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Washington Monthly and Alternet Applauding the Walmart-ization of Higher Ed?

Education Sector and the Wal-mart-ization of Higher Ed

The Washington Monthly (reposted by Alternet????) has a lengthy, horrendous article about the future of higher education, alternating between being a fluff piece for a cheap online course company (StraighterLine) and being an apocalypse piece on the supposed doom of most colleges and universities. It's a long essay, but it's an important read - if only to get a sense of what the beltway non-profit establishment thinks about higher ed.

It's hilariously chock-full of baseless economistic assumptions, profound misunderstandings of universities, and attacks on professors. Let's see:

And while she had a professor, he wasn’t doing much teaching. “He just stands there,” Solvig’s daughter said, while students worked through modules on their own.

- Trashing all of introductory course teaching through use of a single anecdote? Check.

Given the choice between paying many thousands of dollars to a traditional university for the lecture and paying a few hundred to a company like StraighterLine for a service that is more convenient and responsive to their needs, a lot of students are likely to opt for the latter—and the university will have thousands of dollars less to pay for libraries, basketball teams, classical Chinese poetry experts, and everything else.

- Implying that the high cost of higher ed has more to do with "classical Chinese poetry experts" than the explosion of exorbitantly-paid administrators and consultants, or the shrinking share of state financial support? Check. (See Marc Bousquet's work for the real reason for the tuition explosion.)

One of StraighterLine’s original partner colleges was Fort Hays State University, just off I-70 in Hays, Kansas.[...] By early 2009 a Facebook group called “FHSU students against Straighter Line” had sprung up, attracting more than 150 members. [...] The English Department announced its displeasure while a well-known academics’ blog warned of the encroaching “media-software–publishing–E-learning-complex.” Gould was denounced in the Fort Hays student newspaper.
When I spoke with Smith again in June, the whole experience had left him frustrated. “A couple of posts from grad students who’ve never even seen or taken one of the courses pop up on Facebook,” he said, “and North Central [the accreditor] launches an investigation. Meanwhile, there are horror stories about bad teaching at regular universities on”—a popular student feedback site—“and they don’t give it a second look.”

- Casting students and professors who are concerned about their job security and academic freedom as backward-thinkers bullying a poor, unfortunate venture capitalist? Check.

Smith could offer introductory college courses à la carte, at a price that seemed to be missing a digit or two, or three: $99 per month, by subscription. Economics tells us that prices fall to marginal cost in the long run. [...] Which means the day is coming—sooner than many people think—when a great deal of money is going to abruptly melt out of the higher education system, just as it has in scores of other industries that traffic in information that is now far cheaper and more easily accessible than it has ever been before. [...] There is an unstable, treacherous future ahead for institutions that have been comfortable for a long time. Like it or not, that’s the higher education world to come.

- Using groundless economic assumptions to proclaim the inevitable triumph of for-profit edu-farms over universities? Check.

While the article ends on a wistful note about the social good of having the liberal arts university, it's by way of backhanded praise of "quirky small university presses" and "Mughal textile historians," implying that there's a division between Very Serious Studies™ (like business, economics, hard sciences, and trade school subjects) and useless-but-quaint studies (everything else).

Follow the Money

It's important to see exactly from whence the author, Kevin Carey, is coming. Carey is the policy director at Education Sector, an inside-the-beltway think tank. Check out where it gets its money: free-marketeers like The Gates Foundation, CityBridge Foundation, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, and the Rodel Foundation. Education Sector pushes hard for charter schools, rigid performance testing of teachers (with an extra middle finger to teacher unions usually tacked on), standardized testing of students, and the implementation of other market-oriented "reforms" in both K-12 and higher education.

A Better Alternative?

Education Sector isn't the only, and certainly not the first, to endorse the Walmart-ization of higher ed. Back in April we covered Brigham Young professor David Wiley, who is pushing very similar "reform" Kool-Aid.

The funny thing is that it's the introduction of corporate models and thinking into the university that's fueled both the spiraling tuition cost and the perma-temping of faculty (which can result in lackluster 101 courses). Coincidentally enough, that's the same culprit when it comes to newspapers going under, which Carey uses for comparison.

The solution offered by StraighterLine and its ilk seems to be "look at these caricatured subpar offerings of universities: we can give you the same crappy quality, but cheaper!" The actual solution isn't to package online quizzes as "curriculum," but to democratize the university - put it back in the hands of students and faculty. The few truly idiotic expenditures that Carey correctly points out ("vainglorious building projects, money-sucking sports programs") would likely never happen if those at the reins of the university were its actual constituents, instead of being run and overseen by the very class of Wall Street denizens from which Carey eagerly awaits salvation.

Update: I forgot to mention this delightful tidbit:

Ivy League and other elite institutions will be relatively unaffected, because they’re selling a product that’s always scarce and never cheap: prestige. Small liberal arts colleges will also endure, because the traditional model—teachers and students learning together in a four-year idyll—is still the best, and some people will always be willing and able to pay for it.

That's right! The rich kids will get to keep their decent educations - will more than suffice for working class kids, right?


Thanks for writing this piece, I think you've really nailed this one. Walmart U isn't going to do anything for the for-profit education sector. Who is going to pay $40K for a degree from Walmart? And while they claim they will offer low prices, it doesn't matter if you pay $10 or $1000 if what you are buying is worthless - it can never be a good deal. You cannot move from selling shampoo and diapers to higher education - it is completely illogical. It's unfortunate that Walmart's lowly paid employees are probably going to see this as their only option. It remains to be seen if their employees could even afford Walmart's tuition. There are plenty of great options out there for students who need flexibility in an online program and who want a degree that means something to employers. We work with a handful of great online schools who value student input and design challenging curriculum. It's true that many online colleges use adjunct faculty but the best maintain a core of full-time faculty to oversee curriculum and student success strategies. Again thanks for writing about this important issue in higher education!