• September 3, 2015

The Chimera of College Brands

The Fading Illusion of Institutional Brands 1

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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close The Fading Illusion of Institutional Brands 1

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

I noticed two advertisements recently that say a lot about the power of institutional branding in higher education. I also had two conversations that suggest how that power might someday fade.

The first ad was pasted inside a bus stop in Washington. The University of Phoenix, the sign noted, has the same accreditation as "America's top universities."

The reason that Phoenix runs such an ad is obvious: The company suffers from a brand deficit. The university was the butt of a joke in a recent issue of GQ, which published a facetious letter to the Class of 2010. "You graduated!" the letter read. "Or maybe you just spent 45 minutes on the University of Phoenix Web site, clicked PRINT DIPLOMA, and went back downstairs to do a couple of pre-Family Guy bong rips." People are suspicious of for-profit colleges, and of online degrees; the two together doubly so. Thus, Phoenix's attempt to rub elbows in public with the higher-education elite.

The second ad, published in The New York Times's Education Life section, featured a young woman wearing a Harvard T-shirt, sitting studiously in front of academic-looking stone columns. The ad touted "Harvard Summer School," where anyone with $4,450 and a dream can live in "historic Harvard houses" for seven weeks. ("JFK slept here," the Web site says, "and so did Henry David Thoreau, Natalie Portman, and Al Gore.") But they'll also need an additional $2,580 per four-credit class, which may be taught by either Harvard College professors or "visiting scholars" (i.e., not Harvard professors).

But there's a catch: You can apply those credits toward a Harvard degree only if you get accepted at Harvard, and good luck with that. Or you can transfer the credits to another college, but only if the other college accepts them. One should be even more wary of online credits from Harvard Summer School, as the list of institutions that won't accept them includes ... Harvard College.

Harvard has the opposite of a brand deficit. It has a brand surplus. The name is so strong that Harvard can run a side business selling fake Harvard credits and nobody bats an eye.

Brands are a mighty force in this complicated world. They provide clarity and predictability, a way of quickly categorizing information. Branding seems a natural fit with the predominant method of organizing and governing higher education: creating institutions. Institutions have deep roots in our society and collective consciousness. They create tribes whose markings last a lifetime. The more people around the world who need and desire higher education, the more important institutional brands appear to be.

Yet brands fit the reality of higher education less snugly than they seem to. Every Banana Republic in America will sell you the same merino sweater. Even closer parallels in the intellectual-property business have identifiable standards. A randomly selected album issued by Matador Records will almost surely feature fine indie rock. So too with Basic Books, with its roster of nonfiction books by distinguished authors, or the Met, with its renowned operas.

What you get from a college, by contrast, varies wildly from department to department, professor to professor, and course to course. The idea implicit in college brands—that every course reflects certain institutional values and standards—is mostly a fraud. In reality, there are both great and terrible courses at the most esteemed and at the most denigrated institutions.

That's because responsibility for the content and quality of courses lies largely with individual professors, and it's very hard for students to know how good a course is before they enroll. Students also have to buy all or most of their courses from the same institution. Lacking information and locked into institutions, people fall back on brands.

That, however, is starting to change. One doesn't normally associate Utah with phrases like "European-style reform." Yet the Beehive State is at the forefront of a movement to create far more rationality and openness in the process of undergraduate education.

With a grant from the nonprofit Lumina Foundation for Education, physics and history professors from a range of Utah two- and four-year institutions are applying the "tuning" methods developed as part of the sweeping Bologna Process reforms in Europe. Led by William Evenson, a former professor of physics at Brigham Young University, faculty members developed a comprehensive account of what physics students need to know and be able to do at the associate, bachelor's, and master's degree levels. "The B.S./B.A. student should demonstrate the ability to use statistical mechanics to define the entropy from the density of states and connect this form to the 2nd law when expressed as ds = dQ/dT >= 0," for example. Other requirements include extensive laboratory, research, and communications skills.

The group also created "employability maps" by surveying employers of recent physics graduates—including General Electric, Simco Electronics, and the Air Force—to find out what knowledge and skills are needed for successful science careers.

