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.

Encounters: ‘College for $99 a Month’

Encounters: ideas that go bumpIntroduction: This encounter begins with an idea, a “bump,” from Steve Eskow. In an email message on Sep. 2, he referred me to Kevin Carey’s College for $99 a Month: The Next Generation of Online Education Could Be Great for Students—and Catastrophic for Universities” (Washington Monthly, Sep./Oct. 2009). Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. Please participate in this encounter by posting a comment. I’ll append most or all of the comments to this page as they’re published. -js


keller40Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 3 Sep. 2009, 4:00AM: This article engendered so many thoughts that I cannot begin to write them all. Note the unfair evaluation criteria; compare with online vs. traditonal A.P. science courses. The disruptive innovation thread is large. What if many StraighterLine clones sprung up if regulatory walls were lowered, and many had lower standards — just like today’s colleges. The social benefits to students of college have been ignored in the article. How much of the tutoring and even teaching will be outsourced offshore? Will the $99 per month be sustainable as a business model? StraighterLine only offers 11 courses now, all oriented to business students; when will they be able to offer degrees? Who will support research in renaissance french pottery <big grin> if universities have to downsize? Will future college professors be able to retire on the job until they really retire as some do today? The protesting professors clearly know on which side their bread is buttered and are reacting to a threat rather than proposing rational solutions to impending change. What will happen to low-enrollment courses; will they be aggregated across states or even nations to keep them viable? Who will teach a course that only provides a small slice of $99 per student? How large will the student load per instructor be? Is the ivory-tower model dying? How will drama and science be taught? For online courses, the major costs are the design of the course (amortizable) and the ongoing cost of the instructor. Interestingly, each corporate online provider must design courses anew. Smaller providers, such as small states, purchase the curricula and resell them packaged with one of their instructors.

And so it goes. This concept goes far beyond the use of “clickers” and “smart” boards in bringing technology to education.

The topic may be too large for us to cover, but if we don’t try, we won’t know for sure.


steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, editor, hybrid vs. virtual issues, on 3 Sep. 2009, 7:14AM: Harry refers to the often-cited “social benefits” of the walled university. Apparently something of educational importance happens when the the 300 students and the lecturer and the images on the screen are together in the lecture hall in real time. Or when the 30 students and the graduate student “discuss” the lecture in real time in a 600-square feet classroom.

Jerry FarberI wish someone in our group with institutional library privileges could get us two articles by Jerry Farber: “The Third Circle; On Education and Distance Learning” and “Teaching and Presence.”

Farber’s first circle is “measurable competence.” That’s what we get in all those studies that come out, it almost seems, every other day. Those “NSD” studies.

The second circle contains those competences that aren’t readily measurable.

And the third circle contains those “benefits” that Harry mentions: the profound educational benefits that Farber and so many other attribute to the face-to-face situation.

The philosophic position behind this “third circle” is often called “the metaphysics of presence,” and this matter of the reality or the mythology of “presence” has, I think, been underreported in the literature of online and mediated and distance learning. ETC could do something about that.

Jacques Derrida wrote much–and densely–about “the metaphysics of presence.” About “logocentrism,” and the power of the Word when present, and , importantly for proponents of mediated instruction, on “phonocentrism,” the assumed differences in impact and meaning of the spoken and the written word.

Perhaps Farber’s articles could help us get a modest shared background on this matter of “presence,” and we might get help from folks in philosophy on Heidegger and Derrida and the implications of “the metaphysics of presence” for the future of online learning.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 7:22AM): The social benefits happen outside of the classroom. People make lifelong friends and set up future business relationships. They join clubs that foster success after graduation. I would never suggest (at least from my personal experience) any social benefits from sitting in a classroom.


Steve Eskow, (9.3.09, 7:32AM): Harry is not talking, then, about “learning” as the curriculum defines it, but about “social capital.” About the so-called “extra-curriculum.”

(When he was President of Princeton Woodrow Wilson wrote extensively about what he called student excitement and involvement in the “sideshows” and their lack of of interest in “the main tent”: the classroom and the curriculum.

