Why the Unconscious Matters | Higher Ed Gamma

You may have read that Georgetown University is launching an online part-time bachelor’s degree completion program in liberal studies in partnership with Coursera.

Georgetown already offers an on-campus version of this program through its School of Continuing Education to a student body that consists of 62 percent students of color and 40 percent military-connected learners.  

The online program will be offered worldwide for $400 a credit hour, which would add up to $48,000 for a complete 120 credits – but which could be as “little” as $22,400 if transfer credits and military training were applied. 

That figure is much cheaper than average list price of $1,586 for an in-person education at a private institution.  But it’s substantially more expensive than the cost of face-to-face, interactive learning at a community college or at many broad access regional or urban publics.  The average per credit cost a community college is $158 and $266 for in-state students at the University of Florida and $372 at the University of Texas at Austin.

So what, I asked myself and some colleagues, is the value of undergraduate extension programs?  

Are the extension programs offered by institutions offered by Harvard or Columbia a bona fide alternative to a traditional undergraduate education – a bargain basement way to get the roughly the same education offered to a highly selective undergraduate population at a fraction of the price?  Are these programs money makers?  What exactly is the function or purpose of such programs?

Some extension programs are indeed money makers.  What they are not are highly affordable and scalable pathways to a degree.  In actuality, these programs tend to bring very few students to a bachelor’s degree.  Instead, most courses are filled with folks who already have a bachelor’s, which isn’t surprising because the courses tend to be fairly rigorous and most are designed for skills-building or for professionals dipping their toes back into higher ed.  When I taught in Harvard Extension years ago, many of the students actually treated the classes as a way to meet interesting people, a high brow version of the singles grocery store.

While some extension programs do offer financial aid, most aren’t designed to offer a “full time” degree program or to serve as degree completion program per se.  These extension programs don’t provide the high-level advising or support system that such students need.  A fully online program, especially one delivered in a MOOC format, would provide even less substantive interaction with a professor or classmates than its in-person equivalent.

As for the Georgetown program, my reaction is to say: “Why not?”  Such a program is likely to garner a bit of good PR and convey a sense that Georgetown is not simply yet another exclusive and exclusionary elitist institution, but is, instead, dedicated to serving a broader public.  

After all, it’s relatively easy to start up such a program.  But whether such a program is likely to attract many students is unclear. Previous attempts, like Arizona States’, to deliver an undergraduate degree through MOOCs failed to catch fire.

But there are some deeper questions that need to be asked.  What, precisely, would a liberal studies degree, especially one from a School of Continuing Education, mean?  My experience suggests that degree completers are especially like to want something different: A career-aligned degree with well-defined return on investment.  I simply don’t know what employers make of such a degree from such a unit.

Also, is such a program likely to bring the target student population to success?  It would be a rare undergraduate who is sufficiently self-motivated, likely self-funded, and somehow able to balance degree completion with work and family responsibilities to complete such a program online.

But the biggest question is whether highly selective private institutions, no matter how richly resourced, actually know how to work with students who aren’t extremely smart and self-motivated.  That’s a mission that community colleges and broad access public universities specialize in.  Isn’t there something presumptuous for an R1 can step in and do a better job than those other institutions – especially when they won’t be able to offer wrap-around student supports or extensive interaction with faculty and classmates?

Expanding access to the part-time students and degree completers that higher education has historically served poorly is a wonderful thing.  But before elite institutions jump on this particular band wagon, their faculty need to ask whether their institutions are well-equipped to educate these students better than a community college or equity-serving public 4-year institution can.

Years ago, I heard a prominent Georgetown faculty member propose a very different model for how the institution could better serve its local community.  This would be a 2-year academy, a sort of Georgetown II, that would dedicate itself to preparing its students for transfer to selective institutions.   That struck me not only as an exciting idea, but one that would build on the kind of summer bridge and opportunity programs that highly selective private institutions already offer – and know how to deliver effectively.

Such an initiative would be enormously expensive to offer and could not be delivered online at MOOC-level scale to a global market.  It would certainly not be a money-maker.  But it could, in my opinion, do something that no MOOC, no matter how well designed, could.  It might actually accomplish what Georgetown’s Dean of the School of Continuing Education says the online liberal arts degree completion program promises:  “to empower more students to finish their bachelor’s degree, but also transform their lives.”

I wholeheartedly agree that higher education needs to help “career changers, military-connected individuals, or those interested in later advanced degrees,” by “providing access and affordability” to a “world-class, values-based education.”  But if elite institutions are to intrude onto the domain where experienced, if severely under-resourced, 2- and 4-year institutions are already doing God’s work, then they need to ensure that their offerings really do exceed the value that this nation’s broad access institutions already offer.