StraighterLine’s new “Professor Direct” program claims to empower teachers by allowing them to set their own prices for courses. As Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed puts it, “‘self-employed professor’ could soon be an actual job title.” Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young has written a piece that also seems to suggest the positive implications of Professor Direct. Young points out that the program “lets instructors determine not only how much to charge for such courses, but also how much time they want to devote to services like office hours, online tutorials, and responding to students’ e-mails.” It all sounds nice, but the problem is none of this is true.
StraighterLine has come up with some very clever PR that paints them as heroes in the quest to solve both the student access problem and also the problem of the adjunct labor crisis–basically the two big issues that keep popping up in higher education discussions these days.
But that’s all it is–PR and marketing. All Professor Direct does is exacerbate both of these problems by oversimplifying the issues and creating a lowest common denominator bidding war that, if left unchecked, will completely dismantle American higher education.
Professor Direct is Not Good For Adjuncts
First, let’s look at StraighterLine’s claim that they are empowering adjuncts. According to the company, teachers set their own prices for the courses they teach. Think about that, though. The most basic law of market-driven economics is sales are determined by demand. A merchant can set any price he chooses, but that has nothing to do with the sales that price point will generate. In the free market, consumers determine the price, not the vendors.
Teachers aren’t setting their own price any more than a dairy farmer sets his own price for milk. Sure, a teacher can value her course at what she considers to be a living wage, but if the consumer isn’t willing to pay that price, then the teacher’s valuation essentially means nothing. In a market-driven economic exchange, the consumer sets the price. Despite the spin StraighterLine is attempting to place on Professor Direct, this program has nothing to do with empowering the teacher and everything to do with applying free market principles to higher education, which gives the consumer the ability to determine value, whether or not that consumer has any frame of reference for establishing that valuation.
Now, let me explain what I mean by that. I’m not anti-market or anti-consumer choice. In fact, I generally welcome opportunities for consumers to push back on corporations that would price-gouge if they could.
Most “products” have a clear and present value that’s recognizable to the consumer pre-purchase. When we buy a gallon of milk, we know exactly what we’ll be getting. In other words, there’s no hidden value associated with that product. We won’t realize ten years from now that our gallon of milk actually changed our lives in some unforeseen way.
Same thing even with most professional exchanges. The value proposition is clear. If I have a broken bone, I know exactly what the doctor will do to fix it. If I am being sued, the value proposition in which I engage with my attorney is relatively understood. I will give him a certain amount of money and he will attempt to win my case. Once my transactions with this doctor and lawyer are complete, we move on with our lives. Here again, there really is no chance for any hidden value or any future compounding of the service I received in exchange for my payment. Both the professional and I can agree on a fee and be pretty confident exactly what we will both gain from the transaction.
And then there’s education. How many of you can say that at 18 years old, you knew exactly what value you would receive from each class you took in college?
It’s just not possible. We can’t possibly negotiate a fair market price for education because we have no idea what hidden value lies in the information we will gain from a given course. Often we don’t realize until semesters or even years later how much value we actually received from a course we took.
Therefore, the teacher has diminished leverage in negotiating the value of her course because that value is not immediately demonstrable. The student (understandably) just wants to pay as little as possible for the course, and without a definitive reference point for valuation, the courses will certainly receive a diminished valuation to the detriment of the professor.
Unless StraighterLine is planning to encourage students to give a retroactive tip to the professor five years later, there’s just no way this Professor Direct program is good for the teacher.
The False Minimum
One more point about the potentially destructive nature of Professor Direct and other programs like it. At first, I was encouraged by the fact that StraighterLine has set a minimum price point of $49 for students. I thought, “Okay, they’re establishing a failsafe that insures against a nasty bidding war amongst professors. At least everyone is still guaranteed a living wage even in the worst case scenario.”
Yeah, not so fast. That $49 minimum is just StraighterLine’s take. They’re, of course, just covering their own interests. That means a professor could charge $50 for a course and make only a buck a student. I don’t want to go too far down this reductive path, but I do want to throw out a couple of potentially serious problems with this scenario. I mean, the free market has a tendency to take things to the absolute extreme, so it’s worth considering.
What if a couple of financially-comfortable retired teachers or professionals decide to teach a few massive classes for $1 a head? Good for them and good for the students I suppose, but what about all those teachers who couldn’t possibly compete with that price point? They’re just left high and dry, I guess. “Thanks for all your hard work and sacrifice for the good of the country; we don’t need ya anymore.” What happens when these professors move on? If education is already in disaster mode, what might happen if its market value starts to swing wildly from year to year and tuition rates become volatile?
And one more thing: How about if StraighterLine starts hiring professors who live in other countries with much lower costs of living than the United States? Can our teachers compete in a global bidding war? Will our English classes eventually be taught entirely by non-native speakers? Hey, it’s just a thought. I’m warning everyone who reads this that the free market will push everything to its illogical conclusion.
How Can We Make the Professor Direct Model a Win-Win?
While this new Professor Direct program might seem good on the surface, it’s a trap wrapped in smooth PR. It encourages irresponsible practices like overloading courses, giving minimal feedback to students, and awarding high grades in exchange for positive course reviews (ie. marketing). Rather than giving power, it actually strips power by reducing education’s value down to that which can be accomplished most cheaply. And, in order to compete in this free market educational economy, teachers are forced to subscribe to the system’s flawed and incomplete metric for determining value. It ignores education’s delayed return on investment and assigns the burden of valuation to a consumer who has at best an incomplete picture of the eventual value proposition.
Programs like Professor Direct, in their current incarnation, will destroy the greatest educational system in the world if we don’t force some checks and balance onto them. One place I would start is to establish a minimum course cost that still allows all teachers a reasonable living wage. That way, even if a bidding war erupts (and it will), education still holds a viable and consistent market value that benefits both the student and the teacher.
What are your thoughts on Professor Direct? How might we adapt this first attempt in order to make it more sustainable and less destructive?