Monday, July 7, 2008

Should higher education be more concentrated?

I started to reply to a comment Jaya left the other day, but my response got out of control length-wise, and I figured it should be its own post. She wondered about the possibility that someday, colleges might relocate so that there would be more schools geographically proximate to each other, which would offer some obvious benefits.

I don't think so, for a few reasons.

One, of course, moving itself is enormously expensive. Long-term, a new location might be cheaper, but schools would have some difficulty getting the money together in the short term. Sufficient incentive may overcome this, but remember that after Katrina, the one thing none of the area colleges did was consider relocating, despite the virtual certainty the another flood will happen again someday. I do know of one school that is relocating in the near future, but from an urban area to a more suburban/rural one - getting farther from its neighbors, not closer. The cost barrier was overcome in this case because its present location is now primo real estate.

Two, most colleges are extremely regional. The best predictor of whether a student goes to college is how close he/she is to one, and the best predictor of which one a student goes to is again location. The subset of schools this is most true of are also the most penny-pinched. Elite schools with a national reach and the students that attend them are an unusual (and small) segment of the educational marketplace. Princeton, for example, is not tied to its region, but it also can afford to stay in New Jersey. Community colleges in particular exist to serve a particular community, not even an entire region. College-access advocates would have a fit if colleges were moved away from local constituents to where other schools already exist, leaving a pool of students without a nearby institution. Of course, one can easily debate the power your average educational pundit has!

Three, most politicians would be opposed to a college in their district relocating. State reps would object to moving their local colleges elsewhere, because they are a key producer of jobs and state revenue for the area. (Even those congressmen who aren't so keen on providing the funding.) Moreover, the cities that would receive the institutions wouldn't be happy, either. Cities that have a large concentration of nonprofits (including colleges) have been increasingly complaining about the reduction in property taxes that results. (PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes, are becoming more common.) A city that already has several institutions of higher education isn't likely to think that one more will be a major engine of economic growth.

Now, note that I don't believe all these arguments are socially good ones. I think the access argument is, but the one about costs is not - it's just a reflection of the way things tend to work, not how they ought to. There are considerable benefits to informal synergy and formal consortia; the model of the Claremont colleges ought to be more widely replicated, I believe.

The overall tone of this post is a big "no, not gonna happen," but that's not because I don't believe there are benefits to co-location. (I'm definitely anti-sprawl when we're talking about things other than education, after all). I'm going to save the benefits for a separate post, however.


smanda said...

You forgot the point about how distance learning and internet courses will make this all a moot point. It is the future of higher education*. Sorry, old crotchety professors who can't even use Blackboard!

*see enrollment at the not-so-reputable University of Phoenix. There's obviously the market demand.

turducken said...

I think traditional colleges and universities are rather like Mark Twain, in that predictions of their death have been greatly exaggerated. There is indubitably a market for distance education, but there remains a market for the more traditional forms for reasons both commendable and seemingly foolish. Students looking for a four-year party, intellectual coffee-house conversation, prestigious social connections, or the chance to work in a scientific lab will not find any of those wants satisfied via Blackboard.

(Yikes. Can you tell I've been reading Jane Austen?)

At least, I don't think distance education will be able to satisfy those wants until we have major advances in technology, such as immersive VR or perhaps teleportation.

smanda said...

Ok, so you've just described a niche for small liberal arts colleges. Otherwise, online courses or partly online courses can fill many other educational needs.

The reality is that more and more undergraduates are non traditionals, going to school part time and working jobs. They want flexibility. Colleges, even large research institutions, are struggling to meet these needs.

Sitting in a lecture hall in a distance learning classroom is not much different than sitting thru a lecture at a large university. I've seen part online/part field classes where most of the class is online and there are maybe 4 field trips which cover the hands on material. And a lot of discussion and interaction can and does take place on Blackboard forums.

turducken said...

Not just small liberal arts colleges. Medical school, graduate study in the sciences, seminaries - any place where there is a substantial hands-on component to education that a student cannot replicate at home, or where lifestyle supervision is part of the program - simply cannot be effectively done via distance learning with today's technology. For-profits are claiming a larger part of many of these markets, but not through their distance divisions.

I'm not sure what courses delivered partly online have to do with this question. Students can only do four field trips a semester over the course of an entire degree if the field isn't that far away. A chemistry course with a weekly lab component can have online lectures, but in order for there to be a lab the students still have to be geographically proximate. A program that has some online learning yet requires a home base doesn't overturn the need for students to physically be present, even if it is less often. I would not deny at all that these kinds of classes can fulfill educational needs; I do deny they eliminate the need for a college located near students.

However, I would certainly agree that those institutions that rely heavily on cheaper forms of instruction are going to be hit the hardest by any sort of competition. I recall a story about a program and flagship university that will remain unnamed, where a student graduated having had only four courses taught by a professor (as opposed to a TA or adjunct). Most of the class sizes numbered in the 100s, and frequently no instructor was physically present. Even traditional students, unless they are really into "the college experience," are going to question the value of this - and this was a state where tuition rates are going up. Sooner or later, Phoenix is going to look like a pretty good alternative. But even the University of Phoenix continues to increase its bricks-and-mortar market penetration rather than growing solely online.

(The question of interaction on Blackboard forums is an interesting one, but I think there's enough there that I don't want to fully get into it now. The short version is that it is a terrific tool, but it only replaces certain kinds of student experiences. Some of those that it can't replace are not just "fun" but actually influential on outcomes such as graduation rates and academic achievement.)

smanda said...

Ok, you're right. I can't make a great case for science classes to be taught remotely since the hands on component can't be easily replicated at home. But a class on Chaucer or the women's liberation movement?

turducken said...

I'm with you there. There's no equipment, you can do great discussions, etc. I can understand why some people would still prefer in-person for any number of reasons - but then others would prefer online, too.