Should We Be Outsourcing Public Higher Education in California?

…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.


  1. avatarbob dorn says

    There’s so much falseness in the for-profit school scam it’s hard to know where to start. Are the attacks on public education motivated by those who believe for-profits make education available to those without access? Fact is, only the smallest percentage of people enrolled at for-profits go on to receive their degrees, and a majority don’t continue past their first year. And is Steinberg saying California can no longer afford to set the standards that Berkeley, UCLA, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the other campuses have? Yeah, that’s pretty much true. We should all ask what schools he attended, or where he sends his own kids, and why.
    Sending public money to private corporations is stealing from taxpayers.
    Let me end this rant with a cooler and much more articulate quote from you, Jim Miller:
    “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.”

  2. avatarJohn Lawrence says

    I am not for the privatization of education whether it be higher or lower. I’m not for the privatization of anything that should be in the public domain. I am for taxing the rich and corporations to adequately fund public functions. That being said, I think that there is a place for online courses. They needn’t be privatized. There is a lot of waste in the public education system. I know – having been a student till I was 29. A lot of education could be expedited. Instead of sitting in classes for years and years, those who are self-motivated could learn the stuff online and test out. I think I could have tested out of 90% of the courses I took. Many of my professors particularly at the graduate level were practically useless. They scribbled their notes on the board ver batim and we were supposed to copy it all down. There was little interaction.

    Inevitably, the human labor of teaching will be to some extent robosourced (a word Al Gore uses in his new book “The Future”). That probably means that the teaching establishment will be downsized as has every other sector of the economy. Let’s separate the robosourcing of teaching from the privatization of teaching. They are not one and the same thing.

    Students should be able to save a lot of money by taking and testing out of courses online as well as saving a lot of time and expediting their education. Especially with all the technical stuff with which I’m familiar. This will leave time and energy for those courses that can be truly beneficial and enlightening.

  3. avatar says

    “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.”

    When you think about it, it’s amazing that it took corporations this long to start burrowing their snouts into this particular trough. Shareholders deserve an explanation.

    • avatarJohn Lawrence says

      They’ve been profiteering off of student loans for years. First they privatized Sally Mae. That’s when the student loan debt started to accumulate.

  4. avatar says

    Darryl Steinberg should be proposing to streamline bloated administrative functions and high executive salaries throughout the California university system and he should have enough sense to stay out of the classroom. Just today California Watch published results of an investigation into redundant administrative functions at the state’s community colleges.

    The university classroom offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for discussion, argument and exchange of ideas — teacher with students and students with students. It is NOT about immediate mastery and “testing out.” Self-motivated students think deeply, read widely and ask questions. Keep state legislators — and online businesses — out of the halls of academe.

    • avatarJohn Lawrence says

      I guess, Frances you never took any engineering courses. “Discussion, argument and exchange of ideas” don’t happen there.

  5. avatarJEC says

    True, the UC system suffers from inefficiencies. They need discipline. Many programs have had caps on administrative overhead for decades – except the UC system. I think it may be time; try out a cap of 6% administrative overhead and no administrative or none educational position (i.e. football coach or UC President) shall be paid more than 150% of the median salary of the 25 highest paid professors. Pushing money into the classroom might improve the system and hold student costs down, maybe. In the meantime could we train a few plumbers and electricians?

    • avatarJohn Lawrence says

      Dan Rather did a report recently on all the PhDs who can’t find jobs. Even the President of Princeton U. says there are too many PhDs out there.

  6. avatar says

    I’m one of your O.B. neighbors, and for the last few years one of my jobs has been ‘on-line professor’ for the Washington Post’s Kaplan University. I’ve been teaching paralegal students since 1992. Back then there were quite a few small privte business schools that offered local live classes all over the country. Changes in student loan policies put most of these little schools out of business or saw them bought up by big for-profits like the one I work for. The big for-profit schools have almost no full-time professors and I am paid less today than I was 20 years ago. It is an unsustainable situation. And yet, it is wrong not to embrace the many good things that distance learning can offer. My personal experience is that all-on-line classes are at least as good and sometimes better than live classes for highly motivated students, and not nearly good for less committed or talented students. My impression of the emerging literature on the topic is that hybrid courses with live and on-line elements actually get the best educational results. But don’t let’s kid ourselves – our children are living in a country that already has outsourced most of the middle-class jobs. What’s the point of going to college if you’ll never be able to pay back your loans? Ray Bradberry and Gore Vidal did pretty well without going to college at all.