Dean Dad

Meet Dean Dad. His blog is called "Confessions of a Community College Dean..."

In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990's moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

It's my favorite new read. Here is today's entry:

The kind of payment gimmicks that used to be restricted to the appliance or pocket fisherman biz are finding their way into higher education.

Last week, Union College (KY) announced that it would allow students to take their last semester for free if they got good grades and engaged in campus life. The idea was to offer a tangible reward for sticking around and doing well.

This week, Cleveland State, Florida International, Lamar and Utah State Universities and the Universities of Arkansas, Cincinnati, Texas at Arlington and West Florida agreed to offer a first course free in the MOOC format, as a way of enticing students to stick around after the freebie is done.

Dean Dad is open to these ideas. But worried nonetheless.

Admittedly, it’s a little jarring to hear “the first one is free” coming from people who sell intellectual growth rather than, say, crystal meth. But there’s no principled reason that the “loss leader” model couldn’t work for colleges too.

My fear is that we’re inadvertently replaying the old airline model from the 1970’s. When fares were regulated, airlines competed on amenities. When price competition became viable, a sort of race to the bottom ensued; now airlines compete almost entirely on price (and hidden fees), and they pass the savings on to you by making flying as unpleasant as humanly possible. Any pretense of luxury is long gone; now you’re lucky to get a bag of peanuts, and legroom for anyone over about five foot ten is a distant dream.

That’s not entirely bad, except for the legroom. Flights are usually pretty brief, in the grand scheme of things, and some brief unpleasantness may be a fair trade for a lower price. If you get from point A to point B safely and affordably, the flight has done what it set out to do; you can accept the take-off-your-shoes ritual as a cost of doing business.

But college isn’t like that, and shouldn’t be. Real education takes time and investment. I don’t think our current methods are the only possible methods, heaven knows, but

Read the whole thing here.

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I don't this world, except through the lens of our high school grads.

The airline analogy is provocative. A flight is a commodity, and perhaps an online course in Econ 101 will become a commodity too. After 1978 the airlines had some major problems with their labor unions, and that is probably in store with college faculty. Airline price per mile in real terms is less than HALF of what it was in 1978; I think college prices will tumble as well, except in the elite universities, where it'll continue to rocket upwards.

But the overall university experience potentially has far, far more variation than an airline trip. Other professional services are organized around personal attention from a human being who a) seems to care about you, and b) seems to know what he's talking about. So while some college courses become commoditized, what people will pay for is personal attention.

What's the low-hanging fruit? Blow up the conventional notion of professor/instructor office hours. It's mostly faux access and everyone knows it. Professors get more grade grubbers than legit inquiry. The rules of engagement aren't clear to either side. Am I unfairly using up the resource if I drop by each week to converse with my poli sci professor about our readings for 30 minutes? What about current politics? Or should I limit myself to a once in a while visit for a technical clarification only?

What to do instead? Reinvent access to professors (and effective grad students) with a default where each student gets personal attention in some type of structured way. Have both student and instructor rate every interaction, and work to systematically increase value to both sides.

Where will that professor 1-on-1 time come from? One way is reducing research requirements for faculty. This causes damage in some ways, and actually helps in other ways (third rate scholarly journals already teetering can finally die). The other idea is making more adjuncts full-timers -- those that are the best from the point of view of students -- and then slicing away at administrative bloat.