MOOC Skeptic’s Toolkit: Sample Letter #3, to a Parent

The purpose of the letters in this toolkit is to provide material that can be edited to be sent to listserves, to be posted on blogs or to be shared on social media sites, and to be submitted as op-eds to campus or community newspapers.

Some of the letters may be too lengthy to be very practical or engaging. But they can be edited however a writer wishes: for instance, the detail can be reduced to emphasize the key points, or the writer can focus on one part to the exclusion of the rest.


Dear Parent:

Here are a few trends that have converged over the last three decades.

The number of high school graduates choosing to attend a college or university has roughly doubled, from one out of every three high school graduates to two out of every three.

The cost of instruction at a college or university, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has actually remained relatively flat. The biggest cost driver has been increases in administrative positions and salaries, especially at the upper level.

The state support for public colleges and universities has declined, on average, from covering 50% to 60% of the cost per student to covering just 20% of the cost per student.

The percentage of an institution’s revenue generated by tuition has typically increased from about 20% to between 50% and 60%.

Federal grants to middle-class students have largely been replaced by federally guaranteed student loans.

As a result of all of these trends, the cost being borne directly by students has skyrocketed, and much of that cost–$1 trillion as of the fall of 2012—will be carried by college and university graduates over a significant portion of their working lives as they pay off their student loans.

An increasing number of families are also relying on student loans secured through private lenders. Those loans, typically co-signed by the students’ parents, typically carry somewhat higher interest rates and have a somewhat shorter repayment schedule.

There are obvious and considerable economic ramifications to having a generation entering the workforce already burdened with significant debt, especially in a post-recession economy in which many college graduates find themselves, at least initially, to be under-employed.

It is not surprising, then, that students and their parents are looking to colleges and universities to cut costs, or that colleges and universities are looking at ways in which technology can help them to cut costs.

One of the most highly publicized of the new applications of technology is the development of Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs.

MOOCs are being developed by for-profit corporations with the endorsements of consortia of elite universities. Basically they are digitally enhanced televised versions of courses delivered at those elite universities, an upgrade of the courses that used to be broadcast on many public television stations. But because the MOOC providers are using the Internet instead of a local television station, the courses can reach not just hundreds or thousands of students at a time, but tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of students at a time.

If you have ever heard your son or daughter or another college student complain about being in a course in which 300 to 400 students were packed into a lecture hall, then you can imagine how MOOCs will compound the problems experienced by those students. If there are 30,000 students enrolled in a 15-week MOOC and each of those students were to send just one e-mail to the instructor over that semester, the instructor would need to answer 2,000 e-mails per week. So, it’s not surprising that most MOOCs are designed to eliminate almost any student interaction with the instructors. At best, answers to frequently asked student questions may be posted by graduate assistants on a course-related website.

There are obvious downsides to this sort of one-sided method of instruction that reduce how much students typically learn in these courses and, ultimately, how much the degrees that they are earning will be worth to their prospective employers. Very tellingly, most of the elite universities who will profit handsomely from their endorsements of MOOCs have already decided not to accept them for credit. More than anything else, those decisions should tell you that no matter how much MOOCs may reduce the cost of attending a college or a university, it may not be enough to make up for the erosion of the value of the degree that is ultimately earned.

Furthermore, the real issue isn’t the cost of instruction. We have all heard complaints about under-worked and over-paid tenured faculty. But there is a reason why 400 students may be packed into a lecture class, or why many entry level classes are being taught by graduate students or part-time faculty. Three decades ago, almost 75% of professors were tenured or tenure-track. Today, fewer than 30% of professors are tenured or tenure-track. Their workloads have increased while their salaries and benefits have not even kept pace with inflation. Another 15% to 20% of faculty hold full-time non-tenure-eligible positions that involve even higher teaching loads and that pay significantly less. And 50% to 60% of today’s faculty are part-timers, or adjunct faculty, most of whom teach part-time at several institutions in order to earn something approaching a living wage. These faculty are typically paid between $2,000 and $3,000 per course, with no benefits. So an adjunct faculty member who teaches five courses per semester or ten courses per year can expect to earn between $20,000 and $30,000 per year. And all adjunct faculty hold Masters degrees, and many of them have earned Ph.D.’s.

You’ll probably be very surprised to know that only 20% to 25% of the typical university’s budget goes toward the salaries and benefits of all of those teaching the courses. So, although university administrations have continued to find new ways to squeeze savings from the instructional end of their institutions’ budgets, we are clearly approaching a point at which a “quality education” will be little more than an empty promise at many institutions.

At the same time, college and university administrators have too seldom looked for savings within their own burgeoning bureaucracies. As the gap between administrative and faculty salaries has widened dramatically, the number of administrators and of staff working for those administrators has simply exploded.

If you combine the dramatic growth in the expenditures on administration with the dramatic decline in state support, it is no wonder that universities are relying increasingly on underpaid part-time faculty and ever larger class sizes.

So, MOOCs are not the solution to what ails higher education. They are, instead, a new and in some ways much more alarming symptom of what ails higher education.

2 thoughts on “MOOC Skeptic’s Toolkit: Sample Letter #3, to a Parent

  1. Pingback: The Spectrum of Opinion About MOOCs | EdTechDev

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