Is ‘$99 a Month for College’ Really a Cute Little Kitten?

John SenerBy John Sener

In a recent blog post on his Connectivism web site, George Siemens uses the term “cute kitten syndrome” to describe how practitioners commonly treat open education resources — cute, cuddly, beyond reproach — but he offers some constructive criticism anyway.

While reading “College for $99 a Month,” I couldn’t help thinking about cute kittens. Who could be against cut-rate college? We all know how expensive higher education has gotten in the U.S.; the movement to make college more affordable for more people is laudable and much needed. Awww, $99 a month for college, isn’t it cuuuuute? Somebody, though, needs to be thinking about the shots, the litter box, and who’s going to feed it.

Although this is a magazine article with the requisite human interest hooks to heighten reader interest, it’s still a fair question to ask whether or not $99 a month for college, and the business model it implies, really is a cute little kitten in the first place. My take: it is a worthwhile innovation on balance. Catastrophic for universities? This kitten’s got some lumps and warts — the cuteness in this case fades upon closer inspection.

The storyline we’re supposed to absorb appears to be something like this:  the Internet makes cheaper education possible ($99 a month!). Smart innovators are trying to make this happen with the support of eager students and Free Markets. Self-serving faculty and inauthentic, short-sighted accreditors are trying to stop this from happening. But in the long run, consumer choice will win out, and students will learn cheaply! And most everyone will live happily ever after (except for the universities and maybe the accreditors too). The End.


OK, I don’t want to be too sarcastic here because the article has a lot of good points and some useful information. As a coherent whole, however, I’ve read the thing several times and still can’t make heads or tails of it. The superficial storyline is simple enough to grasp, but its connection to the reality it purports to describe falls apart upon closer examination.

Like Craigslist, StraighterLine threatens the most profitable piece of a conglomerate business: freshman lectures, higher education’s equivalent of the classified section.

Where is the evidence that freshman lectures are the most profitable “piece” of the higher education “business?” Is the comparison between freshman lectures and classified advertising apt? Not really.

The most basic mistake here, of course, is trying to view higher education as strictly a business. Yes, they have revenues and costs. But, name another “business” whose customers are also its products, its performers, and its benefactors. Or one which “sells” every unit it “makes” at a loss, i.e., the gap between tuition and actual costs. (OK, besides most Internet companies.)

Beyond that, the comparison to classified advertising is misleading. According to various sources, classified ads accounted for 40% of total newspaper revenue in 2000; that dropped to 25% in 2008. Does tuition from freshmen account for 25-40% of revenue for IHEs? Figures are hard to find, but if we consider that IHEs have multiple sources of revenue (grants, government & foundation funding, partnerships, etc.) and that freshmen only comprise at most 30-35% of the tuition revenue (far less for universities with graduate programs), it doesn’t appear that tuition from freshmen is anywhere near as important to IHEs as classified advertising has been to newspapers.

Is college getting less affordable for more and more students? Absolutely. Do IHEs guard their underclass revenue streams jealously? You bet they do. I know an instructor who taught the exact same course at the local community college and the nearby university. If a student took the course at the community college, the local university refused to accept transfer credit for the course even though it was supposedly a “sister institution.” Stories like these abound and are one of the reasons we are cheering for solutions that effect change. But is freshmen tuition the soft underbelly of the IHE revenue model? Not feelin’ it…

The only expensive thing left in higher education was the labor, the price of hiring a smart, knowledgeable person to help students when only a person would do. And the unique Smarthinking call-center model made that much cheaper, too.

Has the author priced building construction or football uniforms lately? More to the point, what are the labor costs in intro courses where TAs, large class sizes, and community college-level tuition rates abound? There is an important point here: StraighterLine and others (present and future) offer their services as an improved alternative with a lower cost structure.  But the actual reality is rather more complex than the storyline implies.


Big changes need to happen from without and within, but characterizing the existing structures as simply “artificial barriers” is frankly a bit naive and ultimately counter-productive. We can and must do better than that.


Where there are cute kittens, there are also usually ugly trolls playing the role of villain and making the kittens look that much cuter. In this article, the ugly trolls are the accrediting agencies:

…the biggest obstacle…was a process called accreditation….And the most prestigious accreditors will only recognize institutions: organizations with academic departments, highly credentialed faculty, bureaucrats, libraries, and all the other pricey accoutrements of the modern university. These things make higher education more expensive, and they’re not necessary if all you want to do is offer standard introductory courses online….The accreditation wall will crumble, as most artificial barriers do.