"The process builds in accountability," Evenson told me. "Once you've defined the outcomes, you can ask, 'Are the programs really doing that?' If a student finishes and can't do what's advertised, they'll say, 'I've been shortchanged.' Transparency makes it easier for students, parents, and policy makers to make the right choices." Tuning works only if it's faculty-driven, Evenson stressed, rather than imposed from the outside. And tuning doesn't mean that different colleges and professors will all start teaching exactly the same way—only that they will teach with shared, public goals in mind.

The history team, led by Kathryn MacKay, an associate professor of history at Weber State University, drew on recent work from the American Historical Association to define learning goals in historical knowledge, thinking, and skills. Far from the sad ahistoricism displayed by the Texas Board of Education's textbook-standards committee in recent months, the Utah tuning team focused on a combination of rich knowledge and the development of historical perspectives and analytic skills. "We all see through a glass darkly," says MacKay, in acknowledging the challenge of translating this work at the institutional and departmental level. But tuning is a crucial first step.

In the immediate future, as the higher-education market continues to globalize and the allure of prestige continues to grow, the value of university brands is likely to rise. But at some point, the countervailing forces of empiricism will begin to take hold. The openness inherent to tuning and other, similar processes will make plain that college courses do not vary in quality in anything like the way that archaic, prestige- and money-driven brands imply. Once you've defined the goals, you can prove what everyone knows but few want to admit: From an educational standpoint, institutional brands are largely an illusion for which students routinely overpay. The best teaching might be at Salt Lake Community College, or Weber State, or somewhere else entirely. It might even be from a place that's not an institution at all, but rather a provider of individual, à la carte courses. Openness will let us know.

When that future arrives, life will be both harder and easier for the University of Phoenix. The easy—and, frankly, absurd—argument that mutual accreditation means anything important won't hold water anymore, so Phoenix will have to find some other selling point for its ads. But if it really does provide a good education, it'll be able to prove it in a way that might silence the wags at GQ.

Harvard, meanwhile, won't be able to generate spare cash by peddling a for-profit Disneyland version of itself. The irony of institutions dedicated to knowledge creation creating little information about what their own students learn will eventually be history. The sooner the better.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, which receives financial support from the Lumina Foundation for Education.


1. arrive2__net - June 06, 2010 at 05:21 am

To standardize a college education across institutions is an interesting concept, but is it practical? Colleges have differing admission requirements, and it would seem that higher standards for admission would make a difference in terms of the difficulty level of the courses. Should the community college rise to the level of a Harvard, or should Harvard ease off to the level of a community college?

Beyond the basic courses in Finite Math and Introduction to Psychology, etc. (which might be easy to standardize) colleges also have courses that are their own creation in content, as well as name, that might be difficult or unreasonable to standardize across institutions. Although many institutions may have upper division courses called "Social Change", the content may vary substantially. Is it a good idea to require standardization? I haven't seen a case make for why standardizing curriculum across colleges is a good, productive idea.

In standardizing courses, colleges are effectively relieved of a piece of their autonomy. Perhaps the creativity and innovation in colleges ought to be encouraged, and within reasonable parameters, creativity and innovation may be more important than standardization.

Bernard Schuster

2. ellenhunt - June 07, 2010 at 10:10 am

Oh, for god's sake Kevin! It is incumbent upon someone purporting to write an article with such officious tone to check facts. Your "research" for this article consisted of cartoons and advertisements!

The fact is that University of Phoenix is the precise opposite of the GQ joke. UoP has the lowest 6 year graduation rate for a 4 year degree of any university tracked! It is around 4%. UoP has made its founders billionaires, but not by delivering fake degrees. Rather, UoP has faked the ability to deliver a degree. They have become obscenely wealthy by convincing the most at risk for failure in college that they can succeed at the hardest way to obtain a 4 year degree.

No grasp of the facts, no interest in them, just blather about "branding" as if that made you an authority on anything at all.

3. educationfrontlines - June 07, 2010 at 11:40 am

"...Because responsibility for the content and quality of courses lies largely with individual professors, and it's very hard for students to know how good a course is before they enroll."

Any student who does not know about a course and its teacher before they enroll is spending too much time playing videogames. "You take teachers, not courses," my older brother said as he took my catalog and circled the names of the good professors. Education is as much about work, carry-through, honesty, and excitement in the topic as it is about those few items you can measure on a test or list as "objectives."

