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after some brief forays at the insistence of the more profit-driven members of their administrations, Good schools have withdrawn from the market.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.

26 thoughts on “BRAND DILUTION”

  • Elderhostel without all that travel and foreign food!

    Great idea. Can I get a senility discount if I need to retake a course?

  • Ah, the infinitely reproducible professor. College education without the troublesome process of interacting with the mind of the professional who's nominally supposed to guide you through the course material! From the demand side—just who wants to buy this shit?—I just shake my head. From the supply side, however and unfortunately, I find it all too obvious who wants to sell this shit. If they ever remake It's a Wonderful Life for this generation, the Mr. Potter will be the 41-year-old veteran of three flash-in-the-pan start-ups whose eyes, when he hears his younger colleagues talk about some new automated technology, will light up as he puts the thought together: "You mean… I can run the company, sell the product, and make money without having to pay anyone to do the work? Ingenious!"

  • Didn't mean to hit the '!' oh to have an edit button :-/

    @Pat: don't worry, I can never seem to get my tags to close and the rest of my post go all bold.

  • I see little to no downside to this. Repackaging and reselling an information-based product at no extra cost is one of the best features of the information economy.

  • I have a friend who is a retired pharmaceutical exec in his early 80's who has been auditing classes at Villanova and other local schools for as long as I have known him. Philosophy, religion, anthropology, whatever catches his interest. He enjoys the mental stimulation of the lectures and reading without the pressure of having to worry about anything other than paying for the classes. Beats the hell out of spending your retirement years as a greeter at Walmart if you can afford it.

  • I had one of these "learning for a lifetime" types in my philosophy classes my first two semesters at university. This guy was an asshole teabagger who glommed onto Hayek when we were reading for Philosophy of Democracy. Before class one day I was sitting outside the classroom waiting for the professor to show up and the guy came along and sat down next to me, and started yapping about how societies fall when people figure out that they can vote to redistribute wealth via taxes and other uses of government power (this is actually why Aristotle was not a fan of democracy; the idea that poor people should not have a say in their own governance because rich people fear having their money taken away is not new). I gave him a side-eye but didn't say anything. (For background and context, this guy was yapping about REDISTRIBUTION OF THE WEALTH OMG several times during both of the classes where I saw him, and when we were talking about utilitarianism during Ethics he actually said, "Is this the foundation for socialism?") A few weeks later I was explaining federal student aid to another student, and I made the mistake of illustrating the difference between student loans and the Pell Grant by using the phrase "free money" in reference to the Pell, within the teabagger's earshot. Apparently the phrase "free money" is about as offensive to overprivileged rich white dudes as the c-word and the n-word are offensive to women and African-Americans, because the guy got a bee up his butt about my saying "free money" and stormed on out of there.

    I never saw him again. But if he had shown up in any more of my classes subsequent to that, I would have complained to the dean.

  • I'm in favor of special, elder-only classes. When I went for my undergrad degree in the 1980s, my college had a deal that anyone over (retirement age, I think) could attend classes for free, except for the cost of the lab and books. This kept my lab classes elder-free, but the gen ed courses I had to take were full of "old man yells at cloud" types. It was a chore to get through any class because these folks had nothing better to do than to argue. about. everything. And oh, the entitlement–they were ENTITLED to bog down the class and waste everyone's time because they were on Social Security! (I'm not sure what that had to do with anything, but that was a constant smug assertiion). For those of us who were trying to, you know, learn something–or even just get through the classes so we could graduate and start earning a living–it was very tedious.

  • @Sarah; did your special, special snowflake also go on rants about the "librul" professors? And how the state is chipping in some money for the school?

  • I'll be honest – I'd love it if my introduction to programming class were not for credit or a grade, because I've started to get non-white-male students signing up in really encouraging numbers, but regardless of how much they're enjoying the course and picking up the skill, one bad multiple choice exam and they're out the door because they need to maintain a 3.whatever GPA. Non-white-male students (having been one of them myself) end up being generally a lot more concerned about even the smallest variation in their grades for reasons, and while I understand where it's all coming from, it still makes me sad.

  • Well, now that impoverishment has moved up from college students to their parents, I suppose it's inevitable that capitalism seeks out the remaining reservoirs of spendable wealth – namely the baby boomers and their retirement nest eggs. Still, I believe that higher education is a bubble right now and this particular maneuver isn't the one to save it from a serious contraction.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    No thanks.

    I'll keep going to my local public libraries.

    Until, of course, they shut them down, because too many of us "poors" are reading books, and learning things.

  • US in the UK says:


    That's the whole point – an education is not "information-based product". If it were, we would print a boofk called, "High School" and amek everyone read it. Then, for othes, we'd print a book called, "College" and a bigger book, "College at Harvard", etc..

    This is a common mistake and often goes under-discussed when talking about education. It's not a training class like you would take at a business to learn how to use their software, it's an education. It's not an accumulation of discrete data, it is how to organize and *think about* these data. It's is learning how to learn.

    That, not information transfer, describes an education. To do so is more than putting X number of individual data points in a row.

  • I was asked to teach one of the Osher classes. It was a bad experience. For most of the people there it was " something to do" — like the Aquacize class at their over-50 condo complex or the line dancing class. While I was happy to provide some venue that got the folks out from in front of non-stop Faux News, I didn't do it again. There was no stimulation for me — no real interest coming back from the class.

  • @ Skipper: an otherwise upbeat, positive photographer friend who teaches a class at the local botanical garden (an easy source of subjects), and mostly to oldsters, made this comment recently on her Facebook page:

    Teaching uninteresting people can be such a bore.