It’s easy to typecast accreditation agencies as trolls: they’re bureaucracies, they have complex rules and make stupid decisions sometimes. Just get out of the way, you mean accreditation agencies, and let us offer our standard introductory courses in full market freedom! Uh, not so fast. Accrediting agencies are not just “artificial barriers” — they provide tangible and valued benefits (here’s a representative list). “Down with the system!” is just, well, so ’60s and ’70s. Big changes need to happen from without and within, but characterizing the existing structures as simply “artificial barriers” is frankly a bit naive and ultimately counter-productive. We can and must do better than that.

Colleges may have another decade or two, particularly given their regulatory protections. Imagine if Honda, in order to compete in the American market, had been required by federal law to adopt the preestablished labor practices, management structure, dealer network, and vehicle portfolio of General Motors. Imagine further that Honda could only sell cars through GM dealers. Those are essentially the terms that accreditation forces on potential disruptive innovators in higher education today.

Actually, accreditors are more like the EPA in this example. Their policies can be maddening — I waited five years for an EPA-acceptable Smart car to arrive in the US, and then they send us a 40mpg model instead of the 60mpg one? (And of course, we’ll never see a street-legal Smart roadster here.) On the other hand, do we really want hordes of cheap and truly unsafe cars fattening up our traffic death statistics, which is what would happen if there were no EPA regulations?

Likewise, accreditors and their regulations should not somehow disappear from the equation, but accreditors should be looking more closely at alternative models which save students money, and looking very closely at models like StraighterLine. The rest of academe should be too. Is what StraighterLine et al. offer of sufficient quality? If it’s better than 400-person lectures, then why shouldn’t it be acceptable? Are we missing something important by going to the StraighterLine model? If so, should we be looking harder at incorporating it into existing courses? These are good questions to be asking, and I’m glad that StraighterLine is causing enough irritation to bring this issue to greater attention.

In short, we need a less fairytale and more systemic approach to dealing with this situation. Catastrophic for universities? Oops, there goes StraighterLine’s business model along with their clients. Surely Burck Smith and the rest of us can come up with a better, non-catastrophic solution…


steve_eskow40 Click here to see the response from Steve Eskow.

6 Responses

  1. John, I, for one, am less interested in the cute little kittens than I am in the great big wolves at the door.

    Where do we get answers to questions like these:

    1. How much of the university budget goes for brick and mortar, maintenance and repair, parking lots, security forces, etc? Are the educational benefits accruing from these older technologies worth these dollars?

    2. To what extent do the walls dictate the pedagogies? For example: if the lecturer and his students assemble together in time and place the historic technology means that all students get their instruction at the same time, that is, there is no way for the brighter students to get their lectures in less than 15 weeks or the slower in more. Is there merit in abandoning this one-size approach?

    3. Is it time to review the notion that the university should blend the research and teaching functions, which so often now means that the research stars do little or no teaching and influencing of students, which is left to underpaid drudges, often with splendid background but hard to understand accents, or to graduate students? Huge tuition charges to learn from grad students and poorly treated “adjuncts.” Is it time to turn a harsh light on some of these realites?

    4. When i was with a SUNY college there were 64 units, each with its own library, librarians, and students waiting to read the library’s only copy of a book, which was on “reserve.” I don’t know what the annual budget was–and is–for those 64 libraries. In the age of digital libraries, is it time to rethink the expenses generated by the historic walled system and such pieces of it as the traditional library?

    I realize I am not speaking to the craig’s list matter, and other such issues, but I think there is a possibility that the cute little kitten is somehow helping us to see the outlines of a huge dinosaur.

    Best, Steve

    • Steve,

      Quick answers:
      1. Lots
      2. Lots
      3. Yes
      4. Yes

      OK, it’s a bit more complex than that. A lot more complex, actually. All of your examples are good ones; none of them has a quick or singular fix as far as I know. And IHEs will no doubt come up with many different responses, some of which will be good ones. For example, how close are we to having most or all of the book-stored knowledge in digital form? I don’t know. Ten years ago, I heard from librarians that only ~2% of it was online. Surely we’re much farther along, but how far?

