Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Ouster of President Teresa Sullivan and the Distance Learning Fetish

Apparently Believed That Students and Professors Should Occupy the Same Classroom

Not So Sure

On Sunday Charlottesville was rocked by news that UVA's Board of Visitors had removed recently- appointed President Teresa Sullivan (pictured above) long before the expiration of her contract.  UVa's Rector, Helen Dragas (also pictured above), issued a statement to the University's Deans and Vice Presidents explaining the Board's decision.  Among other things, the statement included the following sentence:

"We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions."

Some, including Carter Eskew of the Washington Post, are claiming that the Board's decision to oust President Sullivan "has deeper implications for universities and colleges across the country."  In particular, Eskew notes that "information is almost universally accessible" and that schools like MIT are now offering courses online "for free."  He also opines that:

"[U]niversities are facing the same revolution that transformed the music and newspaper businesses— indeed, all the content businesses, of which they are a part." 

At the same time, Eskew notes that Google is no substitute for "the complex social and intellectual transactions that take place in college" and concludes without offering much a prediction, as follows: 

"This will take a while to all shake out, but in the meantime prepare for more shake-ups."

If Eskew is correct, then UVA's bipartisan Board is the latest to join the bipartisan chorus calling on colleges and universities to jettison traditional courses involving live instruction in favor of distance learning, all in the name of increasing academic productivity and increasing access to higher education.  (See this joint Op-ed by Jeb Bush and Jim Hunt).

This blogger, an educator for 17 years, believes that the case for more distance learning at  UVA, one of Virginia's two "Public Ivies," is weak at best.

To be sure, reliance on more digitally-driven "distance learning" could reduce the cost of providing a college education at UVA or anywhere else.  Instead of attending class and interacting with professors inside and outside the classroom, students in Virginia, Oregon or China could watch videos of professors delivering lectures.   Students with questions about the material could contact their professors by e-mail instead of asking such question during class or after class.  In this way, a school could spread the cost of a particular class, say, Introduction to Psychology, among numerous students and thus reduce the cost per student of offering that class.

However, "cost" is only part of the equation determining an institution's productivity and thus value to students and the rest of society.  One also has to examine the quality of the output produced.  Right now, the market seems to be telling us that UVA is providing its students with tremendous value at a reasonable price, thereby indicating that the current model is not broken.

UVA participates in a highly competitive market for potential students.  These potential students have access to a variety of sources of information about the price of various colleges and the type of education they offer.  If other schools offered the same value for a lower price, or a better product that justified a higher price, potential students would flock to those schools, to the detriment of UVA.  For instance, if students believed that MIT's free, not-for-credit online courses provided more value (net of cost) than the traditional courses provided by UVA, they would presumably take such courses from home, perhaps in their parents' basement, instead of applying to and attending traditional universities like UVA.  Or, students could take online courses at degree-granting universities such as the University of Phoenix.

There is, however, no indication that UVA is overpriced for the value it provides or that potential UVA students are forsaking UVA for other institutions with greater "online" content.  On the contrary, in-state tuition at UVA, ranked 25th in the United States by U.S. News and World Report, will be $12,006 in 2012-2013.  (Of course, students will also have to pay room and board, a cost they would have to incur whether or not they chose to attend college.)  Moreover, many attending UVA will pay far less than this sticker price because of generous financial aid.   Indeed, students from families earning $75,000 or less will pay nothing at all for tuition, fees and room and board, that is, will attend UVA for free.  Schools with similar rankings in US News and World report charge far more:  Wake Forest (tied for 25th), Tufts (29th), and Boston College (31st) all charge between $41,000 and $43,000 per year.  (Of course these schools also provide financial some, with the result that some students pay less than the sticker price.)

Indeed, this year, UVA received over 28,000 applications from around the nation and the world to enroll in its 2012 entering class of fewer than 3,500, an 18 percent increase in applications over the previous year.    As a result, the school enrolled what it calls its strongest entering class ever.  Thousands of Virginians are clamoring to attend UVA, and most are happy to pay the full in-state price to do so.  Thousands more Americans from other states apply each year as well, despite an out-of-state price tag about three times that paid by Virginians.   International students are jumping on the bandwagon as well; applications to UVA by such students rose by 23 percent this most recent year.  
The higher education market does not seem to be punishing schools, like the University of Virginia, that embrace the traditional model of delivering academic content.  On the contrary, marketplace consumers, including an increasing number of international consumers, appear to be embracing the product that UVA currently provides, at a price for most students that is well below that charged by many peer schools.  The choices made by international students seem particularly noteworthy.  As William Bennett explained in a recent essay on CNN.com, more and more Chinese students are "flocking to American universities," travelling over 10,000 miles and enduring separation from friends and family to obtain an American college education they could receive via "distance learning" provided by the elite institutions mentioned by Rector Dragas.      If in fact digital delivery of academic content would improve the overall value that UVA provides, then someone forgot to tell American (and Chinese) consumers.