BY CHRISTOPHER NEWFIELD
Christopher Newfield is Professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of several books and many articles on higher education, including most recently The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them. He serves on the advisory board for Academe. The following is reposted with permission from the Remaking the University blog.
Jerry Brown’s terms as governor have been bad for [California State University] CSU and [University of California] UC funding. The doubling of tuition revenues has not actually made up for the state cuts followed by small annual increases. In the UC case, campuses also need to find another $700 million a year for pension costs they didn’t have ten years ago, and additional money for buildings that the state doesn’t build anymore. For the math behind our Lost Decade, see the last six paragraphs of “A Faculty Overview of the UC Budget–Tenth Anniversary Edition.”
Last week, Brown gave CSU and UC even less than the inadequate 4% the systems thought they were getting, namely, 3%, which, subtracting one-time money comes to 2.1%, i.e. to the rate of consumer price inflation. The governor also does not propose a tuition increase. The two systems have 33 campuses between them, and Brown proposes that the structural problems and everyday squeezes at all 33 will remain in place. [For more on Brown’s proposed higher ed budget see “Jerry Brown Proposes Inadequate Higher Ed Budget,” by Hank Reichman – ed.]
Why does the governor and most of the Democratic establishment think UC and CSU can do more with less, and that state cuts don’t hurt quality? Brown offered a kind of explanation (thanks to Cloudminder for the transcript).
It is enough. You’re getting three percent more and that’s it. They’re not gonna get anymore. And they’ve got to manage. I think they need a little more scrutiny over how they are spending things. It’s just because the University is a good they say ‘we’ve got to have more good’ -but if you have too much good it -in certain circumstances – -it becomes a bad. So they’re gonna have to live within their means. And what will happen here is when the next recession they’ll have to put everything in reverse and lay people off and raise tuition and that’s not a good thing. So, they’ve got to lower the cost structure and there are tools to do that and they need to step up and more creatively engage in the process of making education more affordable.
Brown posits as always that any quality problems are the result of bad UC and CSU management. This is a axiom for him that he never questions. He has always thought that the state’s public universities spend too much money on administration and executive salaries (especially UC). He is again saying they should get all of their new teaching and research money by cutting there. This is a view he has held since around 1975. There is truth to the story of administrative bloat, but perversely much of it is caused by the cuts themselves, since they force campuses to staff up to pursue “alternative revenue streams.” (I explain how this works in the The Great Mistake, Stage 2.)
Second, Brown categorically assumes that money can be saved by shifting much face-to-face instruction to online. Last year, he and California Community Colleges (CCC) chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, whom Brown had also appointed to the UC Board of Regents, announced a fully online CCC degree program called the Flex Learning Option for Workers (FLOW). His budget proposes that this become a new ‘online campus’ for the community colleges. The idea is similar to what then-dean of Berkeley Law (and Yudof consigliere) Chris Edley suggested for UC almost ten years ago – an 11th campus that would be all online. The background assumption has remained the same: ed-tech has moved the cost-quality curve, so online college is “better faster cheaper” than face-to-face–both better and cheaper at the same time.
Brown has long been a true believer in online (see Toby Higbie, “The Governor’s Thinking has Become Very Uptight”). But by the end of 2013, the MOOC-wave had crashed on revelations that it was neither better nor cheaper. The famous Brown-brokered deal between Udacity and San Jose State was suspended after an NSF-based study showed Udacity’s online courses actually reduced remedial ed outcomes, prompting Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun to call it a lousy product. In addition, those of us who tried to find cost savings were unable to. Georgia Tech’s online Masters-Udacity’s other flagship–continues to run with multi-million dollar subsidies from AT&T. (See also the ambiguities of the University of Florida’s online programs.) In short, online had not suspended the rules of learning, in which you can always save money . . . by cutting quality. After 2013, MOOC companies retreated from their initial claim to be replacing college, instead offering professional retraining and credentialing. (My retrenchment overview is here).