Some disciplines such as math are lock-step and allow for little variation in delivery, but other courses are taught with tremendous variation and it is a strength. Students we are not uniform raw material coming in, nor should they be uniform going out.

The U.S., where the American teacher WAS unique in determining what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach (within professional disciplinary boundaries) has turned out far more Nobel Prize-winners than those nations with standardized cookie-cutter curricula.

Sadly, we have recently seen the K-12 teacher deprofessionalized and the quality of students drop under this very outcomes-based standardization.

In biology, we call it a "monoculture." This lack of diversity leads to extinction.

John Richard Schrock

4. kevincarey1 - June 07, 2010 at 03:05 pm


Many students don't have the good fortune of older brothers who can circle the names of the good professors in the course catalog. Once they put down the Xbox, what should they do?


I don't think this column can be reasonably read as an endorsement of the University of Phoenix. Your assessment of UoP seems both broad and extreme. Surely IPEDS six-year graduation rates aren't a definitive measure. I'm suggesting that we need better measures.

5. rchill - June 09, 2010 at 08:28 am

Good to one student might = easy, to another it might be a engaging, challenging professor. So...what does "good" mean?
I am in favor of "tuning", and have been working to incorporate this process into our intro biology course. What do students need to learn in this course to be successful in the more advanced courses? But I totally disagree with the comments below:

"The process builds in accountability," Evenson told me. "Once you've defined the outcomes, you can ask, 'Are the programs really doing that?' If a student finishes and can't do what's advertised, they'll say, 'I've been shortchanged.'

In my Molecular Genetics course, some students reached the end and could not "do what's advertised"....is that the fault of the course, the professor (me) or the student's failure to engage andwork? Or it could be that the student did not possess the skill to succeed? And for those students who excelled in my course - again, why? The course, me or their ability and drive? Real education - the development of critical thinking skills, the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to utilize that knowledge in diverse ways is and always will be the result of mutual effort, from both the teacher and the student. As such, it is tough to gauge responsibility. I cannot "teach" students who do not want to put in the effort to learn. Students cannot learn from a teacher not willing to put in the effort to teach..but how to you figure out who is responsible for both failure and success?

6. ulysses - June 09, 2010 at 06:47 pm

The comments above presumably from traditional 4 year universities professors, like the article itself teach us so much about why the words quality, and education in America should not appear in the same sentence. Let's see: one comment blasts UoP for having a low % of degrees granted. Maybe its because they offer difficult courses and don't just pass people like the traditionals.Look at the Ivy league if they are so difficult why is their drop out rate so low...everyone knows once you get in very few are failed. Not to mention Football schools like USC who will give a degree in anything to a star just to keep the NCAA off their backs, and speaking of football,God help the non-liberal, serious student to get good grades and a degree at Harvard, it would be easier to convince the entire faculty to route for Yale than to see a history degree granted in anything but a liberal theme. So degree granting is so much more politics than it is a quality issue.
And of course there is the comment about the inability to cross compare "specialized" courses. True, can't really compare between the levels of ridiculous. Harvard granted a Ph.D. in history to a thesis writer on the topic of "The history of the New England Clam Bake" imagine the difficult courses, not to mention the fish net and sand holes one must struggle with to prepare to defend that "addition to human knowledge" I'd take accounting at UoP anyday, its much more difficult and one needs to demonstrate real learning based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to pass.
And of course...one guy doesn't even know what good means and puts it in quaotes. I bet he/she does the same when he uses the word "reality" and I'm sure he doesn't know what that is either. As if our subjective random thoughts and feelings are all that matter..there is no world beyond what he/she thinks and feel. It all gloriously centers in the wonder that is me. Sounds like an absolute out of the Inquisition.
Anyone who tells me they don't know what good is and reality is neither the one nor living in the other...and I always believe them on both counts, they don't know what either mean.
And there is lastly, the jealous broke Professor who implies that profit making is immoral. Somhow because the owners of UoP made money there's something wrong and evil. Huge risk , of the kind no professor would be comfortable in taking , when successful generate huge rewards...its not a moral question, nor is it made on the backs of the little guys...please... the amount of tax dollars Harvard steals from taxpayers in the form of federal grants to study clam bakes hurts the little guy yearly, directly, and measureably. The huge endowment Harvard sits on was made by the very "immoral" types such as the founders of UoP.

