Thursday, August 9, 2018

How Academic Pricing Works: A Fantasy Dialog

I recently engaged in a Twitter conversation with respected colleagues about institutions that charge an extra fee for online courses. They were arguing that this fee was arbitrary and unfair and I agree totally. However, some of their comments suggested that they don't have the experience that I do with the (often arbitrary) fees that get charged. I immediately imagined how the conversation might have gone, Let me emphasize - this is imaginary, but based on my experience is a completely plausible scenario.

Date: 2010
Place: Provost's Office, Major State Unversity
Present: Dean, Provost

Dean: I think it's time we expanded our distance-ed courses. The students really want the option.
Provost: That's great! How much extra revenue can we pull in? We could really use it after the state cuts.
Dean: Well... it's not really going to bring in anything other than the tuition. And we have some expenses - we really need to hire an instructional designer, and we're going to need to license a better LMS. I was hoping you could find a way to provide some extra resources. I figure we need $250,000
Provost: That's a nice idea, but I got nothing. You need to figure out how to fund it. What if you charged a fee for the online courses?
Dean: That doesn't seem right - I mean, we charge the same for all our in-person courses no matter what they cost. These students aren't even going to take up classroom space.
Provost: Yeah, I hear you, but we need the money. How many students do you think you'll have online?
Dean: We'll easily have 2,500 in a year.
Provost: So, we can charge them $100 each and that should do it. I'll talk to the CFO And if this works out we can try to figure out another way to fund it in a year or two when the budget recovers.

Date: 2014
Place: Provost's Office
Present: Dean, New Provost (2013)

Dean: I wanted to talk about the fee for online courses.
Provost: Oh, OK. What about it? Do you want to raise it?
Dean: Well, we did it to start up our program, but the old Provost agreed it wasn't really fair and it was a stopgap. We should drop it.
Provost: How much does it bring in?
Dean: It's actually up to about $750,000 a year
Provost: Well, if you drop it, how are you going to make up the $750,000?
Dean: Don't you think we could get a baseline increase to cover it?
Provost: Not really. You want to hire new faculty don't you? And then there's the cost of the settlement for that tenure dispute, that's going to be at least $250,000. Revenue is revenue. If we can that, YOU have to make it up. I don't have that kind of money sitting around, despite what the Senate Budget Committee says.
Dean: Well, OK, they never complain about it so I guess it's not that big a deal.

Date: 2018
Place: Provost's Office
Present: New Dean (2015), New Provost (2017)
Provost: I want to talk to you about the online course fee
Dean: Yeah, I can't find anyone who even remembers why we have it
Provost: Well it's a good thing we do. The President has asked me to come up with a million we can give back to go into Advancement to support the Capital Campaign. I figure we can use $500,000 of that fee revenue. And I'm going to need $250,000 to support the consultant for our assessment project.
Dean: So I can keep $250,000? We really need that to pay the instructional designer. We could use another one but I'll hold that position open.
Provost: Thanks for helping out. And let's think about going to $150, it's not really that much and it's been $100 for a long time.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lessons from Protesting

photo CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

As I watch the activity on campuses around the US on #NationalWalkoutDay, I'm vividly reminded of my own experience as a student growing up in the last great era of student protest.

In 1968 I was in sixth grade at Mar Vista Elementary in Los Angeles. 1968 was a remarkable, violent, turbulent, divided year, not just in the US but notably in Mexico and much of Europe. I'm the oldest in my family, but I had friends with brothers and sisters at UCLA, Venice High, and other centers of protest - as well as friends with siblings, cousins, and neighbors in the middle of the violence that was the US intervention in Vietnam.

At some point, a group of us at Mar Vista decided we needed to protest. I honestly can't remember what the issue was, but we decided we would occupy the flagpole in front of the school and prevent the flag from being pulled down at the end of the day. As class ended for the day, we assembled in a ring around the flag pole, sat down, and waited.

As I recall, at some point the campus custodian came to furl the flag and found a small group of 10 and 11 year old kids surrounding it and informing him (politely) that they were protesting and that the flag could not be taken down. He probably scratched his head a couple of times and headed to principal's office to get advice and counsel.

Next, our principal Lorna Round came out to talk to us. She asked us calmly what we were doing and we explained the issue and our actions. She listened patiently and respectfully to her students, who were probably confused both about the meaning and means we had chosen to protest. She was not patronizing, but did inform us that the custodian couldn't go home until the flag was down, so she was hopeful that we could wrap up the protest before too long.

So we sat and maybe sang a song or chanted something, then got up and headed home.

You could say that this was just an act of entitled children (which we mostly were) playing at protest, and you'd be right. But it also taught us that if we spoke up, there were people who would listen. I was also taught by Mrs. Round that respect is the cornerstone of civil society, and that children have ideas and rights, and deserve to be heard. I remember this action more vividly than any civics lessons or lecture on the First Amendment.