Summertime Blues

July 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why hasn’t Marginal Revolution done a “Markets in Everything” post on summer school?

In the fall and spring semesters, universities are effectively a cartel. Students are in the same position as New York restaurants looking for trash haulers when the Mafia ran that show. If you’re a student at Anywhere U*, and you want to take a biology course, you can’t go to another school to take it. Well maybe you can, but you will have to make some special arrangement. But at least you don’t have to worry that the Provost is going to pull you aside to have a chat about kneecaps and baseball bats. Aside from that, to a great extent, each school is the company store.

Then, in the heat of summer, the cartel melts, and higher ed becomes a free market. Students can shop around, while schools scramble to compete and offer what the market demands. And here is what the market, i.e.students, want:
  • online courses (i.e., courses where you don’t have to show
  • courses that don’t interfere with summer vacation,
    which means
    • courses that last only a short time – three
      weeks or so
    • courses that end by mid-June or that don’t
      start until the second week of August
  • courses that meet a requirement
In my department, we had to cancel four sections that require students to come to campus and actually be in a classroom with a professor. But an online course that fulfills a Gen. Ed. category and was scheduled in the “pre-session” (May 17 - June 3) sold out immediately. The in-person courses couldn’t compete with pajama courses – ours and those offered at other schools.

A market means competition and flexibility not just in scheduling but in pricing as well. A university nearby was offering a tuition deal – take one course at full fare, get a second course at half price.** They’re also charging an additional $120 fee for online courses, not, I suspect, because online courses are more expensive to run, but because it’s what the market will bear.

As technology increasingly loosens the bonds of time and place, and as students are free to move about the Internet, education will more resemble this summertime market. I have seen the future and it is summer school. These changes also mean that I need to revise my idea of what the university is all about. I’ve been clunking along with an outdated model, thinking of our enterprise as education. No doubt that goes on. Sometimes. But the better model is the economic one that sees teacher and students activity as commerce – not teaching and learning but selling and buying. Students aren’t getting an education so much as they are buying credits. And that’s what we’re selling.

*My favorite generic university name is the one coined by David Galef – U of All People.

** At least, this is what colleagues here told me. On the school’s website I could not find any specific offer, but the Website did have a link to “Summer Session, Discounted Tuition.”

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