A Critique of Richard Vedder’s Recommendations for Higher Education, Made in Response to President Obama’s Recent Proposals

Part 2: Deliver Half of a Baccalaureate Degree by MOOC

[Explanatory lead to the first post in this series (): Richard Vedder is distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In an earlier post, I pointed out, as others have, that he is hardly an unbiased or objective commentator on the state of higher education because his connection to the conservative American Enterprise Institute has come with a $150,000 annual stipend.

Nonetheless, as the author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, he was asked by CNN to comment on President Obama’s recent proposals on higher education. Vedder took the opportunity to restate four of his own recommendations for making higher education more affordable.]

Vedder’s second suggestion is that MOOCs can be “blended” equally with conventional instruction to achieve as much as a “40 percent” reduction in the cost to students for a four-year degree.

Several problems with this proposal should be obvious.

If half of the course work is delivered by MOOC, it stands to reason that the general-education or core courses and the other introductory level courses will be those most likely delivered by MOOC because they will be the most uniform courses from institution to institution and the most highly enrolled. But those courses are also the greatest and the most predictable revenue-producing courses within our institutions. They sustain departments and colleges in all of the disciplines across the arts and sciences, supporting the teaching of much smaller and more selective courses at the junior- and senior-levels. So, although providing these courses by MOOC may save students 40 percent in tuition costs, it will deprive departments of a large portion of their revenue and presumably drive up the cost of the upper-level courses that will be delivered conventionally.

Worse, for the great majority of students at all but the most selective institutions, the courses least effectively delivered by MOOCs may be the general-education or core courses. The attrition rates are highest during the first two years, when students are acclimating to college life and academic expectations. And attrition rates are highest during the first two years even with the more personalized instruction provided in conventional classrooms. Given the very low completion rates for MOOCs, one has to suppose that the already problematic attrition rates would increase very dramatically if Vedder’s recommendation were followed. So even if one grants that students who completed a baccalaureate degree might possibly be paying significantly less, even fewer students would be completing such degrees than are now doing so.

Vedder describes the MOOCs available through the major providers such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity  as “quality instruction.” MOOCs have, indeed, been shown to facilitate learning when used in combination with intensive in-person instruction. So the increases in learning come with proportionate increases in cost. And, to be clear, these costs are not primarily centered in the technology itself, which might very well become less expensive as time passes. Instead, the major costs are in the labor-intensive integration of the online and the conventional components of “mixed mode” instruction and the intensive in-person instruction in the conventional classroom that is required to take full advantage of the benefits of the online components.

Beyond that sort of use, it is a very dubious assertion to say that MOOCs provide “quality instruction.” They provide digitally enhanced videos of lectures being delivered by faculty at the finest institutions in the country, but there is a half-century of literature showing that lectures are among the most pedagogically limited ways of delivering instruction. In fact, the most telling evidence that MOOCs do not provide “quality instruction” is that most of the elite institutions that have partnered with the MOOC providers will not accept the MOOCs for credit. Vedder himself states, “The barriers are not technological, but legal or involve overcoming special interest obstruction,” though I doubt that by “special interest obstruction” he meant the institutions at which the MOOCs are being developed.

Vedder closes this section of the article by, in effect, suggesting that the verification of the identities of students enrolling in MOOCs and completing the automated assessment measures is the largest obstacle to their being adopted more broadly by institutions and their being accepted by accreditors. Verification of student identities is an issue but hardly one of the major issues.

Indeed, having suggested at the beginning of this section that MOOCs might be substituted for 50 percent of the coursework required for a baccalaureate degree, Vedder closes with the assertion that accreditors should be compelled to allow institutions to accept MOOCs as substitutes for up to 60 percent of the credit hours required for a baccalaureate degree. Once institutions begin to cede their control of the curriculum to “outside educational providers,” the erosion of their autonomy will accelerate. The vulture capitalists will descend and pick the bones clean with an astounding rapaciousness.

Dismissing the role of the government in pushing any innovation in higher education, Vedder asks rhetorically where Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are when we need them. Well, actually, through his foundation, Gates has been pushing much of the “innovation” in higher- education instruction. But just as Microsoft now seems to have ceded the tech forefront to firms such as Apple, Google, and even Yahoo, it will have to play catch-up to be competitive with the two major corporate “educational providers,” Pearson and McGraw-Hill.

It cannot be over-emphasized that despite the privatizers’ insistence that public higher education is failing America, none of the for-profit alternatives—from Phoenix, Kaplan, and Corinthian to Coursera, edX, and Udacity—have proven to be more than “bubbles” benefiting executives and investors at the expense of students.

In fact, the greatest testament to the continued vitality and validity of public higher education may be that it has somehow managed to survive, fundamentally intact, despite four decades of deep reductions in state funding and very determined Far Right brainwashing about the supposed benefits of corporatization.


Part 1: Three-Year Baccalaureate Degrees: https://academeblog.org/2013/09/03/a-critique-of-richard-vedders-recommendations-for-higher-education-made-in-response-to-president-obamas-recent-proposals/

3 thoughts on “A Critique of Richard Vedder’s Recommendations for Higher Education, Made in Response to President Obama’s Recent Proposals

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