What do colleges sell?

Universities are starting to give away their content online, while they still charge tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend. Just what are they selling? Credentials, accountability, and feedback.

Some people are asking why go to college when you can download a college education via iTunes U.

First, you would have no credentials when you’re done.

Second, you almost certainly would not put in the same amount of work as a college student without someone to pace you through the material and to provide external motivation. You’d be less likely to struggle through anything you found difficult or uninteresting.

Third, you’d have no feedback to know whether you’re really learning what you think you’re learning.

The people that I hear gush about online education opportunities are well-educated, successful, and ambitious. They may be less concerned about credentials either because they are intrinsically motivated or because they already have enough credentials. And because of their ambition, they need less accountability. They may need less feedback or are resourceful enough to seek out alternative channels for feedback, such as online forums. Resources such iTunes U and The Teaching Company are a godsend to such people. But that doesn’t mean that a typical teenager would make as much of the same opportunities.

25 thoughts on “What do colleges sell?

  1. Should the ‘typical teenager’ really be going to a university?

    That’s the reason that the value of a college education has dropped so much even as the cost increases. Many kids entering universities (even ivy league) these days haven’t aren’t really qualified to hold their high school diploma, and they’ll be skated through college as easily as they drifted through public education, as long as they keep paying the bills.

    That’s why the price is up, because you’re essentially buying credentials — proving you are a part of the upper class, not gaining valuable skills and education. Ask the 99%

  2. I’ll add one other thing that you don’t get from online courses: the casual interaction with other people just as smart as you. and thinking about the same things (because they’re taking the same classes) at the same times. We learn from our peers as well as from our intructors – some would say even better. No matter how good a person is at interacting on the net, they just can’t match the bandwidth of face-to-face interaction, and would be very hard pressed to develop the same sort of pedagogically-useful interactions online that they get “for free” at college.

    Online classes might be great for learning specific things, but sometimes it’s the non-specific – i.e. less directed, more exploratory – learning that really matters.

  3. Aaron: There’s certainly credential inflation. Employers look for college degrees to fill positions that do not really require a college education. Also, a high school diploma does not guarantee that someone is literate, so employers may ask for a college degree to get some assurance that someone really has at least a high school education. In that case a college education is a very expensive remediation for high schools not doing their jobs.

    Jeff: I completely agree. You learn a lot from your peers, and that’s best done in person. Not only do you learn facts or skills from peers, you learn attitudes as well. If you hang around people who are excited about learning, their attitude will rub off. And if you hang around people who want to do the minimum to scrape by, that attitude will rub off too.

  4. Andrew de Andrade

    In many industries we are moving away from credentials and towards portfolios and reputation for many tasks. Take Github, Dribbble and Forrst for example. Both are better forms of “credentialization” for programmers and developers than has ever existed before.

    Open-source will become more and more normal as more and more professions move towards systems like Github and Dribbble. Open-source generates social capital within professionals, which is then “exchanged” for physical/monetary capital via opportunities.

    The tough transition period for many industries will be the “handoff” between universities doing this job and systems for allowing people to show what they can do out in the open.

  5. Christopher Allen-Poole

    Unfortunately, with the price of grad school somewhere between completely unaffordable and insane, iTunes U is the only way we can afford to go.

  6. Aaron: I agree with you that most “teenagers” probably shouldnt attend university; learning a trade in most cases would be more beneficial economically and personally. But, I do disagree with you regarding “buying credentials” from top universities. As someone who has taken classes all over the college spectrum(Ive gone to a state school, a community college, and now I’m going to a prestigious private university), to be honest, an online education is equal to or better than most community colleges, or state funded schools. But, one cannot understimate the stimulation and inspiration that you can get from the environment that top universities present to you. I grow so much everyday because I interact and socialize with people that are equally as smart or smarter, and am also in a pleasant environment and given the tools and connections to reach my fullest potential. To be honest; being at community college just depressed me, its basically a continuation of highschool filled with unambitous lazy people(there is of course exceptions, diamonds in the rough). I also cannot agree with John more, attitudes rub off on you. So if you have a professor that really cares about you and wants to help you succeed vs a professor that hates there job and wants to feel superior to students, it really makes all the difference. In the end, we’re all just products of our environment and who we interact with and learn things from.

  7. Andrew: It takes a lot of work to evaluate someone’s portfolio, and the work cannot be delegated to a non-expert. So companies will continue to filter resumes by credentials, at least as a first pass. Then maybe they’ll look at the portfolios of the finalists.

    Christopher: I imagine you’re the kind of person who has the background and ambition to make good use of iTunes U.

  8. You should *not* exclude disruption because the newcomer does not have all the features of the established solution. It never does.

    You can find 2000 reasons why the iPhone cannot disrupt Microsoft’s monopoly on operating systems. You can find 2000 reasons why Linux (and hence Android) can’t make good end-user systems.

