Via Tyler Cowen, I recently ran across this fascinating Chronicle of Higher Ed piece, laying out yet another new model for post-secondary education. The author, Hollis Robbins, an administrator at Johns Hopkins, argues that with so many underemployed PhDs floating around, bricks-and-mortar tuition so high, and MOOCs lacking the intense personal interaction, between student and professor, that can make the college experience so rich, the time is ripe for the rise of “home college-ing.” The term makes clear that the analogy is to home-schooling, though Robbins also points out that there is also a precedent in the private tutorial system that was once so popular among the elite, here and in Europe especially. And with the oversupply of very qualified teachers, presumably the quality of a home-college education could be every bit as good, at least in the areas of a particular instructor’s specialty, as that a student would get at a top-notch university. At a fraction of the cost, no less, with the tutor still earning quite a bit more than what he or she has been making, adjuncting here and there.
The appeal is clear, and from both the financial and academic points of view, there’s clearly an opportunity. I’d note especially, with respect to the former, that bricks-and-mortar institutions have set themselves up to be completely unable to compete with private tutors on cost, via decades of increases in spending on administration, very little of which has any bearing on the quality of anyone’s education. Robbins also points out that tutors could easily take on multiple students at once, getting the most, financially, out of every hour spent leading a class, or preparing for a lecture, discussion, or test. She also notes that accreditation shouldn’t be much of an obstacle, with the way here having already been paved by the home-schooling movement.
Would this work? I think that on some limited level, it could. As Robbins takes care to point out, toward the end of her piece, the best niche might be educating first- or second-year college students, preparing them to enter traditional institutions, from which they’d get their degrees. We hear a lot about many students going to community colleges to do just this, some to save money, others because community colleges can provide a more gentle ramp-up to doing college-level work. Private tutors could easily compete here.
I think, though, that home-college-ing might be less successful in replacing the full four-year experience, for any but a very few students in a few specific areas. If you already know, at age 18, that you want to be a professor in some specific area, home college could work, if you work with a tutor who is a recognized expert in that area, or at least has a proven ability to get you into a Ph.D. program that will then feed you into a tenure-track job. Or if you’re an extreme introvert, four years of home college could work.
But college, even – and, I would argue, especially – for the elite students who used to study with private tutors, is about socializing. And not with professors. As I’ve argued before, the on-campus experience, particularly at the Ivies and Ivy-like schools, is worth the price premium, or at least perceived to be worth that premium, because it provides a unique opportunity, at a time generally accepted to be formative of one’s adult self, to devote one’s time to rich, intense personal interactions with one’s peers. And then to leverage the connections formed, for personal and professional gain, over the rest of one’s adult life. Think back on your own college experience – do you remember your professors, or your peers, when you think about the people you met and spent time with then? Are you still friends with anyone of either group? Most likely your peers come out ahead on both scores.
Home college, at least as Robbins has laid out this model, couldn’t provide much by way of opportunity for this sort of thing, because students’ primary interactions would be with tutors. And this means home college isn’t likely to appeal, at least as a four-year program, to many people.
That said, I see one way to get past this problem. Home-college tutors, in a particular area, could form some sort of association, by which their students could study with other associated tutors, meet and work with those tutors’ students, and, it stands to reason, socialize with them. What’s the critical number of associated students, that could make such a “college” work? A starting point might be the enrollment numbers at successful smaller colleges. Five hundred seems a good number… Would this mean, say, 50 tutors in an association? There would be additional costs at this point, with the admin work being beyond what the tutors could reasonably do. But with students presumably taking care of their own housing, food, insurance and so forth, and no buildings to take care of – events could be “meetups” at rented or borrowed sites – these costs would still be low relative to those borne by bricks-and-mortar schools. And at this point, with enough students to form a real community, such an association could have a real advantage over MOOCs. It might be worth trying, for a group of recent PhDs with a lot of energy, no teaching jobs, and the desire to make a career for themselves, in the field they thought they were getting into, when they started grad school.