Sunday, January 31, 2010

From SUI to ACT: Higher Ed's Crumbling Monopoly

January 31, 2010, 9:20 a.m.

Universities Yesterday and Tomorrow
For universities today, and more, see the bottom of this blog entry
(brought to you by*)

There are probably thousands of reports on the challenges confronting higher education, their missions, their five-year plans. From my perspective each challenge has a solution.

But few academics address the worst case scenario: the disappearance of universities as we know them. That challenge also has a solution. Unfortunately, it also has powerful analogies.

Try 40, not 5-year plans. Over 40 years ago, in an environment of libraries’ card catalogs, paper newspapers, and three TV 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 it's here. We call it the Internet.

The 99.99%-off sale. We’re used to January's 10% to 50%-off sales. But 99.9% off? The computational capacity you could buy for $1 million 40 years ago -- but would have been far too heavy to lift -- today's students now have delivered by UPS, carry in backpacks, and costs them $1000 (or less). The 99.9%-off sale. So what, you ask?

Broadside blows. So companies, even entire industries, have disappeared or struggle against formerly unpredictable competition. All the rules have changed – and at an accelerating rate of change. 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.

With 4.5 billion cell phones in over 200 countries, and smart phones’ Internet capabilities, cell phone networks are rapidly becoming the platform, the pathway to the new Internet. The cable TV and landline phone companies, and the Wi-Fi systems they feed, may feel the same kind of broadside blow out of nowhere from which the newspaper industry is now trying to recover.

Musicians and their fans no longer need “record companies,” film makers don’t need “studios,” journalists “newspapers,” or authors “publishers.” All can go directly to the Internet. 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 industry called higher education is immune to such telecommunications tsunamis?

Just as the online content of the New York Times is available for free, so is the online content of an undergraduate education. Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton make courses available online for free. The near-250 million additional Web sites provide the rest of what students need.

Is the "college education" a student can get off the Internet "the same" or "as good as" what can be obtained by sitting in a college classroom or lecture hall for 1800 hours (120 credits times 15 weeks each)? Probably not. Though I would say, "it depends."

Faculty can inspire, excite, encourage and direct students who want to learn. And that makes a difference, often a big difference in an occasional student's life. But no one can "teach" someone else, particularly someone who is not all that enthusiastic about learning in the first place. "You can lead a horse to water . . .."

With "public" universities' tuition closing the gap with that of Ivy League colleges, it is not that unusual for the total cost of an undergraduate and graduate education to cost on the order of $200,000 or more (tuition is only a part of that total), whether the parents saved for it, pay for it, or the student borrows for it. (Of course, the cost is even greater if the opportunity cost -- what could have been earned in the marketplace during those four-to-eight years, but wasn't -- is factored in.)

Thus, even if the gains from sitting in that classroom (offset by the losses from binge drinking and other temptations and time wasters) exceeds the value of obtaining that education on one's own, is the incremental value worth the $200,000 or more?

And if the answer to that question is not immediately obvious, it leads us to the next question: Why, then, would anyone lay out that kind of money just to learn stuff?

The answer, of course, is that they would not. Not when you can learn stuff for free. So why are they paying; what are they getting for that money?

They are paying the money to obtain the certification that they are a "college graduate," as they go into an economy that rewards that certification with higher pay.

If that's the primary goal, why don't they go elsewhere to get the certification? Because accredited colleges and universities are the only institutions licensed to print those certificates. (Paying $200, a much lesser amount (another 99.9%-off sale?), for the printing of the fake driver's license necessary for the illegal consumption of alcohol near campus is one thing. But lying about one's "college graduate" certification, or obtaining and framing a counterfeit degree, tend to be viewed as a much more serious offense in the workplace.)

Higher education's hold on parents' and students' wallets comes from the monopoly those institutions hold on the granting of degrees, and the resulting "medallion value" those diplomas possess.

Do you see how fragile that monopoly can be in our digitized, globalized world that Tom Friedman tells us is now flat?

If newspapers and book companies are discovering that writers can go directly to the global market that is the Internet without passing through their editors, if "record companies" find that musicians can do the same (with either samples or whole tracks for free or for sale), if video rental stores are boarded up while their customers download movies, why do we think higher education will forever hold a monopoly on "college" certification?

And what if we didn't?

• In 1971 73% of college students said it was “essential or very important” to have a “meaningful philosophy of life.” Today 78% identify “wealth” as their goal, and “business” is the most popular major.

• Parents understandably wonder about the value of a college degree that may cost $200K or more.

• Firms that seek self-starting, creative knowledge workers recognize the value of the equivalent of a liberal arts education. They also know a diploma doesn’t even guarantee the basic math and language skills the firm needs in its employees -– and that those skills don’t require a diploma.

Business doesn’t want “majors;” it wants employees with those basic skills. Southwest Airlines says, “we hire for attitude and train for skills.” But as the executive of a local Fortune 500 told me, “We can’t even train employees for skills if they haven’t mastered the basics.”

Passing the GED exam is treated as a high school equivalency. Passing the GRE exam qualifies a student for graduate school.

What if those who could pass a standardized exam were recognized as even better than college graduates (because of the rigorous language and math components)? A local business person told me he’d hire them for “college graduate” positions in a New York minute. He wants to know what they can do, their willingness to work and sense of responsibility, and what time management and social skills they have -- not what grades they got or how many initials they're legally entitled to put after their names.

Educators are slow to change. Professors started lecturing 1000 years ago because there were no books. Now, notwithstanding books, we’re still lecturing to warm (if often inattentive) bodies in lecture halls.

We don’t have 1000 years this time. If the 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 announced by ACT and Pearson, institutions with neither faculty nor students, certifying those qualified for employment as knowledge workers in a global economy.

