orleans, with online math videos he created and uploaded to YouTube. Others started watching and benefitting from his free instruction; more courses were added. By 2011 (when there were a mere 2200 videos) he was telling his TED Talks audience that there were a million users a month downloading 100,000 to 200,000 videos a day. Presumably, with today's 4200 videos, there are even more students and downloads. Rather than describe it further, I'll just provide that TED talk, below -- already downloaded 2.5 million times. (Incidentally, although it's not online college instruction, if you're not familiar with TED ("Technology, Entertainment, Design") you will find TED's free offerings of 15-to-18-minute video presentations a real source of intellectual stimulation.)
Consider for a moment the role of general examinations in our formal, conventional educational establishment. An ACT test score may affect a student's eligibility for admission to college, just as her later GRE score may determine her admission to graduate school. In both instances, a certificate may also be required -- a high school or college diploma. But the exam is, in a way, the equivalent of those certificates -- the substantive evidence of education received, as distinguished from the superficial evidence of a document.
With high school education we go further. Former high school dropouts, without a diploma, who study for and pass the GED (General Educational Development) exam, will usually be thought eligible for jobs requiring a high school education.
In fact, this morning's Press-Citizen reported a GED commencement ceremony. Twenty-one inmates at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center were so honored for their successful educational efforts. "A total of 52 inmates are receiving their General Education Development certificate this summer. All of the men completed coursework at the prison and passed a qualifying exam. The prison GED program is facilitated by Kirkwood Community College." Adam B. Sullivan, "Inmates at IMCC receive GED certificates," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 28, 2013, p. A1.
It used to be that budding lawyers "read law" in a lawyer's office to become qualified to practice. Today, most attend law schools, obtain the required law degree, take a bar review course, and pass a bar exam. But there are still states that do not require a law degree as such (with its $100,000-plus student loan debt). Authorities in those states are more interested in how well their fellow lawyers do on their bar exam than how many hours they sat in a law school classroom.
If you can become a lawyer by taking an exam without going to law school, if you can get the status of a high school graduate by taking an exam without finishing high school, why shouldn't you be able to have the benefits of a college graduate by taking an exam without ever attending college?
Well, you already can, sort of.
Developed by the College Board, the people behind AP and SAT, the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) has been the most widely trusted credit-by-examination program for over 40 years, accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities and administered in over 1,700 test centers.CLEP.
CLEP exams test mastery of college-level material acquired in a variety of ways — through general academic instructions, significant independent study or extracurricular work. CLEP exam-takers include adults just entering or returning to school, military service members and traditional college students.
It's not much of a leap from a GED, bar-exam-only admission to the bar, the GRE exam, and CLEP credits, to a college exam equivalent to the GED -- pass the exam and your accomplishment will be recognized by graduate institutions and employers as the equivalent of a college diploma. Another source of free college courses, Education Portal, provides a glimpse of that potential future.
And not just the equivalent. Based on the business persons I've talked to about this, one of their main complaints about "college graduates" is the lack of consistent standards for what a college diploma tells them about the job applicant's basic skills. They accept the fact that some on-the-job training will be required for new hires. What they don't accept is the cost of providing college graduates the basic education they should have acquired in high school or college. "All I ask," they say in effect, "is that they can speak and write the English language correctly, read with sufficient care and comprehension to understand the manual, and do the basic math required of everyone in this company. Give me that and I can teach the rest of what they need to know. But without that much it's hopeless."
Given the choice between (a) someone with sufficient passing marks in the credit hours required for a college degree, and (b) someone with the equivalent, in the form of something like CLEP credits, or a good score on some form of a modified GRE exam, those employers I've talked to say they'd prefer the latter. This anecdotal evidence seems supported by a recent study. "A new report based on data collected from approximately 4 million people who were examined for workplace readiness found there are significant skills gaps . . .. The ACT report cautions that relying on indirect measures of skills, such as education level attained, will produce inaccurate results of actual workplace skills preparation." George C. Ford, "ACT research finds workplace skills lacking for in-demand jobs; Results find programs preparing individuals for middle-education jobs are well aligned with the skills jobs demand," The Gazette, July 3, 2013, p. B5. See, "ACT Research Reports on Work Readiness."