    And you can find 2000 reasons why inexpensive online education (e.g., Stackoverflow) can’t disrupt traditional education. But these arguments prove nothing.


    Let me take your arguments one by one:

    1) “You would have no credentials when you’re done.”

    That’s not true, of course. People on stackoverflow do build credentials, for example. What is more accurate is that you lack the traditional credentials required to be hired by a large corporation or by the government. But all this is saying is that corporatism and traditional education are self-supporting entities. This means that as long as corporations offer plenty of good jobs, traditional education is safe. The minute corporations stop hiring, you got a problem.

    2) “Second, you almost certainly would not put in the same amount of work as a college student without someone to pace you through the material and to provide external motivation. You’d be less likely to struggle through anything you found difficult or uninteresting.”

    People are fundamentally wired to learn, all the time. It is our natural state. Schools overwhelming teach irrelevant and boring stuff in a factory-like setting. No wonder people can’t learn this way on their own. But that’s not the point. People won’t mimick factories when left alone.

    3) “Third, you’d have no feedback to know whether you’re really learning what you think you’re learning.”

    That is not true, of course.

    Conclusion: I cannot say whether there will be a disruption soon, but your arguments fail to convince that it won’t come.

  9. I agree completely with the poster above me, Daniel.

    I am attending UT Austin and can confirm that universities, especially large public schools, are good for 4 years of partying and not much else. I’ve learned more through online resources than I ever have in any class.

  10. Daniel: Online education can improve. I imagine it will. But I don’t think it’s there yet.

    Xavier: I spent 8 years as a student at UT Austin (4 for a BS, 4 for a PhD) and I learned a few things there. I learn online now, but my formal education prepared me for my informal education.

    On the other hand, I mostly had small classes. Some of them were very interactive. If you’re one student out of hundreds sitting in an auditorium listening to a mediocre lecture, you’d be better off watching a great lecture on video.

  11. I read your bio, always glad to meet another Texas grad!

    I agree that it has a lot to do with the major and the students motivation but I used UT as an representation of most big state schools. For every student that gets a phd or is involved with extracurriculars there are 100 others who waste 4 or 5 years at house parties and bars.

    Sometimes it feels like half of my incoming freshman class has dropped out, and that’s with UT having good academic focus. Imagine what schools like Texas State, UT El Paso/Dallas/Permian Basin, ect. are like But I HATE higher education lol.

  12. X: You’re right that some majors have much higher standards than others. And many freshmen do drop out after one semester, or they straighten up.

    Daniel: It occurred to me later that you and I might be talking past each other. I wasn’t trying in this post to address structured online education, only someone saying “Hey, I think I’ll watch these lectures. That’ll be as good as taking a college class.” An online college class offers credentials, accountability, and feedback. So does Stack Overflow for that matter.

  13. Hi John,

    There is a growing number of activities/occupations for which one could pick up the skills from a combination of freely accessible resources (e.g. the internet) or cheaply acquired ones (e.g. books, that are cheap in comparison with the cost of university). There is an element of personal, first-hand interactions with other intelligent human beings, that would be missing from not attending a university; I doubt that they would be a deal breaker.

    I think Daniel Lemire is correct when stating that we have evolving systems of credentials and feedback. We do have now communities of individuals—in some cases as good or even better—that are willing to share what they now in exchange for self-fulfillment and karma points. We also have disciplines where it is possible to create ideas, design and write code, analyze data, etc and the results can serve as a portfolio.

    I can see that a large company could be uncomfortable with this situation; however, would you have the same attitude if you were a startup? Smaller, more dynamic companies would be more willing to try employing someone that doesn’t have a piece of paper with credentials. The interesting thing is that once someone acquires work experience the value of the credential diminishes.

    Sure, at least for now I can’t see people doing building engineering or performing neurosurgery because they participate in internet forums and read a couple of books. But I would be willing to hire people in quite a few occupations that can show the required skills, even when they did not acquire them in university.

    Of course this put both potential students and universities in a difficult position. This situation will not get any easier in the short term.

  14. Hi John,

    If now you mostly learn online what do you think about higher education (i.e. masters and PhD degrees) for the non-academic inclined? i.e. those who would go onto higher degrees just to do a higher standard of work? Should more emphasis be put on self learning after a Bachelor’s degree to get into higher positions?



  15. human mathematics

    Now that Andrew Ng’s “first” online machine learning courses at Stanford have ended, someone knows the completion rate. (Not that a course heavily advertised on YCombinator.com draws from the same population as a regular MIT OCW course – and not to say that Ng’s virtual sticks & carrots wouldn’t increase completion rates.)

    My personal guess was that less than 1% of OCW course views result in a completed course.

    Isn’t MITx going to offer credentials for some of its new offerings?