Harvard/Yale Oxford/Cambridge and all the wannabes have great futures behind them...UoP or similar experiments have many mistakes to make, (this is called learning, but great futures ahead of them.

7. dmaratto - June 09, 2010 at 08:07 pm

If anyone goes over to the Harvard Summer School website (http://www.summer.harvard.edu/2010/about/), it appears that it is not "fake" in the way the author intends. You do earn actual Harvard credits, whether you are a student at Harvard or not. It is expensive, but it doesn't look like students are required to actually live in the dorms there (I hope they changed the mattresses since Thoreau's era). At any rate, $2580 for an undergrad, Ivy League summer class (~$645 per credit) is not exactly extortion; Yale charges $2750 for the same thing. University of Illinois costs $1068 for 3-5 summer credits, so bargain-hunters might want to look to "public ivies"?

Regarding the line, "you can transfer the credits to another college, but only if the other college accepts them," I don't see why another college wouldn't accept those credits for transfer, but every institution has different policies and procedures. It is standard academic practice that no place is obliged to accept every single credit from every place else. This is common, and again, not news.

The prohibition that currently enrolled Harvard College students cannot use credits from the online classes toward their degrees, while a little weird, is not exactly shocking. It mentions that they must take the in-person version of the class, so maybe this is part of some Harvard "hours in residency" requirement, or maybe they just want more bodies in seats in Cambridge. Either way, there are only about 10 online classes in the 300 offered as part of this program, so the effect is probably minimal.

Regarding University of Phoenix, they have a very different audience than the Ivy League, or even most 'traditional' universities, so I get their advertising: convenient, accredited just like the "big boys" (I think by the NCA, which isn't that hard), more accessible and 'user-friendly' than a bricks and mortar college. I really don't think the same person is going to be going back and forth between "Should I go to Harvard to get some credits, or Phoenix online?" And the branding is there, it's a part of everyone's culture. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be both Pepsi and Coke. As humans, we identify with certain names, colors, logos, and ideas, and they trigger things in our minds.

8. nativepoet - June 09, 2010 at 09:30 pm

All that matters is a student's ability to work towards a personal goal, to market themselves, to be totally neoliberal! If I can go to a SLAC in the SF valley and become a near famous indigenous poet I think that anyone can rock out where ever they are. Hey that's a good question: why are all the "ethnic activists" associated with elite universities? My people, my people, my ego.

9. eddyman - June 09, 2010 at 11:44 pm

The obsession with standards has worked so well in K-12 (ha ha!) that we now want to bring it to higher education?

There also seems little understanding here about what makes a brand. The author doesn't seem very interested in why Harvard or colleges of its ilk are such good brands in the first place. Undoubtedly some of it is hype -- few of those Nobel Prize winners teach -- but I don't think that it is rocket science to figure out that having better students, better faculty, and better resources around you is a plus.

10. nordicexpat - June 10, 2010 at 02:51 am

Well, I was going to refrain commenting on this issue, but since the Chronicle bumped this article up, I thought I would at least provide a link to Bologna Tuning requirements. There's nothing particularly alarming about these requirements, but anyone who knows anything about outcome-based learning and teaching would know that these requirements (while laudable, including the emphasis upon foreign and ancient languages) are not operational, and, hence, not really learning objectives in any meaningful sense of the term (knowledge of world history is a learning objective?!). And this is what people against these kind of things are against: either the requirements are driven by the lowest common demoninator and inevitably lead to "teaching for the test," or the requirements are so full of air that they aren't meaningful and simply produce layers upon layers of expensive bureaucracy that waste time and money attempting to document the intangible, or the requirements are so unrealistic that they only exist on paper and lead to a very unaccountable culture of lies and deception on the part of officials who insist that these criteria are being met (I am willing to bet a considerable amount of money that most students graduating with a degree in history in Europe do not possess the language skills ostensibly required. Remember, this includes the University of Azerbaijan as well as Cambridge. And I would have thought that the experience of the euro within the last six months would have at least cast some skepticism on claims made by Eurocrats).