Others here and everywhere attribute important learning enhancement and benefits from “presence”: from the living word, from the face-to-faceness of the classroom as opposed to what they see as the “distance” imposed by distance learning: the lack of this almost mystical “presence.”

Farber is one strong voice speaking for this “presence.” Hubert Dreyfus is another.

I don’t think the issue has found its way into distance learning circles, and it’s at the very center of our work, and yet largely unrecognized and unremarked.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 8:26AM): Regarding “presence”:

1. I don’t see it. Except for the very unusual show types, having a prof in the room with you gains little or nothing.

2. It’s more useful for the instructor who can gauge the impact of what’s going on by the faces (rapt or blank stares or whatever). Tools available today to online instructors can do even better than face-reading, however.

3. I often had the person who wrote the book (and in one case was writing it daily) giving the lectures. The only advantage to the class was being able to ask questions, but with 180 students, the opportunities to do so were small. Online is better in that respect.

4. Seeing professors out of their element gives little idea of what they really do. However, every first-year student cannot visit the professors as they’re working.

5. Many online students have remarked that they’re cowed in traditional classes but can open up and become involved in online classes.

Persons are important; presence is not. It will be a long time before a real, live instructor can be replaced by a machine. However, some of the work traditionally done by instructors can now be done by machines so that teaching becomes more of a mentoring or facilitating job. It becomes elevated to a real person skill.


Steve Eskow, (9.3.09, 8:49AM): Harry, it seems increasingly clear to me that many of us heavily involved in mediated instruction are unfamiliar with the large and important literature on this matter of “presence” and “the metaphysics of presence,” and unaware of the role it plays in philosophy and practice–and, importantly for our work, in the serious resistance to distance learning.

An interesting and intricate example of the power of presence thesis is MIT: hardly an enemy of technology and technology-enhanced learning. MIT is increasingly technologizing its instruction–but on campus. As far as I know, complee resistance to distance learning for its students. All MIT credit instruction, as far as I know, requires that you be “present.” On the other hand, distance learning students around the world can make arrangements to access the4 MIT “i-labs” program: lab instruction online.

Hubert Dreyfus is a philosopher who has written such important books as WHAT COMPUTERS CAN’T DO. His book ON THE INTERNET is a serious critique of mediated instruction built around the “presence” thesis.

If we want to engage the important critics of distance learning we need to know more about their position and deep concerns. That means, I think, taking their arguments seriously and engaging with them.

Farber’s articles, and Dreyfus’ ON THE INTERNET would give us a start in developing a common background on the “presence” thesis.

Or: we should know more about it before we attack. It’s serious, substantial stuff–not just anti-technology claptrap.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 10:08AM): I’d like to see the gloves come off in the discussion on this topic. Although our view of the future is hazy and dark, we can consider the effects of various futures.

Replacing the sage on the stage with the net mentor has to be a positive step. Loss of a place (secondary school or college) where people gather together ostensibly to learn but really have learning as the secondary purpose, will have repercussions. What are they? Where do those sports teams go? Will the academic part of a college evaporate leaving behind a sports program as its residue? I’m guessing that some alums wouldn’t mind, but the national fraternities and sororities will. Can they have virtual counterparts?

If students can get high school diplomas and college degrees online, they’ll be at home much more putting more of a burden on the parents. Actually going to college exposes many students to other regions and other cultures. When I went to graduate school in New York City, I had never been East of the Mississippi or ridden on a subway or been to a coffee house. I saw a woman’s purse snatched right across the street from me. I saw Jackie Kennedy going to my own drugstore. I saw Robert Preston walking to a rehearsal on a nearly empty Broadway early in the morning. I met Tom Clancy (of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy …) in a bar once. I saw Gene Kruppa practicing his drums in a nightclub in the middle of the day. All of this stuff has nothing to do with classes. It’s the other part of your education.

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. The implications of StraighterLine are very very far-reaching as are those of the entire online movement.