Shoulder Devil / Shoulder Angel

How appropriate that these two articles were published on the same day:

  1. The Amazon of Higher Education: How Tiny, Struggling Southern New Hampshire University Has Become a Behemoth,” Slate (January 2, 2014)
  2. Full-Time, Structured Program at CUNY Yields More Community-College Grads,” Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2, 2014)

Once a small liberal arts school, Southern New Hampshire University recently found success by expanding and corporatizing its online division, and by taking advantage of its non-profit status to undercut for-profit degree mills like the University of Phoenix.

The focus is on graduating students, not on educating them. Instruction is carried out by what Slate calls “a small army of adjuncts hired for as little as $2,200 a class.” These adjuncts aren’t expected to facilitate learning, to shepherd their students toward knowledge of self and other. No, their main task is to “swoop in” when SNHU’s digital watchdog pings them and reports that one of their charges hasn’t logged in lately. “The instructor is just there to deliver the content,” explained the head of the online division to Slate. He apparently did not go on to say, “I know that’s messed up.”

Especially distressing is the corporate Newspeak that rolls so trippingly off the tongues of SNHU administrators: “We are super-focused on customer service,” says the university president, “which is a phrase that most universities can’t even use.” Yeah, they don’t use it. Because most know they shouldn’t.

And like many 21st-century higher-ed corporations, SNHU has convinced itself that it’s doing the work of democracy. Administrators say that their priority is to serve underserved students. That traditional undergraduates, the ones who seek a full-time four-year learning experience, account for only 20 percent of the post-secondary population. That SNHU’s online division looks out for the 80 percent.

Right. If they were really interested in the 80 percent (and not, say, money), they might take their cues from CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which nudges underprivileged students toward degrees by giving them more, not less, attention. ASAP requires full-time enrollment, and in return provides free tuition and books, small classes, academic advising, career counseling, subways passes, a streamlined curriculum, and block scheduling to accommodate work and family commitments.

Perhaps most important, ASAPers “take the majority of their first-year classes in small, close-knit cohorts of 25 students who move through the program together by major.” A local learning community! Friends, co-adventurers, holding each other accountable, giving each other a human incentive to keep showing up. That’s what the ethics of the seminar table are all about.

Not surprisingly, ASAP has received praise from educational researchers. More surprisingly, it has proven cost-effective, matching its higher instructional costs with higher graduation rates.

Of course, before fully endorsing ASAP, I would need to know more about the nuts and bolts of its classroom practices. How big are the required courses? What are the stated learning objectives? How much are the instructors paid, and how many students are they responsible for? Above all, what criteria are used to judge the efficacy of the program? The Chronicle article has a lot to say about completion rates, and almost nothing about substantive learning outcomes. Does ASAP do more than help students graduate? Does it enhance their capacities for critical thinking, social awareness, expressive sophistication?

Plus, there’s the tricky matter of rooting out the deeply undemocratic approach to funding education that has taken hold in state governments. One Chronicle commenter puts it well: “Hmm, smaller classes and more attentive advising and support services. Not exactly rocket science. The real magic will be in getting legislatures to provide this for all students who need it.”

Still, I feel comfortable saying that if SNHU’s online division is the devil on the shoulder of American higher education, CUNY’s ASAP is our angel. Let’s not allow the little red guy to convince us that, in our fallen educational world, the way to do more for students is to educate them less.

Credit: Walt Disney Pictures,
Credit: Walt Disney Pictures, “The Emperor’s New Groove”

4 thoughts on “Shoulder Devil / Shoulder Angel

  1. I know this post is only marginally about the adjunct issue, but I’ve created a summary of accreditation agencies with links to their criteria and instructions for submitting third-party comments at People with concerns about any academic program might find it useful.

    1. Thanks, Pat. Links like these are ALWAYS useful, no matter the precise topic under discussion. Let’s never forget that corporatization is ultimately about surplus value and labor exploitation!

      1. Hi Robin – “Bite the hand”? Are you saying that the corporate university system “feeds me”? No, it feeds administrators. It feeds absurdly expensive, debt-fueled construction projects. But it does not feed teachers and researchers.

        I’m not sure to what extent your comment is meant as facetious, but I hope you’re not under the impression that corporate higher education has in any way “funded academia.” Over the past three decades, as universities have come to behave more and more like businesses, the funding of teaching and research, especially in the humanities, has been drastically cut. There’s nothing good about this.

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