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Wednesday, April 1, 2020


Now that I have taught two sessions of my course using zoom, I quite naturally consider myself an expert on distance education, so I would like to put my newfound mastery of this subject to use by imagining a way in which we could apply it to the solution of two problems that currently bedevil American higher education:  the high cost to students and the miserable pay and working conditions of the hordes of adjuncts who have been substituted for tenure track faculty by cost cutting university administrations.

There is one major problem with the following proposal:  it cannot provide students with laboratory science classes.  I do not now have a solution for that problem.

Consider an on-line undergraduate college offering the full range of Humanities, Social Science, and non-laboratory science courses.  Its faculty consists of retired professors like myself [although not so old, of course] and young men and women with doctorates who have not been able to secure tenure track positions at regular colleges and universities.  The educational credentials and academic accomplishments of its faculty will obtain it accreditation from the appropriate bodies.

This college offers only small distance courses via zoom, by means of which students and faculty can meet regularly and interact as though [more or less] in a classroom.  Each course is limited to 20 students, meets for 14 weeks, and carries 3 academic credits.  A full course load for a student is 5 courses a semester or 10 courses a year, as in most ordinary colleges.

The college has no dorms, no classroom buildings, no fraternities or sororities, no sports teams, no dining halls, no health clinic, no admissions office, no Provost, no Associate Provost, no Deans, no Assistant Deans, and one President, elected by the entire faculty.  Each Department is run collectively by all of the people teaching courses in that discipline.  Young faculty work on five year appointments.  Retired faculty like me teach on one year renewable contracts, in recognition of the fact that they may keel over at any moment or simply lose their marbles.

The college has no endowment and no fixed costs.  Its income is the fees paid by the students and its only cost [save for a little IT] is the salary and benefits of the faculty.  So, what would it cost, and what would the faculty earn?

Google tells me that “the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2019–2020 school year was $41,426 at private colleges, $11,260 for state residents at public colleges and $27,120 for out-of-state students at state schools, according to data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey.”  Let us take the $11,260 as our point of comparison.  I am arbitrarily going to set tuition at our on-line college at $900 a course or $9000 for a full year of five courses per semester or ten courses per year.  That is 80% of the average in-state tuition, a considerable saving.

With 20 students in a course, each course generates $18,000 in income for the college.  How much shall we pay the faculty?  Well, I am being paid $10,000 this semester by UNC Chapel Hill.  Last semester I was paid $15,000 by Columbia, thanks to a special arrangement involving money from the Society of Senior Scholars, of which I am a member, but of course out of that I had to pay the costs of traveling from North Carolina to New York City thirteen times [an expense that is not tax deductible, by the way.]  Let us suppose we pay each professor, whether a retiree like me or a young itinerant adjunct, $13,000.  That is gravy for the likes of me and $78,000 a year for the young adjuncts with a 3-3 teaching load, which is not what they could make as college or university professors but much better than the miserable pay they are getting now.

What about fringe benefits?  The retirees don’t need them.  They have pensions and Medicare.  The extra $5000 a course over and above the Instructor’s salary could easily pay for health insurance and TIAA-CREF pensions for the former adjuncts, with the relatively small administrative costs paid for out of the extra $5000 per retiree-taught course.

There is, of course, a major drawback:  no Senior Prom.


mmorano said...

As someone currently doing a distance MA program (in philosophy, naturally), I am warming up to this idea becoming more normative. I ended up in this program - after being deterred by others - because it was extremely affordable and highly flexible; I can live anywhere while in pursuit of my degree. It seems simple enough to organize such an institution or remote learning option with low infrastructure costs. I hadn't thought much in terms of realistic tuition and salary breakdowns, but your assessment makes sense. It seems doable.

Richard Lewis said...

