As the din of construction shakes buildings, cancels sporting activities, and leaves classrooms reeking of diesel fumes; as meetings are held, reports are written, and counsels are kept, faculty – those who perform what used to be considered the main work of the college – wonder, where are we headed?
In his Fall colloquium, Dr. Larson raised two comparisons that left many of us puzzled – and troubled: University of Phoenix and Walmart. Apparently these institutions have blazed the trail the administration would like OCC to follow.
Let’s consider each in turn to see what they stand for and thus what awaits us.
Most recently, U of Phoenix stands for falling enrollments and federal investigations. A 2012 New York Times article on the closing of 50% of their campuses and years of declining enrollment cited “a steady drumroll of negative publicity about the sector’s recruiting abuses, low graduation rates and high default rates” (Lewin). More recently, enrollments have continued to decline and the University is under investigation by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Inspector General for questionable “marketing, student recruiting, academic grading, and other matters” (Blumenstyk). I’m not sure what in this mixture we should emulate. Yes, they’re one of the largest universities in America, but with a 2012 marketing budget of $663 million (figure for Apollo Group – U of Phoenix represents 90% of their holdings) I’m not sure we’re ready to compete. OCC’s 2012 projected operating budget was $57,835,197. Again, that’s the total operating budget, which is dwarfed by Phoenix’s marketing budget.
Walmart? It’s probably best known as a receiver of the fruits of sweatshop labor; a warehouse of cheap consumer goods from China; a company known for low pay and poor customer service – and blue vests.
Are these really models for a publically funded community college? Should we emulate these institutions?
It seems that in their rush to embrace the disruption mania currently sweeping higher ed management, they have forgotten a simple lesson: you can’t compare apples to orangutans. OCC is never going to be a world-wide profit oriented diploma mill (a la’ Phoenix): nor, given our mission of providing an education to the citizens of Ocean County, should it. Nor can education be put in a box, labeled with a bar code and purchased as a commodity (a la’ Walmart). This confuses education with retail transactions. If this were the case, faculty should just stand behind cash registers instead of in front of classrooms while we take students’ orders: “I’d like an algebra, composition, and US labor history – and make it snappy, I ain’t got all day!” Why should we bother with the trouble, time, and stress of preparing relevant lessons, providing feedback on work, and then assessing it with an eye for improvement? Just hand over two pieces of paper: a diploma and a receipt.
It seems that the administration has become enamored with the dream of a Phoenix rising from the Jersey shore and beckoning to students from around the world with a digital wonderworld of lowered standards and lockstep education (it worked so well in K-12, why stop there?). Or they have been lured by the siren fluorescent hum of big box academics. In both of these formulations, students are just customers and education is just a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder at the lowest cost. And this cost can be startlingly low. A senate report noted that “Apollo spent $892 per student on instruction in 2009, compared to $2,225 per student on marketing, and $2,535 per student on profit” (“For Profit” 289).
What do you get for that kind of money? An overworked and ill paid adjunct working in a constrained, canned course environment designed not for intellectual stimulation but to make assessment quantifiable: certification instead of education. But don’t take my word for it; Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers – in other words, an administrator’s administrator – calls outfits like U of Phoenix “basically marketing machines. They’re not really educational providers. In an earlier time, they’d be selling Bibles door-to-door, vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Today, because of the availability of federal money [. . . ] they now peddle so-called education” (qtd. in Yeoman).
Looking to U of Phoenix and Walmart for direction masks the complexities of higher education. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, labels this kind of thinking an “affect heuristic.” Such an approach takes something complex and multifaceted – in our case higher education – and “simplifies” it “by creating a world that is much tidier than reality. Good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy.” He adds that “In the real world, of course, we often face painful tradeoffs between benefits and costs.” That’s what’s missing in the campus discourse on change. What is the advantage of change? What are the tradeoffs? Whither are we bound?
In the rush to standardize and commodify a college, education, in all its wooly headed muss and glory, is lost. Instead of looking outside the college for direction, we need to support faculty, providing them with the confidence and stability they need to ensure that our students gain the basics of a college education (see Bess and others from the last posting for the scholarship supporting this). Just what are these basics? The cognitive scientist/linguist Stephen Pinker argues that, upon graduation, students should be able
to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.
This is the true mission of any college, not some inchoate desire to follow the lead of a failing online college or a regressive retail chain. We should teach students to recognize that higher education is not about marketing or products but about the exchange of information and knowledge – and the resulting intellectual growth – that’s developed in the classroom and on the page. In fact, instead of holding up U of Phoenix and Walmart as models to be emulated, we should look at them critically, questioning the “unexamined conventional wisdom” of their supposed success. That, after all, is what colleges are supposed to do.
Bess, James L. “Contract Systems, Bureaucracies, and Faculty Motivation: The Probable Effects of a No-Tenure Policy.” The Journal of Higher Education 69.1 (1998): 1-22. JSTOR. Web. 13 June 2014.
Blumenstyk, Goldie. “U. of Phoenix Chooses Michigan’s CFO as Its New President.” Chronicle of Higher Education 2 April 2014. Web. 16 October 2014.
U.S. Senate. For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success. 112th Cong. 2nd sess. S. Prt. 112-37, Vol. 2. Washington D. C.: GPO, 2012. GPO. U.S. Government Printing Office. Web. 21 October 2014.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Kindle file.
Lewin, Tamar. “University of Phoenix to Shutter 115 Locations.” Chronicle of Higher Education 17 October 2012. Web. 16 October 2014.
Pinker, Steven. “The Trouble with Harvard.” New Republic. n.d. Web. 2 October 2014.
Yeoman, Barry. “The High Price of For-Profit Colleges.” Academe. May/June 2011. Web. 21 October 2014.