If we ever transform what was once SUI into ACT, the certificate ACT awards to a University of Phoenix graduate will be the full equivalent of the diploma we give a UI graduate -- or the certificate a dedicated student obtains without assistance from either institution.

It couldn’t happen? I remember when no one else imagined a $1 million computer could ever sell for $1000 and become part of a global network.


More . . .

Today's blog entry is deliberately kept short enough to make it an easy read.

But because there were a lot of other thoughts running through my mind while writing it, I thought I'd simply append some of them here, rather than embedding them above.

Jim Stroud. As a young kid, there are some of your parents' friends you connect with and really like. Jim Stroud -- faculty member, neighbor, and family friend -- was one of those for me. I thought he looked like Mark Twain. He may have actually been from Missouri, I don't know. He had the moustache, smoked a pipe, wore tweed coats, had a bit of a twang and a great sense of humor. He and Dad claimed to be Swedish cousins, though I don't think they ever really documented that. They both worked at writing amusing "laws." As a sample, one of Dad's was, "What else is there to scratch but the surface?" One of Jim's was, "I'd rather walk down one dry road than ten muddy roads." Maybe you had to be there. (Actually, he lived at the top of the hill that is now "Greenwood," and was then sometimes a muddy road.) Since they had geese up there, I assume they must have been the donors of my sister, Kate's, goose "Blimp."

I am literally a child of the University of Iowa: born it its then-new hospital on the west side of the River, part of the Iowa Child Welfare Research Clinic's two-, three-, and four-year-old groups (then at 9 East Market Street), and a student at (and ultimately graduate of) the College of Education's "University Elementary and High School" (Class of 1952), now simply "North Hall."

As such, we were the guinea pigs for a great variety of educational testing and doctoral dissertations. And one of those experiments was Jim Stroud's, and the world's, very early efforts at "speed reading."

As he traveled around the State of Iowa, trying to sell school districts on the idea of trying it, he was often confronted with the argument, "But if they read that fast they won't learn and remember the material." (Truth is, you often learn and remember it better.) Jim's response was, "Well, I figure if it takes 'em two hours to read their homework assignment now, and they don't understand it, and I can show 'em how they can read it in 45 minutes, and they still don't understand it, well, shucks, I've done 'em a favor."

That's kind of my reaction to the opposition to kids studying on their own from an organized curriculum available off the Internet at no cost to themselves. "Well, I figure if it takes 'em five years in college to get a four-year degree for $200,000 now, and they don't learn all that much in the process, and I can show 'em how they can get the equivalent "college" certificate by studying on the Internet, for free, and they still don't learn all that much, well, shucks, I've done 'em a $200,000 favor."

Certificates. There's an enormous amont of online education, training and certification going on now -- and that's before taking into account the increasing number of students (both on and off campuses) who are picking up academic credit for online courses from their own institution or others. The military has online courses and training, including college credits. Microsoft offers a number of certification programs online, qualifying those who "pass" with levels of expertise in various computer science specialties. Human subjects researchers are now required by the NIH to take an online training program regarding human subjects research ethics before receiving grants.

In fact, even teachers get "certification" as well as, or without the need for, formal "college" credits:

"West High journalism teacher Sara Whittaker has achieved Certified Journalism Educator status from the Journalism Education Association. To earn the certification, a teacher must earn college credit in news reporting and writing, communications law and publications advising, or pass an examination that demonstrates their proficiency in those areas." "Teacher Earns Certification," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 1, 2010.

How can educators possibly argue that they can demonstrate proof of skills and professional advancement through certification without formal classes, but it is somehow inappropriate for students to do so?

Indeed, the University of Iowa is already offering online courses, instruction, training and certification, e.g., "UI Learning and Development/E-Learning." That's not really an answer to the potential "broadside blow" if higher education loses its certification monopoly, but it is an illustration of the fact that -- like the newspapers that gave away their content online and then came to regret it -- universities are certainly capable of offering education without buildings.

A couple days ago I met a woman, married with four kids, probably in her late thirties, who never finished college, but still has dreams of someday attending law school. Given the childhood she endured, no one could have predicted the success she has achieved in her chosen line of work. She has over the years put herself through every relevant certification program that relates to her job, and now has more initials after her name than your average Nobel Prize winner. I have absolutely no doubt that if a free, online route to certificate of "college equivalency" and "law degree" were available to her she would pursue them. And I suspect that, as extraordinary as she is, there are probably more like her out there, and that we are all poorer as a nation for not making that path possible for them.

The legal profession's "certification" approach. Ironically, the ability to practice law -- the study of which in universities is a graduate program on top of an earned undergraduate degree -- is controlled with a certification process in many ways unrelated to academic institutions: the "bar examination."

Admittedly, most lawyers attend, and graduate from, law schools before taking a bar exam. But there are still states and circumstances where that is not required. (I have not independently researched this, but this Web page cites as its source "Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2004," published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners and American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.)

And, like most professions, there is a kind of ongoing certification process called "continuing legal education" that requires practicing lawyers to earn a minimum number of "CLE credits" each year to maintain their "active" status and continue to practice law. Increasingly, these programs are offered online. (Although my bar membership can be maintained as "inactive status" because I'm not actually practicing law and taking clients, I "sat in" -- meaning, "in" front of my computer screen -- this past week, for an hour-long, online exploration of the use of trademarks on the Internet that would have provided me CLE credits had I needed them. It was a "class" offered, not incidentally, by a law firm not a law school.)

If we can select those who will be our nation's lawyers with online training, and a certification process unrelated to the academy as such, it's unclear why it would be impossible to do the equivalent for a basic college "certificate."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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Anonymous said...

Very good article. When the ACT graduates outshine the Harvard ones the shift will be all but history.

Nick said...

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