I am the Director of the Philosophy Program at a one of the many little colleges recently retro-fitted to become a university in Western Pennsylvania. After 18 years of steadily teaching at a reputable little college, with the magic of our new university stature I suddenly found myself applying for, and receiving, tenure. My job and income are now secure. Gee, what an improvement for student-learning outcomes. So let me put my new tenure to use and see if it works.
It is clear to me that post-secondary (College and University) undergraduate education both costs too much and the general quality is far from as good as it should be in light of the extortionate price students and their parents are forced to pay. According to the Pew Foundation funded American Institutes for Research 2006 study, “The National Survey of America’s College Students,” one half of four-year college graduates will not be able to articulate what I have so far written, much less grasp the basic argument of any article written in the Chronicle of Higher Education or, for that matter, any speech critical of post-secondary education delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings herself. This means the majority of American college graduates are unable to figure out exactly how they, and their families, may have been gouged by their Alma Maters.
According to the Study:
• More than 75 percent of students at 2-year colleges and more than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy. This means that they lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials.
• Students in 2- and 4-year colleges have the greatest difficulty with quantitative literacy: approximately 30 percent of students in 2-year institutions and nearly 20 percent of students in 4-year institutions have only Basic quantitative literacy. Basic skills are those necessary to compare ticket prices or calculate the cost of a sandwich and a salad from a menu.
If this study is accurate, and anecdotal evidence of graduating seniors certainly suggests it is, there is no just reason for any student to pay $100,000 (more than the cost of most homes in Western PA) for a four-year degree. Most disturbing, however, is the implication when looking at the power of compound interest: If the $100,000 spent on college were invested in a mutual fund instead, it would be worth vastly more than the $1million dollar increase in lifetime earning power a college education is alleged to be worth. If the money spent on a college education were invested in TIAA-CREF, where university employees invest their own retirement funds, by the time the student reached the age of retirement in 40 years that $100,000, at 10% per year, would be worth $4,525,925.56 — in 50 years $11,739,085.29. Instead, what now happens is parents simply lose a hefty portion of their own retirement while footing the bill for their kids’ vastly over-priced college degrees. In a word, despite college propaganda to the contrary, at current rates, a four year degree at a typical college or university dramatically decreases a family’s overall lifetime wealth rather than increasing it.
Consequently, it makes sense that for-profit institutions like Google, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles or even Starbucks, begin to consider applying for university accreditation, and offering degrees of their own. Clearly, well-run for-profits are vastly more economically efficient than any non-profit college or university. The efficiency is a consequence of following the basic economic principle that an informed consumer will always purchase the best value for the least money. I, like most parents, would happily send my children to Google University if I knew they would learn more there than at a higher priced university. And unlike non-profits where there is little incentive to quantify results for comparison shopping, profit-making institutions thrive on promoting their quantifiable successes. The best are quick to demonstrate why they are the best and thereby sell more.
So, Google is ideally positioned to dominate the post-secondary education market, and do it without hiring a single tenured professor. Though once tenure protected the academic freedom of innovative faculty, tenure now only ensures the homogeneity of thought of those tenured. Tenure has itself now become an impediment to the novel ideas it was originally designed to protect. Google could escape the tenure trap by not hiring any faculty at all. Instead of hiring the faculty themselves, institutions like Google could simply purchase a vast library of taped, high quality, lectures given by academic super stars or other top performing teachers who are willing to sell series of their lectures (perhaps even receiving residuals if they really rock!). These professors would operate as free agents in a digital world of Professors Without Borders. As Jeffrey Toobin reports in New Yorker Magazine, Google has already started the process of digitizing all books published, and certainly that would include all filmed academic lectures.
As a consequence, I would like to develop a trial philosophy class that will be offered on YouTube — perhaps start with Philosophy and Theater or Introduction to Philosophy. My long term goal, however, is to develop, for lack of a better term, a Google University on YouTube Philosophy Major. My students at the brick and mortar university campus where I teach would be required to watch the lectures on YouTube and then submit papers in class. But all the class material would be available to the entire YouTube audience, and any institution that might want to use this class as part of their own curriculum would be free to. Yes, a free college class on YouTube, that’s my initial plan.
If successful, perhaps other free-agent professors will follow, and once a sufficient number of competently taught, enjoyable, entertaining, college courses are provided for free, this could begin to break the de facto price fixing of the American post-secondary education cartel in league with their accrediting institutions. With the aid of Margaret Spellings, this college cartel has finally become vulnerable to the demands of the market place. Parents may soon finally compare educational products based on quantifiable outcomes, and buy a degree based on highest quality for lowest price. Google can easily deliver what the non-profits have so far refused to: the best education at the best price. Institutions, without the requisite faculty, like Google, Amazon or any various libraries and book stores, certainly could easily provide competently taught, college credit quality, courses on platforms like YouTube.
Google’s purchase of YouTube, combined with the demands of out-priced parents and the pressure of the US Department of Education that post-secondary education finally provide quantifiable results, all coming together within in the last six months, shouts loud that the time for Professors Without Borders has arrived. I know for a fact that there are many many highly educated, highly competent, PhD, University and College faculty willing to work as free-agent professors for advanced education. I also know by hiring free-agent professors, Google would be capable of offering vastly more enjoyable, higher quality and less expensive college degrees than are currently available at other colleges and universities existing on line or in brick and mortar. With large enough numbers of students and high enough quality of professors’ lectures and the stellar name of Google to kick this off, the era of the ten dollar, accredited, 3-credit, college class is here. This after all is the real payoff of the computer age. Over a few tens of years those rare monster computers have now been reduced to a wallet-sized commonplace, the same should be so for the four-year degree, and Google can do it, Google should do it: a Harvard-quality undergraduate education on an iPod, while sipping espresso.
It is entirely conceivable that libraries, book stores and coffee houses could offer degrees of their own using the lectures purchased and digitized by Google. Grading could easily be out-sourced inexpensively, done by professional graders in Bangalore or Beijing. After all, as Thomas Friedman made clear, the world really is flatter than we like to imagine. (Where do you think H&R Block sends overflow tax forms, Kansas? Not really.) Outsourcing grading to third party graders in Asia, would have the additional benefit of helping to eliminate grade inflation, since graders would have no professional incentive to please students with padded grades in order to keep their jobs.
"Google University on YouTube at Starbucks in Barnes and Nobles," would not only reduce the cost of education to students, the competition between professors to produce the best lectures would create vastly superior lectures, and the competition between for-profit institutions in order to attract students would produce vastly better outcomes for students, and therefore would even help American corporations, like Google itself, who need highly competent employees.
Please call me or write me or email me if you would like to discuss this further, or if you think I might be of help. If I keep writing things like this, the tenure thing may not really be as bullet proof as I am hoping; so I may soon REALLY need that job.
James D. Carmine, PhD
(Free Agent Philosophy Professor; Professor Without Borders)
Associate Professor of Philosophy