Tucked away deep in Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (S 1932) was a provision ending the 50/50 rule for online education. The 50/50 rule was a rule that was designed to discourage online diploma mills by insisting that schools could have no more than 50% of their students learning through distance-learning or online courses. This put some limits on the general headlong rush toward online education among legitimate schools.
That provision is now dead and gone. By my (inexpert) reading of the law, as long as the school can keep their accreditation they have have as many of their students online as they wish. Online education is very alluring to administrators, since it is dirt cheap to provide (almost no overhead relative to traditional classrooms), and can be provided by cheap labor (adjuncts who can be located anywhere there is internet access, often paid by the head).
Naturally, quality control is a serious issue. In my own experience, I find the students who have taken the prerequisites online are even less prepared than those who transferred the credits from community colleges. It is tempting for cyber-adjuncts to load up on classes, signing up for impossible loads at multiple schools, then doing the bare minimum possible to avoid being fired. I've heard rumors of cyber-adjuncts pulling down six figures through playing the system at multiple schools, but I cannot confirm these stories. Of course, adjuncts could always abuse the system, but given the limitations of time and geography, they have traditionally been the recipients of abuse.
Why haven't we heard more about this? One reason is that there were a lot of sexier stories at the time -- I suspect any headline containing the words "Budget Reconciliation Bill" isn't going to sell a lot of papers. I think the Chronicle of Higher Education deserves some criticism, though, since the serve a community deeply affected by all this. I read the Chronicle pretty regularly, and didn't notice it. I did a search, and couldn't find the story, but a friend of mine was finally able to find a single story on February 3rd in the Chronicle (subscriber only, sorry) entitled "Rule Change May Spark Online Boom for Colleges." That headline is akin to covering Hurricane Katrina with a single story headlined "New Ocean-front Property in New Orleans May Spark Construction Boom for Louisiana."
What are the implications? Here are some semi-prognostications, meaning that I think the following are realistic effects, not that they will necessarily happen in this way. The truth is, no one really knows:
- Community colleges could die out. Can't afford to move to go to school? Why get a diploma from Local-Yokol Community College when you could get one from Big-Name-Far-Away University? Given the fact that the cyber-adjuncts don't have to live there, you are probably just as likely to get the same quality instruction regardless.
- Instructor and traditional adjunct jobs could die out, further tightening the entry-level opportunities for the professorate. If I'm an administrator, why hire an instructor at $25k per year to teach eight courses when I can hire eight adjuncts at $1500 per course? In the past this abuse of adjuncts was bad enough, but it was limited by the size of the adjunct pool. Now, the adjunct pool is the same nationwide.
- Since we don't really know the size of the workforce, it is also possible that if classroom adjuncts are eliminated, cyber-adjunct pay will rise. Without geographic limitations, adjuncts will be able to work for the highest bidder, not just the highest bidder within driving distance. If, however, the number of potential cyber-adjuncts is greater than the market for them, pay might stay the same.
- Recruitment of grad students might change. Grad students TAs might cost slightly more than adjuncts at the moment, but that extra cost is justified by recruiting. If the need for TAs to teach classes is essentiall eliminated, grad students might be recruited with other jobs -- for example, working on the staff of the department, working as true research assistants to professors, or working on the editorial staff of the local academic journal.
- Campuses might become showcases. Why hire three new assistant professors at $40k each when you can pay one big-name professor $100k and get cyber-adjuncts to fill in the gaps? Sports and other public events may become more emphasized, campuses may become more beautiful, with the architecture of buildings focused more on aesthetics than utility (what will look good on the website?), and statues of famous thinkers everywhere.
- Alumni giving may drop. Ah, yes, I remember all the fine times I had at the alma mater -- I guess I'll pledge $100. Is anyone really going to think that for a school they attended entirely online?
- Teaching schools may emphasize research more on campus. Courseloads for traditional professors may drop just as numbers of jobs rise. Pay may also rise for the traditional professors as money from online courses pours in. Schools beyond the Ivies may get into bidding wars for the Big Names. By the same token, online courses might be "taught" by Big Names but graded by an army of adjuncts (i.e. the lecture series is podcast, but the professor in the podcast never sees the assignments).