Anyways, I'm still waiting for empirical evidence that Bologna-style reforms have increased student learning in any European university. I imagine I will be waiting for quite some time, because the fact is that American universities have far more accountability than most in Europe (and I speak from experience). This is not to say that American universities can't do better, but I have a hard time taking seriously someone who promotes what are at best half-truths.

11. rchill - June 10, 2010 at 07:14 am

Ulysses: First, I am not a guy, and I teach at a small rural liberal arts college - not a university...there is a difference. My comments on what "good" is relate to commenter #3 discussion of good professors. Check out Rate My Professors; the same professor, same course and students often have radically different opinions as to the quality of both the course material and the professor's ability. And no, I have not been rated on that site, but I do know a lot of professors that have been, and I find the range of opinions amusing.
As my discipline is the biological sciences, I do think I have grasp of reality. I put "good" in quotes as it is a highly subjective word. I do not seek to be considered good, but I do seek to be effective in preparing my students for their chosen career paths. Therefore, I seek to have my course effective as well.

12. elearners - June 10, 2010 at 09:09 am

It's great to read a commentary from a reputable source that acknowledges the often imaginary quality differential among colleges. The general public has a misconception (corroborated by HR surveys) that the very best learning occurs at Ivy League schools, followed by private schools, followed by state schools, followed by community colleges and for-profits - with online study incurring additional skepticism.

We at eLearners.com (http://www.elearners.com/) agree that a good education is comprised of good courses taught by good teachers - irrespective of celebrity alumni. Any given degree can have its holes, thanks to shoddy instruction. And more than a few sub-par students have eked through highly-ranked institutions.

Admittedly, this piece isn't endorsing UoP (or Harvard, for that matter); it's endorsing transparency in learning outcomes. But why not take the concept a step further? Isntead of just neutralizing college names for the benefit of easier school selection, why not work towards neutralizing college names to better representing students' individual efforts?

Many, many students will be relieved when the "countervailing forces of empiricism begin to take hold." Until then (and with the targets on the for-profits' backs, it could be awhile), nontraditional students deserve a chance to demonstrate their potential - via career colleges, online degrees, and other viable options - without being summarily dismissed as inferior college graduates (ala above commenter, EllenHunt.)

Meanwhile, we love this quote from Alex Usher, President of Higher Education Stategy Associates, offered in Keither Hampson's recent interview: "I think what the university community needs to recognize is that the alternative to good learning indicators isn't "nothing", it's "a lot of bad indicators."

13. cwinton - June 10, 2010 at 09:41 am

Apparently academia is now infected by Mad Men. Anyone who thinks the Bologna Process, if followed, will not lead to the kind of stifling bureaucratic excesses now plaguing K-12 education must be among those hoping to cash in on yet another foray into so called accountability. How much more can we stand to spend on an already bloated cadre of people in academic administrations who don't teach, but who posture as self-proclaimed experts on outcomes assessment, wrapping themselves in the latest buzz word process concocted by others of their ilk?

14. swidman - June 10, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Big conflict of interest here. A researcher supported by Lumina praising Lumina while also conveying a terrible misunderstanding of "branding" and then some cute journalistic snideries about Harvard Summer School thrown in. And conflating sequential and non-sequential disciplines makes matters worse. But the least thoughtful part of the whole Bologna in the Wasatch effort has to do with a) whether this is a good use of Lumina money--probably not ( that the Lumina folks, with what was "our" money have become gods unto themselves is another scandal); and b) whether this has anything to do with the idea of sparking the intellectual curiosity of 19 year olds--probably not. Please read David Brooks' June 9 NYTimes column, again and again.