Once those certification programs start gaining the momentum we've seen in Coursera, Kahn Academy, and Education Portal, with their millions of students worldwide, the Regents' state universities may actually need far fewer buildings.
And that's why I think Governor Branstad has asked the right question. However, until that day looms larger on Iowa's horizon, I think his answer, his veto, is premature.
For More on This Subject See "From SUI to ACT: Higher Ed's Crumbling Monopoly," January 31, 2010; "Higher Ed: When UI Loses Its Monopoly," February 20, 2010; and the following column from the Press-Citizen.
Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2010, p. A15.
Of all the reports about the challenges confronting higher education's missions, few address the worst-case scenario: the disappearance of universities as we know them. Unfortunately, the scenario has powerful analogies.
• Try 40, not 5-year plans. Over 40 years ago, when libraries had card catalogs, newspapers were printed, and TV only three networks, I predicted "Communications in the Year 2000" (ultimately a chapter in How to Talk Back to Your Television Set) would include "instantaneous, ubiquitous, no-cost access to all information." Today that's the Internet.
• The 99.99 percent-off sale. We're used to 10 percent to 50 percent-off sales. But 99.9 percent? Yet the $1 million computer 40 years ago is today $1,000 or less; 99.9 percent off. So what?
• Broadside blows. So unpredicted competition has caused companies and entire industries to disappear. That's "so what."
Ten years ago Facebook (300 million members), YouTube (20 hours of video uploaded each minute), Wikipedia (3 million articles; 161 language editions) and iPhone (3 billion downloaded applications) didn't exist. [2013 Note: These are 2010 numbers; for instance, by now, June 28, 2013, Facebook has closer to 1 billion users.]
The 4.5 billion smart phones in 200 countries have Internet capabilities. Cell phone networks may become the owners' preferred platform for the Internet.
Musicians no longer need record companies, filmmakers don't need studios, journalists newspapers, or authors publishers. Craig's List is the new classifieds. Amazon the new Sears. Downloaded movies closed video rental stores.
Why do we think our near-$300 billion higher education industry is immune to telecommunications tsunamis?
Forget for-profit Phoenix University. The online content of a Harvard, Yale or MIT undergraduate education is as free as the content of the New York Times. And 250 million Web sites provide the rest of what students need.
If students can learn for free, why pay? Because it's not about learning. It's about degrees. Degrees increase income, and universities control the degrees monopoly.
What if they didn't? Monopolies are fragile and short lived in today's "flat world."
• In 1971, 73 percent of college students wanted a "meaningful philosophy of life." Today, 78 percent identify "wealth" as their goal.
• Parents wonder if there will be enough of that wealth to make the $50,000-to-$200,000 cost of a B.A. plus professional degree a wise investment.
• Employers know a diploma doesn't guarantee basic math and language skills -- and that those skills don't require a diploma.
Southwest Airlines says, "we hire for attitude and train for skills." But as a local Fortune 500 executive told me, "We can't even train employees for skills if they haven't mastered the basics."
Passing the GED exam is high school equivalency. Passing the GRE, not the B.A., is the gateway to graduate school.
What if anyone could take a GRE-type exam, and if they pass have "college equivalency"? A local businessman told me he'd hire them for "college graduate" positions in a New York minute.
Educators are slow to change. Professors started lecturing 1,000 years ago because there were no books. Now, notwithstanding books, we're still lecturing to warm (if inattentive) bodies in lecture halls.
UI had a radio station 100 years ago (9YA); later the first voice AM west of the Mississippi; educational TV in the 1930s. Today those multi-million-dollar assets called WSUI and KSUI might as well be silent for all they're doing to advance the university's mission of engagement with the state's citizens.
Our university is among the nation's best. But we don't have 1,000 years this time. If UI ever loses its monopoly on certification, Marc Moen will be replacing four Pentacrest buildings with high-rise condos.
The certification process may remain in Iowa City, but be based on results of exams from ACT and Pearson, institutions with neither faculty nor students. Self study and certificates, rather than commencement ceremonies and diplomas, could become the passport to good pay for knowledge workers in a global economy.
It couldn't happen? I remember when no one else imagined a $1 million computer could ever sell for $1,000 and become part of a global network.
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains the blog, FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com (where this discussion continues).