  16. human mathematics

    The US government gives out loans on very good terms to those who enrol in certain kinds of higher education – not including OCW, AcademicEarth, and so on.

    Someone who wants to learn online needs to find an alternative way of making money.

    You could argue that’s good or bad. Or you could argue that part of what colleges are selling is access to massive loans. (This relates to Xavier’s point. Although I’m not sure that 4-5 years of house parties is a “waste”, it sounds rather nice.)

  17. “you would have no credentials when you’re done”

    Here’s a gap in the market! Some enterprising college should offer external exams without requiring a full enrolment, attending lectures, etc.

    Of course, for the reasons canvassed above, a real attendance is vastly superior to a virtual presence. But perhaps the college could add an incentive by restricting degrees to people who actually enrolled in units.

  18. Jack: Given a choice, I’d much rather read books and talk with people face-to-face than learn something online. But when you’re interested in something specialized, you may not be able to find a book on the topic or a someone to talk to about it in person.

    I would hesitate to recommend a PhD program for someone not interested in academic research. The goal of a PhD program is to do independent research, not to master a body of knowledge. These two goals overlap to some extent, but not as much as you might think.

  19. Felix: Interesting point about a market gap. I like the idea of independent certification. There are some examples of this, particularly in computing. Some of these certifications are tied to a particular vendor, but some are sponsored by an industry association.

    There may be a window where such certification can thrive. The profession needs to be mature enough that there’s a perceived need for certification, but not so mature that the profession has had time to form guilds to create barriers to entry.

    I think there’s a tendency for certifications to start out without required course work, but then to require it later. At one point you could become a lawyer by passing the bar exam, but I believe you now need a law degree as well. When I looked at the professional engineer certification years ago, you had to have a bachelor’s degree in engineering before you could take the exam. (A graduate degree in engineering would not do unless you also had an undergrad degree in engineering!)

  20. Oh. And please let us stop with “you wouldn’t let a surgeon who learned medicine online operate on you”. I keep reading this all over the Internet and it really annoys me.

    You wouldn’t or shouldn’t let a surgeon who learned in a classroom operate on you.

    Thankfully, you do not get to practice medicine because you have attended certain classes. Same deal with lawyers: you don’t attend a few law classes and then move on to representing someone in a murder case.

    Regarding medicine, your right to practice is based on intensive apprenticeship (sometimes for many years… longer than it took to get your degree).

  21. John,

    But isn’t the bar exam an entry barrier to keep the number of practitioners small? How many of the professional regulations actually protect customers instead of keeping prices artificially high favoring professions? You just reminded me of this quote by Milton Friedman in Free to Choose:

    Licensure is widely used to restrict entry, particularly for occupations like medicine that have many individual practitioners dealing with a large number of individual customers. As in medicine, the boards that administer the licensure provisions are composed primarily of members of the occupation licensed—whether they be dentists, lawyers, cosmetologists, airline pilots, plumbers, or morticians. There is no occupation so remote that an attempt has not been made to restrict its practice by licensure. According to the chairman of the federal Trade Commission: “At a recent session of one state legislature, occupational groups advanced bills to license themselves as auctioneers, well-diggers, home improvement contractors, pet groomers, electrologists, sex therapists, data processors, appraisers, and TV repairers. Hawaii licenses tattoo artists. New Hampshire licenses lightning-rod salesman.”

    The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

    I’d say that there is a large difference between ensuring that someone knows something and many of the professional certification programs.

  22. Luis: I’m not a big fan of licensure in general. I think it’s ridiculous, for example, that you have to have a license to cut hair. To fly a plane, sure, but not to cut hair.

    The next best thing to no licensure is licensure based on an exam open to any who would take it. This is a barrier to entry, but it’s more fair than, for example, requiring that you have a friend in the profession.

    I’m not opposed to all licensure, but I do think that in many cases it serves a guild far more than it serves the public.

  23. human mathematics

    Luis: I don’t think such is the case any longer for US lawyers. You can find a number of blogs by young JD’s who went to 3rd-rate schools, passed the bar, and found no work in law. There was an article in the NYT in Jan 2011 about it. White-shoe firms maintain high prices by other means.

  24. For me, <a href="http://www.johndcook.com/blog/2012/01/24/what-do-colleges-sell/#comment-132885&quot; comment #10 hits it right on the head:

    I truly do NOT want to sound like That Guy, but for my (not inconsiderable, hard-earned) tuition dollars, the 9th layer of Hell is the back (or even front of) yet another fluorescent-lit classroom trying to make out some Prof (or worse, a TA with a God complex)’s handwriting and accent over the sound of another 50-100 students banging away Facebooking on their laptops. Granted, this problem should (should, he says, hopefully) go away as I move further up the food chain of math ed. But for now, it truly is Dante’s Math Inferno.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but systems like Khan Academy, OCW, etc. give me the one tool I need more than any other to succeed: the pause and rewind button.

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