15. 22024814 - June 10, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Education is a unique product, very unlike toothpaste, or any other durable consumer good in that whether or not you walk away with much of anything in the end -- such as knowledge or job skills or an enlightened mind -- depends as much or more on YOU and what you bring to the learning process as it does what the institution factors in -- things such as teachers and books. Education is, in the end, something you do to yourself, not something that is sold to you as a carry-away. Education brands have to be assessed for that factor. It is entirely possible that a really curious and smart kid in a library could whoop ass a third-generation Ivy leageuer on any given day. Let's call it the Edison affect. I'd have to agree with Kevin that the concept that a school like Harvard flat out provides a better education is one that must be questioned. Will quality or the sheer perception of it prevail in higher education? Not always .... because in the end quality exists in the mind of the learner or the buyer and 20 years of research at GetEducated.com shows that people are not enrolling in new online colleges, especially the for-profits, based on assessed quality as that term is commonly discussed in higher ed circles. They are enrolling based on convenience. Online education as a brand category is a convenience product. You can enroll in almost every online-only for profit college instantly, take all courses from home, bypass any and all admission exams, and roll the dice that you'll come out on the other end with a degree whose purpose in the mind of the average online student is to improve employability. (I am not judging whether this should or should not be, I am saying it IS.) The question of quality means something speciific to the average online student -- it means, by and large, is this school good enough to get me a job or move me up in the job market. We have more than one type of student and we need more than one type of college. Kevin is right that transparency is needed as well as an examination of what colleges really offer in this day and age. Who offers the best online education is up for debate. We are moving into an age of public accountability and transparency. Higher education brands are increasingly being held up for scrutiny -- whether they are online or not. Only time will tell which emporer wears the best cut of clothes OR if they are all buck naked. Harvard was once a boy's reform school, more or less. Look how far it's come, at least in terms of public perception. ~Vicky Phillips, GetEducated.com

16. erc38 - June 10, 2010 at 01:38 pm

To describe "tuning," as more open and rational is based upon a fairly narrow understanding of disciplinary institutions and the knowledge that they produce. In order to create these standards, professional societies must arrive at a consensus over what they have accomplished. However, there is no assurance that every discipline has entered into a state of "normal science." Therefore, to insist upon universally adopted standards poses the risk of suppressing competing viewpoints that exist within academic communities. If one were to construct curricular standards for sociology programs, what version of sociology should be emphasized and which contrasting and competing understandings of sociology should be marginalized? Should students acquire the ability to manipulate statistical programming applications, or should students be trained in the art of hermeneutics learning to empathize with the actors whose behaviors they are endeavoring to understand?

Furthermore, America has no need for "tuning." American higher education is the best in the world. European universities on the other hand are typically a joke when it comes to undergraduate - sometimes graduate - education. The workload is so minimal that one can complete a program without learning anything. European education is in need of "tuning." In the case of America, you are tinkering with something that already works and you are running the risk of inadvertently negating the qualities that make it work.

17. ambicatus - June 10, 2010 at 01:51 pm

Our university has been overtaken by utilitarian branding, and its prestige has done nothing but plummet. I don't know anyone who goes out and buys a University of Phoenix sweatshirt because it's just cool. Of course, not many people, except those loyal students on our campus, buy ours either, because our former vice president of academics was a cow inseminator who believed U. of Phoenix was the neatest academic business in existence.

This discussion, while sadly necessary and horrifyingly relevant, ought not even to occur--because we should realize the intrinsic value of education is so high and so necessary that it makes its value both inexpressable in monetary terms and too important to sully with business jargon and efficiency streamling. Long live the trivium!

18. veritasconsulting57 - June 10, 2010 at 02:07 pm

Traditional institutions are often suspicious of such places as UofP. Rightfully so, they are in essence cutting into their profits and basically creating a significant market share for itself. On the K-12 level, we see that with charter schools, where regular public schools are so quick to dismiss their gains as dubious on many fronts.

Nevertheless, in a instant gratification culture that we live in today, there are some of us who opt for a lot of things INCLUDING education based on simply looks and all of the items mentioned by the author. Thus, he is basically reiterating something that was ineveitable eventually.

At the end of the day, it is the consumer that has to make a choice based on certain information (one of the fundamental consepts of democracy). In addition, the online education came with the advent of technology because we have to admit that if technology continues to climb in usage, why not online education. It would be only logical. Besides, there are several of us who prefer studying online than the traditional classroom. If you are still interested in pursuing an onlined education, you keep this in mind:

Check the United States Department of Education to see what their accreditation status of the school is; and inquire from the state of its operation as well.

If you were to transfer to a regular school, how many of your credits would be transferable (generally speaking)

What is the employability rate of those graduates from the online school.

What is the experience of the faculty members.

I am still suspicious of online degrees due to them being more of a marketing stunt than academic. However, the competition is there and they have proven to be formidable opponents. I welcome them into the ring, but I remain undaunted because if regular colleges provided such a robust curriculum that indeed created well rounded thinkers, online degree programs would be irrelevant. Thus, what are online degree schools doing correctly that regular colleges are not?


