I have five minutes before I wax poetic on qualitative interviewing in class. This is a serious drive-by post.
Matt Yglesias over at Slate has an interesting blurb today about higher education, cheap-ocity and quality. (Thanks to Sherman Dorn for the signal).
Ikea, for example, has not risen to power by manufacturing better furniture than other companies. If anything it’s worse. Deliberately worse. The profit opportunity is that it turns out that cheap Nordic modern furniture is something a lot of people want. It turned out there was a big market for “somewhat worse but much cheaper” furniture. Lots of people listen to music, but very few people choose to invest in the highest-end products. Things like “it’s cheap” and “it’s convenient” drive people to listen to a lot of MP3s over earbud headphones.
Right now, higher education in the United States is very expensive. Driving some providers out of business by offering a much cheaper but somewhat lower-quality product seems like a reasonable plan.
1. There are “cheap” higher education options. Sherman pointed out community colleges. Like a dog with a bone I will keep heralding the workhorse of cheap, transformative, accessible education: Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions and Open Access Publics. If people don’t want to attend them or policy has constrained access to them, then that is a different proposition than “higher education is very expensive” and we need profit motives to drive down costs.
2. I suspect what Matt and others mean is that PRESTIGIOUS higher education is expensive. They are correct. Ikea doesn’t have to contend with prestige and labor market signaling. That makes it an odd analogy. If Harvard is too expensive, you need to take that up with Harvard and not all of higher education. If prestige is expensive, having more low-status profit-driven competition won’t do much to change that. That’s the real tension. People don’t want CHEAP degrees. They want cheap, prestigious degrees. As of yet I have not seen a profit education vehicle that is situated to contend with that. For-profit colleges certainly are not. They’re pricey but not very prestigious. For-profit ed ventures like Coursera and the like are cheap but not prestigious. I am not sure they endeavor to be as much as they are circumventing competition with prestigious colleges, and their high expense,by piggybacking on the prestige elite partners to drive competition with the lower cost, less expensive college options. And I’m not even sure they will do much there. They would have to provide a credential to really be in competition.
No, instead what appears to be happening is opportunistic profit taking. Rapid change and high competition has made education a fertile profit taking vehicle. Some will sell almost any story to further that endeavor.