Let’s Scuttle the University as Hotel

Glenn Reynolds, perhaps the leading libertarian critic of the higher education bubble, has yet another idea for popping that bubble:

What if you unbundled the “hotel” functions of a college — classrooms, dorms, student center, etc. — from the teaching function? You could
basically have a college without faculty: Get your courses via MOOC, have a bunch of TA’s and adjuncts to help students with problems, paper-writing, etc., but basically give the students the “college experience” of living together, etc., while getting your teaching from somewhere else.

He thinks the core function of college is living together, not seem that Reynolds is being ironic here. He shows how little the libertarian “bubble” critics really think of professors. His thought is that what some (but not most) professors are good at can be captured by the MOOCs. But we certainly have no need of those tenured radicals who now lounge around our campuses.

I would take the separation the other way. My cost-conscious college of the future would be purged of every educationally irrelevant amenity, beginning with the dorms. No student center, no intercollegiate athletics, no gourmet cafeteria, no library, no labs, no student services staff, no health-club gym. I would keep only the books, the professors, a registrar and “dumb” (or not smart or gadgeted-up) classrooms. Maybe we’d need an admissions guy too, at least until our reputation reaches the level it will deserve.

I would locate the college in a small town in the sticks where rents are low. Students would live together in apartments they’ve rented from “private contractors. “I would have general guidelines on how to live together in a way conducive to studying and without wallowing in decadence. It might have been, at one time, that college dorms, fraternities, and all that kind of thing were part of some character-building community. But these days? Give me a break. Dorm life, even at some very good colleges, makes students worse or at least keeps them stuck in the immaturity of extended adolescence.

The community of college might actually be better if the students lived close to one another took pretty much the same classes, and of course, read pretty much the same books. Let these adults take care of their “residential
experience” pretty much for themselves. The same goes with recreation and all
that. Nothing is more ridiculous these days than student services staffs trying to figure out what keeps young adults from being bored. Other than giving them
lots to read and write, I would be guided by the libertarian thought that being
bored or not, and even being fit or not, is their own business. I would
encourage them take religion and service to others seriously, but I would leave
the organization of their charitable impulses and longing for God to them and to
local churches. I would also allow their schedules to be flexible enough to
work “off campus” for real wages and with the real risk of being fired.

My cost-conscious college would have only a liberal-arts or “bookish” curriculum with a common core for all students and a very narrow selection of “traditional” majors. One reason for that: these majors are the cheapest. Faculty in those fields are basically paid subsistence wages, and there are no equipment needs, except for a comfortable, climate-controlled, well-lit meeting place. We’d even be pro-choice on chalk.

Classes would be small. This wouldn’t be a concession to luxury. Small classes are indispensable in holding students accountable for what they’ve read and what they know. Every class would have a heavy “writing component,” and all students would develop a personal relationship with faculty on the basis of their writing. Being held accountable through such personal relationships is what makes college worth the money.

The faculty hired would be “liberally educated” and so, able to teach a variety of subjects. They’ll teach what the students need to become liberally educated, not their research specialties. Students would take a lab science or two, but I would have them do that at some local community college. Scientific inquiry will be integrated into the curriculum in numerous ways, but no student will major in natural science. And no student will major in the social sciences insofar as they unreflectively imitate the methods of the natural sciences.

The college library is not indispensable. All the key articles in the journals, many, many primary sources, and such are online. Real books are cheaper than ever, and I have no objection to using e-versions. If you look carefully, you can see colleges emptying their libraries of books and freeing up space for other activities. There are plenty of downsides to treating libraries this way. But the techno-deconstruction of the brick-and-mortar library I will use to my college’s advantage.

My college, you might object, will have to deal with numerous accreditation issues. But I suspect that I can keep costs so low that government subsidies won’t be needed, and the intrinsic excellence of our activities and our graduates will clearly transcend the limited horizon of the accrediting agencies and their bogus competencies. Maybe we can achieve the genuinely disruptive outcome of dispensing with accreditation.

So I agree with the always-thoughtful Glenn Reynolds that college costs too much. I disagree on why it does, because I disagree on what the essential function of higher education is. I certainly don’t think it’s being a hotel.


15 thoughts on “Let’s Scuttle the University as Hotel

  1. No student center, no intercollegiate athletics, no gourmet cafeteria, no library, no labs, no student services staff, no health-club gym.
    Most of that’s fine, but how do you expect to teach chemistry with no labs? Or electronics?
    Labs aren’t external to the learning process, when one is learning physical science.
    (And even today, a library is more useful than wasteful; a huge number of resources simply aren’t available online.
    You can’t “keep the books” while ditching the library.
    You can and should make the library just a place to store and access books, rather than a “studying and socializing hub”, yes.)