This is a lovely model. But the political and social realities working against it seem overwhelming: firstly, students wouldn't be willing to pay those amounts for a no-name online college course (90%+ of colleges are 'no name') so would probably put their dollars into huge online offerings operated by giant big name colleges and taught by low paid adjuncts associated with those big name colleges.
Secondly, there is the obvious problem that the agents required to do this are administrators, who would lose their jobs if this happened. It's like asking HMOs to organize a public national healthcare system.
Thirdly, I have to say you are overestimating what tenured faculty in humanities and social sciences earn at present in 2nd and 3rd tier public colleges and liberal arts colleges by a big factor. I am an associate professor and take home about 68k - and that's probably median for 4 year colleges as a whole in the USA.

Jordan said...

Was coming here to say the last thing Richard said above. $78k is a really, really good salary for a tenure-track assistant professor who's at anything but a top research institution (or living in a very expensive part of the country like Manhattan or LA).

So I guess the upshot is: you could drop that salary a good bit lower and still get plenty of qualified applicants for that job. (For instance, me.)

David Auerbach said...

Some of my logic friends are supplementing pure zooming with what amounts to shared whiteboard capability so that the prof. can annotate student work live and students can annotate their (and others' if appropriate) work in real time. Both scribbling and math symbols are supported. For certain courses this would be a necessity (logic, math, chemistry, physics and on and on. Writing courses.) It's all doable but takes initial effort and some standardization. So, I suggest one full-time salary for IT support.

R. Turdstile said...

"So, I suggest one full-time salary for IT support."

Surely a Nobel Prize winner in economics can be found for the IT support job.

Anonymous said...

Western Governor’s University is already implementing this model, or something like it. There’s also a private university based in the Bay Area that is too — I forget its name.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Reinventing the wheel! My speciality. :)

David Palmeter said...

That's better than I can do. If the world had to rely on me to invent the wheel, it would still be waiting for results. said...

David, you might better have said that, "If the world had had to rely on me to invent the wheel, I might still be spinning my wheels". (That's from a Monty Python sketch).

Anonymous said...

This doesn't quite address your proposal for an online college that might do a better job allocating pay to its instructors. But...

One of the worries for higher education right now is that the coronavirus pandemic may be creating a "shock doctrine / disaster capitalism" opportunity for expanding online learning, enriching the tech companies, standardizing the curriculum, and relying on the exploitation of low-paid, deskilled adjunct instructors. Some of these concerns have been expressed in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

We would do well to look at what the corporate education reformers (Bill Gates, the Walton Foundation, Rahm Emanuel, the National Governors Association, wealthy executives looking for investment opportunities, etc) have done to public education in the last 15-20 years.

This NYT piece from a while back is telling. And remember, since this was written, calling attention to the for-profit online charters in Michigan, guess which Secretary of Education calls this their home state?

K-12 teachers have shown us the power of the teachers strike. College instructors of all stripes would do well to learn from them. At the very least, they need to be looking ahead and organize.

Jerry Brown said...

Once it became common to get an education online, what prevents the teacher from being outsourced to lower labor cost countries? I mean there are more than a billion people in India and a whole lot of brilliant ones at that- and they speak English even if often with an accent.

Charles Pigden said...

Aren't you forgetting about library support? I often recommend articles to students which, unless they they are affiliated to a big budget university, will be behind an expensive pay-wall.

Of course a sufficiently ingenious lecturer could get around this by only citing texts that are available on such sites as And in philosophy at least there are now respectable journals which are entirely online and run on a not-for-profit basis with theie products available for free, eg. Ergo and (I think) the Australasian Journal of Logic.

A great many classic texts are now freely and legally available online though not always in up-to-date translations.

Dean said...

Thank you, Charles Pigden, for reminding folks of the fact of libraries. (I'm a librarian.) Libraries are expensive, and therefore an easy target for budget cutting. I could share stories of administrators who out of one side of their mouths proclaim the library useless in our internet age, yet who from the other demand delivery of print-only materials to support their research. Yes, it's that brazen.

Libraries are also proponents of open access to scholarship. We want to put ourselves out of business! And yet I encounter if not daily then with remarkable frequency requests for material that "ought to be there somewhere," but is not. This is simply a fact of the matter.

LFC said...

