On Labor Day, the Chicago Tribune reported on a news item that is akin to pigs taking flight: an institution of higher education had taken the unprecedented step of lowering the sticker price of one of its courses. National Louis University, a private non-profit university in Chicago, has offered its masters-level “Introduction to Teaching” course on Groupon, the site that offers discounts at local retailers to savvy shoppers. Groupon prices the course for $950—less than half the usual tuition of $2,232—though it only counts for 3 of the 36 credits needed for the master’s in teaching and the discount will be limited to 25 students.
Putting aside debates about the value of a master’s in teaching programs—and the evidence is pretty good that these paper credentials don’t make much difference—let’s congratulate National Louis for being so bold as to <gasp> cut the price of anything on a college campus. When was the last time a college did anything but jack its tuition at twice the rate of inflation?
The problem is, in the strange world that is higher education, making any facet of “college” cheaper leads people to question its quality rather than consider why college courses are priced so outrageously in the first place.
Gawker’s coverage of the National Louis experiment is a case in point. The blog describes National Louis as “an actual real college created to commemorate the moment that the St. Louis Browns joined the National League in 1934” rather than what it really is: a teachers college with more than 100 years of experience in training educators, and the birthplace of the kindergarten movement. And the poor dupes who choose to take up the offer? “Think of what a great story you’ll have to tell your students at your failing school one day: ‘Your teacher comes from Groupon.’”
The right question to ask in response to the Groupon deal is not whether National Louis is some fly-by-night diploma mill, but how it is that the school can offer this course for less than half of what they normally charge and pass those savings onto students. Maybe the high cost of providing a college course isn’t completely “fixed,” and other courses—even entire degree programs—could be provided at a lower price tag. More generally, why couldn’t we have a system where colleges price-compete for students?
Alas, Groupon is not the way forward in higher education reform. But this kind of competitive pricing would be a welcome change from the high-cost, high-price model we have today.