Should We Be Outsourcing Public Higher Education in California?

by on March 18, 2013 · 9 comments

in Civil Rights, Economy, Education, San Diego, 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 requires California’s community colleges, along with the twenty-three CalState schools and the ten-campus university, to allow students to substitute online courses for required courses taught by faculty members. The key to the proposal: the online courses will be offered by profit-making companies.”

There are many reasons to be deeply concerned about California State Senator Steinberg’s proposal to thrust mass online learning (including Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs) onto public higher education institutions. This development is troubling because there was no consultation with faculty before the Steinberg proposal was announced this week. Thus, the valuable experience in teaching face-to-face AND online courses that faculty at our colleges and universities was not brought to bear.

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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Robertson March 18, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Competition improves services and lowers costs. This applies to everything. The government is never an efficient provider of services. More competition will improve education as current providers will be forced to improve to keep business.

CA spends 52% of it’s budget on education. Corporations will get much better results for those monies.

Take the CA quiz and see how much you know about CA!


Scott March 19, 2013 at 11:48 am

I’m not even really sure where to start with your comment Michael.

“Competition improves success and lowers costs” – sure this theory worked really well for all industry throughout most of the 18th and 19th century. Factory owners certainly became effecient at exploiting children, etc.

“This applies to everything. The government is never an efficient provider of services.” – That’s quite a blanket statement. In the field of for profit education the goal is to make as much money as possible, not provide the best education. So, yes you are right Corporations will improve their effeciency and graduate everyone. Soon if you can differentiate between a right click and left click on a computer mouse then you can pass an online course. That will be effecient and probably cost effective, the question is what type of society will be produced?

The quiz is interesting and you have cherry picked interesting facts to make a point. But you could do the same to make other points. How about comparing higher education investment versus incarceration spending? (just about the same is spent on both). Or providing some demographic info, note the dramatic increase in government spending is more understandable when you provide the info about the explosive population growth in California over the same time period.


Sue March 19, 2013 at 2:10 pm

The medical insurance industry is an example of private sector putting profit before quality health care. Education would work out the same. If you are wealthy, you’re good to go, if you are not, to bad so sad!


Michael Robertson March 19, 2013 at 11:57 am

Children are exploited in poor countries. Economic growth is what stops child labor because as countries get rich they have the ability to educate their populace and no longer need to use them for manual labor. Countries get rich through capitalism. There are no examples of countries getting rich without being propelled with capitalism.

Your position that we spend as much on prisons as schools is completely false. You SURE you took the quiz? CA spends 52% of its state budget on education and spends 9% on prisons. Please don’t spend misinformation. I know it’s a popular liberal myth but it is simply false.

“non-profit” education is BIG business. Have you been to UCSD recently? It’s an absolute PALACE and the employees have luxurious compensation plus get a leisurely work pace. Meanwhile they’re loading up kids and parents with massive debt and pushing them out the door with degrees that have no practical job skills. It’s criminal.


Scott March 19, 2013 at 12:08 pm

HA! Economic growth has never stopped child labor or any exploitation, in fact growth encourages it. See the example of the US into the 20th century or Bangladesh today. What stopped exploitation was government regulation (which I assume you are against).

Also, it seems you may be purposely ignoring the important word “HIGHER” education in the prison spending debate. According to your little quiz Prison/Rehab was 9% of the budget, higher ed was 11%. As I said “just about the same spent on both.”

I take it you did not attend an institution of Higher Education.


Michael Robertson March 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Economic growth is what stops child labor because as parents get money they no longer need their 13 year old to work to support the family. Wealth is what allows for more options for family not laws. If families are poor then kids must work – regardless of the laws.

We spend MUCH more on higher education that prisons. The UC campuses get less than 1/3rd of their money from the state. They get the other 2/3rds of their budget from federal government and from attendees and their parents. As you pointed out, state spending on higher ed is 22% higher than prisons, but total spending for higher ed is TRIPLE that of prisons. I know the liberal manifesto is:

we spend more on prisons than schools.
we don’t spend enough on education.

But data says neither of those is true. Education spending has about tripled in the last 20 years and education performance has not improved. To those who blindly accept “we need to spend more money on education” mantra – which is a meme pushed HARD by unions who benefit from it – no amount of spending will suffice. It will never be enough. You seem to be their foot soldier. I encourage you to look at the facts and realize that education is a business like any other – just one where the government has a monopoly.


scott March 19, 2013 at 4:46 pm

hmm, so did you attend one of these worthless higher ed institutions or not?


Michael Robertson March 19, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I did attend a Uni. It’s not worthless it’s just now way over priced. Sadly, more than half of the attendees will not see a positive return on their investment. They’ll be left with crippling debt many will never be able to repay. It will impact their plans to marry, buy a house, and start a career. Student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt and unlike all other forms of debt is inescapable via bankruptcy. So those student loans can torpedo the entire future for young people. It’s a very sad situation.

It shouldn’t cost $25,000 or $50,000 per year to impart knowledge to students -especially when much is delivered in a giant auditorium with an old school lecture.

Here’s a link to some research I did about the financial return on college. This is now more than 5 years old so the returns have declined as college costs have continued to escalate.

Thanks for listening.


Sean M March 19, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Public colleges are free to setup online classes themselves so its not surprising that the complaints about the online class initiative are coming from the teacher’s unions, not public institutions.

The author cites a dropout rate of 90% with online courses, but neglects to mention that the graduation rate from CA Community colleges is 20%.

The biggest insult to current students who complain about fee increases is the fact that is the $10+ billions that CA colleges universities are spending per year construction on buildings that current students are unlikely to use.

Students that spend hours per week on the bus or looking for a parking spot and listening to jackhammers appreciate the value of an online courses for remedial, required courses.


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