Should We Be Outsourcing Public Higher Education in California?

by on March 18, 2013 · 12 comments

in Columns, Editor's Picks, Education, Encore, Government, Politics, Under the Perfect Sun

…suggesting we drop existing standards for the wild west of market based online education will do for education what deregulation did for banks and the stock market.  

mooc1Last week State Senator Darrell Steinberg proposed what he thinks of as a bold new way to reshape higher education in California and to deal with the bottleneck of students who have trouble getting into “gateway” classes in our community colleges and universities.  What is Steinberg’s answer to our access ills?  Sadly, it is outsourcing higher education to the corporate interests who have long been aggressively lobbying to get a piece of the publically funded pie that is California’s public education system.

As Jon Wiener recently put it in The Nation :

“Here’s how California treats its public colleges and universities: first, cut public funds, and thus classes; then wait for over-enrollment, as students are unable to get the classes they need to graduate; finally, shift classes online, for profit. That’s the way Laila Lalami, UC Riverside creative writing professor, explained it in a recent tweet, and that’s pretty much the whole story behind the bill introduced this week by the Democratic leader of the state senate, Darrell Steinberg. His bill mooc2Despite Steinberg’s claim that the bill’s inclusion of a “panel of California faculty” to approve which courses will be outsourced constitutes “consultation,” the truth is that his proposal would gut all existing shared governance and curriculum policies and represents a dangerous trend toward the micromanaging of higher education policy by Sacramento.

There are several fundamental problems with mandating that colleges bypass their normal curricular processes and outsource gateway courses for undergraduates to private entities:

1. This opens the door to wide-scale privatization of public higher education by turning public institutions into conduits for private profit. Specifically Coursera, Ed X, StraighterLine, and Udacity are the foxes being let into the henhouse.  The kinds of deals that universities can expect from them are not good, with public institutions receiving a paltry 6-15% of the profit gained by turning their students into commodities.  College students are not lining up to demand this fine opportunity, but Wall Street investors surely are as they see the education sector as the next big thing.

2. We need to preserve the quality of public education by maintaining our rigorous standards for the development of curriculum, preparation for teaching in new modalities, and the process of establishing which courses should be awarded credit.

Those who ignorantly use the model of the oversized lecture hall as a punching bag to demean face-to-face public education are holding up worst practices as a stand-in for the norm.  This does a disservice both to the truth and to the cause of quality higher education.

In the 24 years that I have been teaching in state and community colleges, I have never once taught a course with over 35 students and never once stood in front of a room lecturing students with no interaction.  This is not the norm for most of my colleagues either.

Indeed, those faculty I know who do teach the large lectures would all prefer smaller courses, but the economics of education are pushing us in the other direction at our four-year schools.

We should be fighting to save small face-to-face AND rigorous smaller online courses with quality interaction between faculty and students.  It’s more expensive but it is far more effective pedagogy.  Period.

Bashing higher education for problems caused by austerity and then suggesting we drop existing standards for the wild west of market based online education will do for education what deregulation did for banks and the stock market.  It’s a fool’s errand.

3. As the Legislative Analysts’ Office and recent large-scale studies have shown, completion rates are substantially lower in online courses than in face-to-face community college courses and online courses exacerbate the ethnic minority performance gap.  So despite the noble seeming rhetoric of “access” the push toward online will hurt our most vulnerable students and make it LESS likely that they finish their educations.  Specifically, in the case of MOOCs, the dropout rate is about 90%.

Those who like to dress up their education reform talk with civil rights rhetoric are deeply hypocritical here.  Rather than pushing for equal access to high quality, affordable higher education they are ensuring the continued two-tiering of American education and society.  If your kid is hungry for higher education, like postmodern versions of Marie Antoinette, they say, “Let them take MOOCs.”

4. MOOCs are of particular concern, thus we need to establish a solid process for monitoring and accountability since a vast majority of students fail to complete these courses. Such a system does not yet exist for institutions of public higher education.  Therefore the potential for problems with MOOCs is endless.

5. This political push to legislate curriculum represents a step away from the essential task of determining how to fund public higher education with a dependable revenue source into the future.  MOOCs especially represent a false promise of cost savings and efficiency that will cheapen education rather than making it more affordable.

Those who hold up the student debt crisis as the compelling reason to open the floodgates of privatization are again using the problems created by disinvestment in education and austerity to advocate for policies that will benefit the very same interests who helped dig the hole that we are in as a result of their greed.

Keep in mind, it’s not students pushing for these policies, it’s Wall Street and the corporate interests that see education as the next frontier for profiteering.  Want to understand who’s really driving education “reform” and seeking to “disrupt” the status quo?  Follow the money.

To make schools affordable again means funding them not on the backs of students but from the pockets of the affluent and the corporate interests who are now seeking to profit from public education at the expense of our young people.

mooc3Over the last thirty years the funding of higher education has been dramatically shifted from the wealthy and corporations whose taxes are still at historic lows to the pockets of working and middle class students who are asked to pay more and more so the 1% do not have to sacrifice.  Proposition 30 should be seen as the start not the end of our re-investment in higher education.

While it is clear that Steinberg’s bill is being sold with the language of improved access, there is no evidence to suggest it will achieve this goal for the students who most need it.  Indeed, it is far more likely that those who will gain access to our systems of public higher education will be the corporations that benefit from the shift of public dollars into their coffers.

The answer to the access question is not mandating whole-scale transformation and outsourcing of our curriculum, but to restore higher education funding for the long term.  Such a move will indeed require political courage on the part of the governor and the majority leadership in the state legislature, but it is essential if we are to avoid gutting our institutions of higher education in the name of saving them.


Jim Miller

Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.

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