19. unabashedmale - June 10, 2010 at 07:38 pm

I just can't get past the point that there is no way to prove who did the work in an online degree - profit or not-for-profit.

When I'm evaluating prospective employee credentials, that with always be the credibility problem for me.

Accreditation? Branding? Who cares at hiring time.

20. dmaratto - June 10, 2010 at 07:47 pm

#19, in reality, how can you prove who really did the work in any degree, for that matter? Can't 'traditional' students have their friends write papers for them, do homework for them, take tests for them, etc.?

21. optimysticynic - June 11, 2010 at 09:29 am

#20: I am tired of hearing this response to the validity Q raised by #19. It makes a difference how difficult it is to cheat and how massive the cheating can be. It is MUCH HARDER to cheat in a f2f class than an online class, where every single bit of work, including sheer presence online, can be done by another person. Further, many more people view online courses as just "stuff on the computer" and don't regard getting help as cheating at all. I hear this all the time from the hundreds of students I work with each year. Some even openly talk to me about their plans to have their "roommate who is fluent in Spanish" take the entire class (which also raises the question about the peculiar idea of offering language classes online in the first place...) Students in the less selective universities (like mine) see getting the credential as passing through hoops and how one does the passing is almost irrelevant to them. The point is not the absolute impossibility of preventing all cheating, but the very much lower threshold of cheating ease for online classes. An additional point: many of us are beginning to check IDs (including matching photos to faces) for in-class exams in large f2f classes.

22. painter33 - June 11, 2010 at 10:52 am

Many universities and colleges do not allow either summer, intersession, or so-called "intensives" to substitute for proprietary semester-long, required courses that are not only of longer duration, providing an opportunity for reflection and editing of thought leading to genuine learning, but are usually taught by resident faculty who have undergone the scrutiny of national and international searches and have been favorably compared to their competitors for the positions. Let's not get too egalitarian here and assume that everything is equal to everything else. Assumptions about both Harvard and Phoenix are dangerous when the application of political bias is made. That only proves the writers bias (#6) and not what actually occurs in either institution. As an aside, the best "route" from Harvard to Yale is I-90 to I-84.

23. aleprete2 - June 14, 2010 at 01:31 am

The USA still has the greatest college/university system in the world. How do we rank in k-12? That is about all you need to know about applying standardization and "accountability" to higher education. There is a lot wrong with higher ed in this country but it is not primarily with what is going on "in" the class room.

Fix the student loan system, the reliance on/ and pay of adjuncts, the bloated administrations, the overproduction of PhD, and the preparedness of incoming students (ie k-12) so they can take advantage of what higher ed can offer.

24. dmaratto - June 17, 2010 at 10:16 pm

optimysticynic says: "It is MUCH HARDER to cheat in a f2f class than an online class, where every single bit of work, including sheer presence online, can be done by another person ... The point is not the absolute impossibility of preventing all cheating, but the very much lower threshold of cheating ease for online classes."

I just want you to know, I have encountered these real situations (as a student, then later on working in higher ed.):

- Students who come to the lectures themselves, but have their friends write their papers for them, or get "assistance" (i.e., plagiarize) from the internet, other folks' papers, etc. As for the tests, they figure they have a way better likelihood of cramming the night before, and then guessing on the multiple choice/short answer exams for a large lecture, and maybe getting a C on the midterm and the final, which when weighted with the As and Bs they got on the papers they didn't really compose, means they did all right (~C) in that class, not bad for not doing most of the actual work. And if they bomb a surprise quiz, so what?

- Students who cheat on the online quizzes and assignments for in-person courses -- easily done, as you said.

- Students who don't do their homework themselves -- even easier, especially if you're charming.

- Students who use their frat/sorority's Library of Congress-like compendiums of old tests to "prepare" for an exam. This goes way back, to the 'Animal House' days. We all know profs. who gave basically the SAME midterm and final for years and years.

- Students who get around the ID checking or code-entering requirement of the high security classes by, you guessed it, using fake IDs, and giving their unique numeric code to their friend. Hey, they get into bars with fake IDs, why not tests?

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