I would enter a caveat, in addition to those above, that an online college, while perhaps offering certain advantages as the post suggests, also has drawbacks. While separating myth from reality is hard here, students do probably learn something from each other in the dining-hall conversations, dorm interactions, and extracurricular activities that an online college can't offer, at least not in the same way. Secondly, I'm somewhat skeptical that online courses, irrespective of the technological platform, can fully replicate the sorts of interactions that are possible in physical (as opposed to virtual) classrooms and that the best courses achieve. This skepticism may be partly a function of my age but I don't think it's wholly misplaced. The question is whether the benefits of a physical place are worth x thousands more a year in tuition; when the burdens of tuition are eased by generous financial aid, which some institutions are more able to offer than others, the answer may be yes. OTOH for some students the online route might be preferable. If someone would have spent a substantial amount of time drinking and partying and engaging in general dissipation at a physical place, the online route might be better. Here again the picture is complicated b.c different campuses have different cultures of social interaction, place different emphases on academics vs extracurriculars vs socializing or networking and so on. To some extent, attending a physical college, in the U.S. at any rate, draws in all these considerations, at least in those four-year colleges where the majority of students live on campus rather than commute. The best thing about the post's proposal is that those who wd otherwise be adjuncts of one sort or another fare so much better.

Jerry Brown said...

LFC- but the "substantial amount of time spent drinking and partying and engaging in general dissipation" was the best part of it. Or at least the most enjoyable part...

Anyways, once all this stuff is online- how could a 'non-profit institution' like a university rationalize limiting the access to only the students that are able to afford tuition? I mean there is no additional cost of letting another 5000 or 500,000 watch if they want is there?

Just talked to another brother who has two children in very expensive universities who have been sent home to learn via internet. He flat out told me he isn't going to pay $100,000+ for them to stay home this fall semester and take courses online if the schools aren't open. I think the costs are ridiculous in the first place, so I wouldn't blame him for refusing even though he could pay it. Even if they were at the school the price seems unreasonable.

David Palmeter said...

Jerry Brown

It wouldn't cost anything to let everyone participate, but the only ones who could get credit and graduate would be those who took and passed the exams and wrote the papers--which the instructor would read and evaluate.

Anonymous said...

Yes to what Jerry Brown says. These are MOOCs, which I think stands for something like Massive Online Courses.

I appreciate what others are saying about the critical importance of libraries, the potentially educational value of students' outside-of-class interactions and formal extracurriculars, and just the value of being physically present around each other (which tons of people are really missing during "stay-at-home" orders and physical distance guidelines). Some of the political work that's done by young people at colleges and universities is likely suffering right now (campus chapters of Black Lives Matter, SDS, PIRG, etc). Hard to protest or take over the university president's office right now!

In addition, many college classes also include vital laboratory experiments, service-learning, field research, concrete architectural designs, in-person interviews, on-the-job shadowing, internships, etc. that require students and community members' to share physical space together.

And just in general, if a college class is something more than professors "telling students stuff," the limitations of online education become clearer. Mind you, I'm not dismissing the importance of imparting knowledge and information this way, nor the potential for more egalitarian interactions in online formats.

s. wallerstein said...


My sister is a librarian in a Jewish community center in New York City and has worked there for 35 years or so.

About five years ago the administration decided to sell all the books and close down the library since we're all supposedly in the digital age. The library had been a nice space for people from the neighborhood to come, read, chat with the librarian or with the library assistant, to check out books to take home (there was a good selection of fiction from noted Jewish authors), a clean well-lighted place in a cold heartless metropolis.

They fired the library assistants, but not my sister who was and is in charge of arranging for guest speakers and discussion groups at the community center.

It's a shame what they're doing with libraries.

LFC said...

S. Wallerstein,
What happened at that community center is regrettable, but physical libraries have not gone away. I think most counties or municipalities in the U.S. have at least one (in some cases many than more that). Ditto universities and colleges. That's not to say they don't face challenges etc, but they have definitely not disappeared.

Dean said...

Libraries have not gone away, but they have been decimated. Each library is, from the point of view of its home institution -- city, county, university, college, law firm, court -- perceived as almost pure overhead.