Posted in Rants on March 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Back in the early Aughts higher education administrators dreamed of online degree programs as the cash cow of the future, the goose that would never stop laying golden eggs. Universities everywhere, from community colleges to the lowliest four-year institutions to Top 50 AAU schools, began setting up online "extension" programs. These were marketed aggressively to non-traditional college students – working adults who might have a Bachelor's or Master's standing between them and a promotion or pay raise. Of course online education has grown exponentially since then, largely targeting the same audience (Drive around any major city and count the billboards with some combination of the terms Nursing, MBA, and Online and you will get some sense of just how big the industry of selling degrees has become). For the most part, however, after some brief forays at the insistence of the more profit-driven members of their administrations, Good schools have withdrawn from the market.

The obvious problem is that the quality of a Good school is linked to its reputation and, to a lesser extent, its selectivity. Part of the value of a Michigan or a Yale degree is that not any asshole with a credit card and a GED can buy one. And while online education programs are cheap to run – in almost any instance the instructor is a grad student or unemployed PhD working as an adjunct and earning as little as $1000 on a per-course basis – they are also terrible and generally target a population that requires the best (not the cheapest and least effective) teaching to succeed. Adult learners, by the numbers, rarely finish degree programs that they begin online. Poor and lower-class students attracted to online programs by low prices are the least likely to be able to self-direct through college with next to no guidance or one-on-one instruction.

But the greatest sin from the perspective of elite universities is that online programs cheapen the brand. Fairly or unfairly, an online degree program reeks of Cheap. It screams "rinky-dink." And if your school has an online program that gives it something in common with the Billboard Schools hawking Executive MBAs in as Little as Nine Months, then it becomes harder to attract traditional students to the much more expensive Brick & Mortar experience. Part of convincing parents and students to cough up $200,000 for four years of undergrad is being able to sell an image, and online degrees do not fit that image. Top-ranked universities can't sell degrees online for the same reason that Mercedes-Benz doesn't sell a $10,000 compact hatchback with plastic hubcaps and 80s-style vinyl seats; it doesn't change the fact that the $150,000 Mercedes S-Class is an amazing vehicle, but it sure changes the way people look at the brand.

The key, then, for university administrators has been to find a way to sell a substandard product that is cheap to produce but doesn't degrade the image of the school by handing out suspect degrees. That, my child, is where "lifetime learning" programs come into play.

I'm willing to bet you've never heard of Osher Lifetime Learning Institute (OLLI), but it has programs at over 120 universities right now ranging from elite private schools like Northwestern to run-of-the-mill state schools. OLLI is a program that offers courses to the elderly and/or retired – their mission statement says anyone over 50, but in practice the program attracts people of traditional retirement age, i.e. 70 and over – but does not give grades, assignments, or degrees. The students complete no work and get no credit for the class. It is, from what I imagine to be the students' perspective, an interesting way to fill some time. From the schools' perspective, it's a way to get people to pay tuition without having to give them a grade, credit, or a degree in return. And it looks great to the marketing department because it's, you know, Community Engagement and Outreach or whatever.

While not every university has an OLLI-affiliated program, hundreds of other schools have similar programs operating under a different acronym. And this market will only continue to grow in the future as higher education demands more Revenue Streams without increasing costs or making it more difficult for the school to attract 18 year-olds to the tune of $25,000+ per year. Adult programs like OLLI are ideal because they are invisible, making no mark on the school's enrollment or graduation figures and often meeting on nights and weekends at off-campus locations. The traditional undergrads, in many cases, won't even know the programs exist.

There's nothing intellectually dishonest about the idea; the elderly students know up-front that they are not receiving anything but a set amount of class time in exchange for their money. And that is precisely why programs like this will spread like wildfire in the next decade. The school looks good and makes money. The alumni and traditional students are unaffected even in the abstract. The older people who enroll get to learn something or go on rants before an audience or simply be entertained. It takes the original aims of adding online degree programs – generating revenue far in excess of the overhead costs by targeting students that aren't likely to finish what they start – and does away with even the pretense of seeking or awarding a degree.

Now when you see what looks like an airport shuttle bus with a university name and logo painted on its sides parked in front of a retirement home you won't have to wonder.