      Whenever I visit my home state of Pennsylvania, I’m always fascinated by its odd corners here and there which are living museums, as if preserved in amber from the 50s, 40s, and even earlier. Apparently some people find dinosaurs a little cute and cuddly also… ;-)

  2. Greetings All – I’ve enjoyed all of your interesting posts. I developed the $99/month model for college degrees – see – my only suggestion is that while people are on the sidelines commenting about what can and can’t be done, we are already doing it. To that end I hope you all enjoy what I find to be the most extensive coverage of what’s happening in our space:

    Steve Cooper
    Founder, Tech University of America

    • Nice to hear from you, Steve! I read the article you referenced as part of the background reading for my post. I can’t help but wondering if you and Burck Smith (whom I’ll ask separately) feel a bit of ambivalence about such publicity though — on the one hand, great publicity which helps people absorb the simple message. But on the other hand, does it bother you that such articles offer a rather casual relationship with reality so that their storyline dissolves if one bothers to look at it closely?

      As I noted in my posting, it’s good to see models such as yours offering challenges to higher education. In the absence of the government/taxpayer-funded ‘free’ education which happens successfully in so many other highly developed countries, it will be interesting to see what headway your model can make and what effects it will have in this one.

      Also, be assured that the “sideline” commentary for many (if not most or all) of us who post here is a “time out” from our own work in the field, helping make changes happen in a variety of ways.

      • Hi J Senner – you raise some very good points. Personally, I learned years ago from my commander that if we don’t tell our story someone else will, which explains why I am here, and actively on many other sites, telling our story.

        I do have one anectode for you on this – when I was a military instructor I did some very odd things – small group methods of instructions, games for learning, etc. My students were always doing better than other classes, so obviously my colleagues begun to throw darts. However, my commander felt that substandard instructors were envious of what we were doing, but since they didn’t know how to express themselves they begun to critique us. He then made us all rotate each cycle and teach with each other. Not becuase I am the “character” in this little story, but in the end, I earned the full respect and confidence of all of my colleauges because once they got to work with me and see my values, dedication and even loyalty to them, they begun to appreciate my unorthodox approach to learning. So my point here is that by having an open university taught within Facebook and other social networking sites I think one major benefit for us is that our “criticis” if you will, will all be able to see us closely in action so they can then critique from an informed position. So I welcome the academic critique, also probably because I am an academic, and as you mostly probably know, most people running for-profit schools are MBAs and bankers, not academics.

        Thank you.

  3. Indeed, the issue is complex. But there are lessons to be learned by reviewing some of the program results of the very Sloan Foundation with which John Sener is affiliated.

    Sloan heavily funded the SUNY Learning Network — and learned early on that a huge percentage (it may have been the majority) of SLN students were students enrolled at SUNY institutions and on campus in the first place. “Click!” Something was missing in SUNY classrooms — especially its largest and most impersonal ones.

    SLN even promoted such courses by, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, offering an online calculator for how much gas, tolls, etc. a student would save by NOT commuting to a campus (

    SUNY’s advertisement thus openly acknowledged that costs to the student were a driving factor in enrollment — while failing to make its own case for the “value-added” of the SUNY classroom. Indeed, what were the “values added” on campus?

    It’s difficult to have it both ways, isn’t it? Unless, of course, your model of higher education abandons the either/or models and concentrates on the both/ands.

    What universities have done is invite this movement towards the independent for-profit $99 course by, precisely, having invented it themselves. Through adjunctification of the education mission, especially the “general education program,” and the acceptance of a model of teaching divorced from research, cheap labor and often lesser degree attainment on the part of the instructor were the main “bottom line” attractions and became the primary staples of the classrooms of the largest universities and now, even smaller colleges.

    The inextricable linkage of teaching and research and the relationship between faculty and students were, after all, the founding principles of the university. The reason for the continuing popularity of the small residential liberal arts college is, increasingly, that there alone does the traditional “idea of the university” hold its greatest sway.

    The adjunctification of colleges and universities has shifted more funding to the dramatic expansion of administration in numbers and in salaries — and, of course, personnel are the largest single ongoing cost to any employer.

    Indeed, the wolf is not only at the door of higher education — it’s sitting in the administration buildings and has no intention of leaving until it has its fill…and then moves on.

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