    Haven't talked to her, but having taught retirees myself, I can imagine what drove her to that remark.

    Wonder if "life experience credits" are still around at any colleges. They were a ploy where I taught once—you could enter a degree program and essentially get 15-30 credits toward graduation by writing an essay, submitting a portfolio sometimes too, attesting to your having acquired "college-level experience" in the "real" world. Many faculty were very uneasy about the program, and it began to go the way of grade inflation; don't know if it's still around, there or any place else. But seniors were thought to be an untapped market, targets who could afford tuition once they were sucked into the college… this is merely a different path with its own downside, obviously, but driven by the same greed.

    Someone please tell me what it advantages colleges to offer free Coursera and Edu-X (?) courses. I took two, one of them a Poetry course from the U. of Pa, with something like 5,000 students, some of them for credit. It was "peer-graded", the biggest drawback since your essays were likely to be judged by total flakes. The other drawback was that you couldn't ask the simplest question of the professor–there was no venue for that, not even an email address. It was free and worth every penny.

    But the main reason I wanted to post here was to state that the British have an alternative to the more liberal-arts-oriented course content, and available free: I think it's called BBC3. Fortunately a lot of their old series are available on YouTube, on the arts, music, anthropology, paleontology, history… It was what our own PBS —oh what fond dreams those were!—was once supposed to provide.

  • US in the UK says:

    Geez, was I drunk when I wrote the first paragraph?
    *Should* read:

    That's the whole point – an education is not an "information-based product". If it were, we would print a boof called, "High School" and make everyone read it. Then, for others, we'd print a book called, "College" and a bigger book, "College at Harvard", etc..

  • Pretend to teach at charter schools
    Pretend to teach online.
    Eventually everyone who hasn't fled the country can then text "I R 2 SMRT!"

  • @Sarah; did your special, special snowflake also go on rants about the "librul" professors? And how the state is chipping in some money for the school?

    I don't remember, but it wouldn't surprise me if he were thinking exactly those things.

    (One novella I've had to read recently was El coronel no tiene quien le escriba ["No One Writes to the Colonel" or literally "The colonel does not have anyone to write to him"]. Everyone who thinks wealth inequality isn't a problem ought to be forced to read this. I won't go into all the details, but basically it's about this Colombian army veteran who through various circumstances has found himself without any income or savings at the age of 75, and he and his wife are both sick frequently. The money shot is right at the end, when it is revealed that they have to go over a month before they will have a chance to get some money to buy food. His wife asks him what they will eat in the meantime. He turns around, looks her right in the eye, and says, "Shit.")

    Pretend to teach at charter schools
    Pretend to teach online.
    Eventually everyone who hasn't fled the country can then text "I R 2 SMRT!"

    Eh, they already are.

  • College education without the troublesome process of interacting with the mind of the professional who's nominally supposed to guide you through the course material! From the demand side—just who wants to buy this shit?—I just shake my head.

    I can tell you who. Adult "learners" who think they already know everything they need to know in order to be in the field and view coursework, professors, and grades as just standing in the way between them and a professional license/certification. Most of whom are textbook cases of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    The time I spent teaching online was the most miserable of my professional life and literally led me into a nervous breakdown.

  • Ed posts regularly about the poor quality of online education, and I think most of the readership of this site agrees with his views. I count myself among you and have made it my goal to ensure that my daughter doesn't get funneled into an online school. Maybe this has already been discussed in previous comments sections, but I'd like to ask you all what would you consider a pragmatic post-secondary education solution for the target audience of online schools – adult students, non-traditional, or whatever else we are being called these days?

    I relocate and travel for work frequently and I've attended both brick and mortar schools (four different public universities, including UGA, Ed) and online schools (currently enrolled) while pursuing my undergrad degree. I can't take a full course load due to work and family commitments, so my degree plan will take longer than normal to complete. Frankly I'm tired of the rigamarole of transferring schools – coordinating transcript delivery (which is a nightmare), wondering whether or not my credits will be accepted, whether or not I will have to retake classes, and will I even be able to attend 11 weeks of classroom instruction without interruption. Most elite schools simply won't accept students that may have to attend part-time or transfer out after one or two semesters. So I feel like I'm stuck with online courses and am willing to bet that many online students are in a similar situation. So since we pretty much universally pan online education, I ask you, what other options do adult students with other commitments have to earn a degree?

  • Or you can just roll up to a big lecture hall and plop down in one of the seats and take university courses for free.

  • It doesn't have to cheapen the brand. Columbia University started its adult education program, initially a summer session, back in 1899. By the 1930s, it was an institution in its own right attracting summer students from around the country. It's still around as the School of Continuing Education. Harvard has a similar program, and has at least since the 1970s. A friend of mine taught a programming course there for a few thousand 1970s dollars, which is a lot more in modern dollars than most adjuncts seem to get now. Columbia and Harvard are still accounted top tier institutions.

    MIT took a different approach, despite the WTBS hack ad for The Famous Scientists School of MIT. They tended to do Industrial Liaison Program courses for executives and engineers who wanted to see what Mr. Wizard was up to. Since their companies were paying their tuition, a whole lot more money was involved.

  • You're completely wrong — OLLI courses are not raking in tuition dollars for universities. Oldsters pay a yearly fee (of about $75), plus $60 for every six-week course they take. Not $60 a day, $60 for the entire six-week course. This is cheaper than going to the movies. The universities that engage in these kinds of programs are doing it because it's a great way to persuade potential donors in the twilight of their lives to leave their estates and whatever else they haven't reverse-mortgaged to the university that cared about them so much as to provide them with virtually free edutainment in their last years.

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