In focusing on adult re-trainers, Gov. Brown’s current online proposal seems at first to follow the arc of retrenchment. But it comes with a renewed MOOC-style claim that online is “as good or better” than face-to-face. George Skelton quotes CCC chancellor Oakley making a categorical assertion of the online program’s value because they are directed at “social network kids.” A further example appears in Teresa Watanabe’s coverage in the Los Angeles Times.
Laura Hope, a California Community Colleges executive vice chancellor, said improved classes and tools for online orientation, counseling and tutoring have significantly narrowed the performance gap between online and traditional classes. Nearly two-thirds of online students completed their courses in 2015-16, compared with just over half a decade earlier. Over the same period, the percentage of students who completed traditional classes stayed roughly the same, at about 71%.
There is no doubt that distance learning is more convenient than campus courses, or that online courses can and should play a role for at least some students. In Fall 2016, about 11% of CCC course units were taken in “distance education” (DE) format. The proportion of students taking at least one online course per year (for credit or noncredit) has gone from 19.5% in 2011-12 (page 4) to around 33% five years later (based on the CCC Chancellor’s Office’s Distance Education Fact Sheet).
Convenience granted, the real question is educational: is online as “as good or better” than face-to-face, as good or better in a way that justifies using them to replace face-to-face? CCC’s own data analysis is now making this claim, summarized in this slide, which refers to “Success Rates” in all types of CCC courses for the past ten years.
In the email that accompanied this figure, a CCC official claimed it showed that online technology is on track to match the results of face-to-face. So, via CCC, “better” is back. And “cheaper” (though unproven) never went away.
As it happens, Cameron Sublett and I are in the middle of writing papers based on his extensive analysis of exactly this CCC data. Our topic is racial disparity in online courses. Our overall question is, does moving students of color from face-to-face to online help or hurt their education?
Cameron was able to reproduce the CCC figure with the data we’ve been been using all along. Following our past practice, he then disaggregated outcomes by type of course and by racial category. Here are two examples of face-to-face / online comparisons, using two types of course that are likely to resemble the “retraining” courses offered by the FLOW program.
Online continues to deliver a significant drop in success rates in basic skills courses. The convergence trend CCC claimed on aggregate is much weaker here. In addition, online makes the racial disparity of in-person courses somewhat worse. The success rates of “Underrepresented Minority Students,” to use the standard classification, are poor. In addition, they are not improving, as CCC claims for the aggregated results.
One reasonable policy conclusion would be quite the opposite of Brown’s and Oakley’s–Black and Latinx “basic skills” students should never be placed in online courses. White and Asian students should use them sparingly.
The second figure:
We’ll have more to say about all this in further writing. We have technical issues with the CCC’s definition of “success” that may turn out to lower all of these rates, but we won’t know that for a while. We have issues with using completion as a proxy for learning. But for the moment let’s leave it at this:
(1) Online is valuable and important as a selective and supplemental approach to extending in-person higher ed. It helps students who cannot stop full time work or family care. It is especially good at dealing with the repetition that is part of all learning. This is an area where it has a clear advantage over human teachers, as language labs (and books!) have been proving for generations.
(2) State leaders are wrong to continue to push online as a categorial good. This current push depends on aggregating data in a way that conceals how online disadvantages African American and Latinx students. Online education is currently an engine of racial inequality, and no good higher ed policy can be created by ignoring that fact.
(3) Online should never be used to excuse state budgets that are too small to support the established features of educational quality. These features include the presence of fully-qualified teachers working with classes that are small enough to allow individual feedback. Online that approaches face-to-face quality is actually a “hybrid” that relies on structured personal contact. We know of no hybrid online courses that will save universities money. States should never budget by assuming the opposite.
In short, university officials, including faculty senates, should loudly oppose officials who let online reinforce the color line. The FLOW program should restart the discussion about the higher ed practices and investments that would actually reduce racial disparities in attainment, rather than cover them up.