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The Erosion of Educational Monopolies

By Virginia B. Smith

COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES have enjoyed several near monopolies that have protected their almost exclusive share of the market of certain students who seek higher education. With the advent of technology, however, many colleges and universities may find that their monopolies no longer function as effectively in bringing prospective students to their doorsteps.

Whether or not all institutions of higher education support the changes that technology offers, they need to prepare for its challenges if they plan to remain competitive in attracting students during the 21st century.


Monopoly #1: Offer a degree = offer the instruction to get it

Higher education has generally assumed that the institution that awards a certificate or degree has a near monopoly in providing the instruction that will lead to the degree. We have assumed, in short, that receiving a degree is inextricably linked to earning credit, and that credit for the most part is earned through courses, some designated number of which must be taken at the institution conferring the degree.

Even though this monopoly has been modified by providing transfer credit, that credit also is based on instruction provided in courses at a campus-based institution.

But technology, along with new emphases on validating learning derived from technically mediated instruction, has spurred us to give more attention to assessment in general. In traditional classrooms we were content to consider grades, seat time and contact hours as the valid measures of progress toward a degree. Since these are difficult if not impossible to apply to distance education, there is growing demand to improve techniques that validate what has been learned-in other words, assessment of learning outcomes.

If learning can be successfully validated by assessment techniques, then controlling the processes of instruction loses its primary quality assurance role. This in turn leads to the possible de-coupling of instruction and assessment.

Some would argue that this has long been the case at Oxford and Cambridge. But neither Oxford nor Cambridge would allow a person to write the final if they had not been enrolled in the college and participated in many, if not all, of its educational activities.

Many American colleges offer some credit by examination: through challenge exams, the College Level Entrance Program (CLEP), portfolio assessment for learning gained through experience, or similar programs. But these usually take place in an institution that is providing some of the instruction and awarding the degree. Only Regents College, in New York state, and Edison College, in New Jersey, may be exceptions to this. De-coupling assessment and instruction within an institutional setting has far different consequences than de-coupling outside the institution.

Western Governors University may provide a model for an institution that offers a degree in which all the learning needed for the degree is validated by assessment without reference to how or where that learning is acquired. If degrees based on assessment of learning-rather than on credits earned through classroom-based instruction-become more available and popular, the market for instruction could change dramatically.


Monopoly #2: Location = convenience

For many colleges and universities, offering students a convenient campus location has always been assumed to be a crucial factor in maintaining or increasing student enrollments. In many states, this is particularly true of small independent institutions and community colleges, most of which rely heavily on local or regional student enrollments.

As the average age of college students continues to rise in the United States, it could be argued that convenience is becoming even more important. Many of these older students prefer to remain where they are currently located, whether because of jobs, families or other responsibilities.

Through the educational opportunities offered through distance learning, however, students can enroll in a course of study, complete their course work and receive a degree right at home. The University of Maryland and a number of other institutions already offer this form of learning. Since distance learning requires access to computer terminals and modems rather than traditional classrooms or campuses, it threatens to erode the location monopoly that many colleges and universities currently enjoy.

It could be argued, of course, that correspondence courses have always threatened the location monopoly. These courses, while popular for some students, have not seriously reduced the numbers of students at local colleges. Distance learning, so the argument goes, offers no additional threat to local college enrollments.

This reasoning, however, fails to account for the interactive possibilities of new technologies as compared to the "snail mail" slowness of correspondence courses. Whereas correspondence courses place all of the burden of motivation on the student, recent technological advances offer students wider, quicker and more interactive access to their teachers, to other students and to campus services-however removed they are physically. Learning through computers also can be a lot more fun.

Like correspondence classes, distance learning will most likely attract certain kinds of students (such as those who can work on their own). But they offer a world of different possibilities for more engaged learning. If this form of instruction grows more popular, those institutions that rely primarily on local or regional enrollments will need to understand the implications of distance learning for their own student body.


Monopoly #3: Offer a program = offer the courses

In the past, when a college added a program of study, the college assumed that it would hire the faculty members who would provide all of the instruction for that program. Now it is becoming more feasible to "outsource" courses; through technology, colleges and universities can provide classes on campus without local instructors.

These courses can be offered entirely through a computer lab, in conjunction with lectures provided through a large-screen format in a traditional classroom, or in conjunction with a video of lectures that the student can view at home. As a result of these possibilities, offering a program of study to meet the changing needs of students might no longer require such a substantial investment; the college might cover only a portion of the required courses with its own faculty and import the remainder of the classes through technological means.

This shift would, of course, create a very different "feel" for the institution. Much more so than today, each college would need to determine its strengths and weaknesses. For instance, to what extent-and in what fields-should a college become a producer or an importer of instruction? If a college could not financially support an entire program of locally produced classes, it could import key courses and offer others locally, so that students could still benefit from that program of study.

Each college also would have the opportunity to market its strengths, exporting its best classes elsewhere. In such an institution, the role of the faculty in quality control of imported instruction could become as crucial as maintaining the quality of classes produced locally.

The erosion of the first two monopolies listed above-in which the institution providing the degree also provides the instruction, and in which the convenience of instruction is based on the location of a campus-could shift the competitive edge away from campus-based institutions. This is particularly true for those colleges and universities whose students are most likely to take advantage of the opportunities provided by assessment-based degrees or distance learning.

But the erosion of the third monopoly-in which a college offering a program also provides almost all instruction for that program-could enhance the competitive edge of those campus-based institutions that understand how to maintain an appropriate balance between imported and home-grown instruction.

There has been much discussion about a projected increase in demand for higher education during the next decade. At the same time that the demand is expected to increase, however, the market is changing. Those colleges and universities that fail to understand the market's effects on student demand-that is, those institutions that do not stay in touch with the preferences of their students in relation to the new opportunities that the market offers-do so at their own peril. u


Virginia B. Smith is president emerita of Vassar College

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