  2. That is the exact opposite of what I would do.
    If a course can be learned from a book then it should be an online only class. It’s hard to compete when you have all kinds of classrooms to maintain when your competitor is a box in a cheap commercial park somewhere.
    If you are going to build a college, it needs to have the things you can’t get at home easily. Chemistry labs need lots of equipment as do physics and biology and electronics and the fine arts.
    There are also classes that need people to be together, public speaking, theater, orchestra, and the like.
    A college certainly doesn’t need to be a cruise ship experience, but I know too many kids that needed to get away from home, not to be free to party, but to be free from their parents neuroses so they could grow up to be themselves, sure they are a minority but they are great people.

  3. No majors in the natural sciences, no engineering? So why go college when what you going to teaching here can all be learned on your own? if you ever worked with the STEM folks, you’d know that several years out many have a better liberal arts education than most BAs. However, I’ve never met a BA in the liberal arts who taught himself enough calculus to understand sciences or engineering well.

  4. With a few modifications, you want the colleges to be European. That’s how they work here in Germany:
    – They have no sports
    – They have few dorms (agree: not needed)
    – They do have a library (probably not needed today)
    – They do have labs (probably ARE needed to some extent for some specialized classes)
    – They have a few subsidized cafeterias (agree: not needed)
    – They do not have gyms/health club
    – Even better, they tend to use fewer “textbooks”, but more Powerpoint and Professor-writen notes
    Social clubs are all student-initiative driven. Not many University sponsored. (So that is “free market” too).
    Like the post. Thanks.

  5. Oddly enough this discussion has taken place at the University of Toledo. Unfortunately, administrators will tell you that now that we have borrowed to refurbish the stadium and build new dorms, that we cannot back off. What looked like a good way to attract students (gyms, stadiums etc) has turned out to have locked in many universities with sizeable payments. I have the same problem with expensive STEM programs. Administrators believe they will have all this money from grants and an economic boost from all the great things that will happen. What they are really doing is venture capitalism with someone else’s money.

  6. (1) As long as not all text books are available on the Net and printed textbooks remain expensive, I suggest that your college have a small library containing mostly current textbooks.
    (2) Is your college for humanities and arts only? If your college offers degrees in physical sciences or engineering, it will need laboratories and equipment.
    (3) Why is there no mention of teaching via the Internet at your ideal college in a small town in the sticks? Are students there expected to have a cult-like devotion to the small staff of resident professors?

  7. I’ve often wondered about this. With all the complaints about the cost of higher education, it seems there would be a market for a more stripped-down, cost-effective college experience. My university raises tuition every year, all the while building five-star dorms, huge recreational facilities, outdoor plazas and “esplanades”, etc. (despite what people think, the spending is not going to professors, by and large). Essentially, the focus has been on superficial amenities to attract incoming students, while several academic buildings are badly in need of renovation. And this is at a university where the students are known to go home every weekend and spend as little time on or near camps as possible. And since we’re not always talking about the highest quality of students here, it ends up being more like a 4 (or 5 or 6 or often 7) year resort vacation than college.

  8. In general, it sounds like a good plan. But I disagree with the omission of labs. One problem endemic to academia is detachment from reality, or the view that there are no absolutes.
    A partial remedy is to require every student to take at least one science or engineering lab course. If you do an experiment wrong, no amount of argumentation or rhetoric will change the black sludge in the bottom of your flask into anything other than black sludge. This is a valuable lesson in the primacy of objective reality.

  9. The same could be said for employers. Why should Google offer their employees entertainment, dining, or a gym on-site? Shouldn’t they ditch the amenities and increase wages instead?
    I’m all for experimentation, but bundling non-educational services with a college education is not necessarily a bad thing.

  10. Let me know how my highly gifted high school junior can apply to this school! I have been thinking and saying all of these things as my student, husband, and I are traversing our way through the unbelievably ridiculous dance called “college admissions.”

  11. Sounds good. We could even take it one step further and locate the classroom space conveniently in major metropolitan areas, so that the adults attending courses could do so without the major disruption to their lives of moving to a rural town and (most likely) living off their savings while going to school. Since it would be right in their community, we could call it, say, “community college”…

  12. I believe that at least one institution already exists that meets your requirements for the cost-conscious college: Thomas Aquinas College, in Santa Paula, California.

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