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Why can’t a university education be sold cheaper?

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | March 11, 2010

That, for me, is the question that all of us who are faculty at Berkeley– and colleagues across the country– are most obviously avoiding, and most deeply dreading. And it is time for us to answer that question because until we do, any argument we make for changes in how the state supports the university, whether through new taxes (like the suggestion for a new oil severance tax) or some sort of automatic proportion of budget resources (like Governer Schwarzenegger’s proposal to lock in funding levels for higher education), is missing a critical piece.

President Obama’s State of the Union speech this January called for better support for college access. But he also included the following statement:

And by the way, it’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs -– (applause) — because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem.

Former President Bill Clinton said something similar last September, remarking that

higher education institutions are pricing themselves into America’s decline

and that we will

have to change the delivery system in higher education.

So is this true? and if so, what does it mean for those of us in university systems?

First, let’s consider what talking about education as something with a “delivery system” means: that we can treat education like a commodity. Thus the title of this post: why can’t an education be “sold” for less? Or to paraphrase a number of other discussions about higher education, how can we be more “efficient” in “delivery” (there’s that word again) of a college education?

If efficiency in delivery of an education product is the point, well, of course there is a more efficient delivery method. University of Phoenix has been aggressively pursuing it, to apparent success.

So, what do I do that my students cannot get for less money– and in a more convenient package– elsewhere? Why shouldn’t they– and their parents, and the state legislature– ask me to be more efficient and deliver a competitively priced product?

To directly confront these or similar questions, we have to start by rejecting what has come to be the dominant model of higher education in this country. Education is not a product; it is not something we “deliver”; it cannot be treated like a commodity.

Education is a process, one that takes place in the mind of the learner. In a university, this comes about as a result of experiences orchestrated by more advanced learners, the apprentice teachers who are themselves simultaneously graduate students, and the practicing teachers who base their teaching in their own research. Universities don’t deliver an educational product: they promote the creation of knowledge by students.

And that is not a process that is enhanced by streamlining or efficiencies. Learning is inherently inefficient.

When I enter a classroom prepared to ask some provocative questions about readings I selected because they would require students to think, I am not taking the shortest, simplest route that I could. That route– packaging and delivering an “education”– would instead have me come in, lecture, post handouts corresponding in every detail to what I planned to say– which would be what I actually did say, no deviation to explore student questions– and then administer tests to see how well students could recapitulate what it was I said.

That kind of “teaching” might easily be scaled up to ever-larger numbers of students, first by building bigger classrooms with better sound systems, and then by videotaping, audiotaping, and posting the content of my lectures. But the people-products of such an effort would not have learned much. They might be very good at reproducing some of what I said, especially if they were asked about it in the same way I originally presented it. But asked to apply what they learned to a novel situation I never talked about, they would be unprepared to find points of connection to use what they knew to explain the new case. If the “product” we are being asked to deliver is workers, well, the workers such a system would produce would be rigid and incapable of adapting, unused to creativity.

Because I see the education-as-product model as fundamentally at odds with the learning-as-process one, I am uneasy when well-intentioned commentators on higher education suggest our problem is that we need to be more “efficient”. I am suspicious of policy initiatives that suggest the solution to our problem is to expand what they imagine are more efficient alternatives, like community colleges, to process more of the pending generation of potential college students. Such policy pronouncements do not acknowledge that community colleges in places like California actually promote learning in the same “inefficient” ways we do in universities, sometimes in classes much smaller (and therefore more costly in labor on a per capita basis) than those we routinely face in public universities. So what makes expanding community colleges seem like such a panacea for policymakers?

This gets us, finally, close to acknowledging unstated assumptions behind the claim that universities need to deliver a more efficient, cheaper education product. The only way I can see community colleges seeming to be more “efficient” to a politician is if the measure of what I do is the number of courses I teach.

University faculty teach fewer courses over a term than our brothers and sisters in other institutions of higher education. I gasp when I hear the teaching loads some of my friends carry at Cal State campuses, or that recent PhDs face at community colleges. I barely can keep up with the students in my two required courses, my voluntary overload freshman seminar, the two senior honors’ theses I am supervising, the dozen Undergraduate Research Apprentices whose work I foster, my two dissertation writers, one pre-dissertation student deeply involved in data analysis, and something like a dozen more graduate students actively writing, whose dissertation committees I am on in my own and other departments.

And of course, all that is the answer to the accusation that we do not deliver education efficiently. No, we don’t. And thank god for that.

I regularly meet one-on-one with students from undergraduate to finishing doctoral level to go over their research, read their writing, discuss books and articles, strategize which conferences they should go to, what grants to apply for to fund their research, their conferences, their summer working in labs or field sites. This is incredibly inefficient. It is, however, indispensable to introduce students to the process of research in the most effective way, as apprentices, participants learning at an appropriate pace and challenged at an appropriate level.

Research, of course, can be viewed in the educational industry model as another source of inefficiency, detracting from the number of courses I could teach, an activity that is somehow solely personal, thoroughly dispensable, and unrelated to the quality of the education my students receive.

And of course, I reject this as well. Research and teaching are not at odds; they are interlocked parts of a single cycle of producing knowledge. My students get to be part of the birth of every new idea I develop. And I don’t just mean they witness this process: they contribute to it. When I lecture, I draw on my own research for examples, for case studies, to explain the kinds of things I am talking about. And the students with whom I am engaged ask questions I simply won’t think of, can no longer see because I am so close to my own work. To answer those questions, I need to hone my arguments, critically evaluate the evidence I use, constantly question what makes an argument better or worse.

In the process, my students learn how to question any argument, any line of research, and become educated thinkers. If we no longer need people who have the tools to attack a new question, take it apart, analyze it, and put together a new model that accounts for it and the already-existing questions, then by all means, ask universities to cut the costs consequent on fostering active learning and address the inefficiencies of conducting research in tandem with teaching. But don’t expect us to continue to be as vibrant a source of ideas as we have historically been, and don’t expect the students we teach to have the same capacities that they develop now.

We need to stop applying corporate models to higher education. If we want– as we should– to have all capable citizens have the opportunity to exercise their minds in debate, to engage in the kind of inquiry that characterizes research, and to have the experience of developing a new line of argument, then we cannot short-circuit the process of learning. We’ve already short-changed learning at public universities across the country, where trash is no longer collected regularly, phones are not available, and paper for exams has to be provided by the students taking them.

The fact that the members of these communities of learning– ideally, more like monasteries than factories– are finally speaking out should be met, not with the cynical zero-sum game arguments that are being trotted out in California and elsewhere, but with a re-commitment on the part of the public to the idea that education is an investment by all of us in all of us. It is an investment that requires resources: but one that will be repaid sevenfold.