O Brave New World: CSU Online

Susan Gubernat
Professor Department of English

About your editorial appearing in the March 8 issue (“Cal State Online Initiative Should Be Supported”): Be careful what you wish for. The promise of hundreds of thousands of students and their dollars, as captured already by on-line, for-profit institutions (Phoenix, National, etc.) is the driving motive behind this new centralized model of “delivery,” as the state of California commits less and less revenue, proportionally, to higher ed.

And why is that a problem? Well, in his own words to the statewide Academic Senate last May, Richard N. Katz, the consultant you refer to as the “third party” whose company the CSU hired to draft the on-line plan, admitted to us faculty Senators that this on-line, centralized model might not match the quality offered at individual campuses. But, according to Katz, that didn’t matter because, as he put it, the “kind of student” who wants an on-line degree is not as interested in quality as he or she is interested in availability. What do you think that “kind of student” might mean? Are you that “kind of student?”

Among those “kinds” of students currently in on-line institutions are those who graduate at an abysmal rate: as low as 16%, with huge debt, now being defaulted on at a rate of 50%. The debt is so great that it is the next bubble waiting to burst. Some economists contend that such student debt will replace the housing bubble of recent years, the bubble that helped cause our current recession.

And I wonder why students assume that on-line courses in this new CSU model will be cheaper than state-supported courses, or even offered at current state-supported courses. The plan calls for pricing that is “competitive” with the current on-line market, not on a par with your current tuition. You need to understand that the model of a centralized delivery system will incur its own costs and could well charge you much more for the convenience of taking courses at home in your pajamas, as the ads for current on-line universities are touting. Such convenience has its price, and the CSU is desperate to make up the long-term shortfalls that the state’s underfunding has created with such a venture.

Certainly, one of the other motives of launching such an on-line system is to compete with the for-profit sector and capture more of the financial aid that is going out to the for-profit sector, even while the federal government has begun its own probe into how successful these “phoenixes” have been.

It’s ironic that our own campus, CSUEB, committed as it is to sustainability—among whose tenets is a local economy—is going to be a leader in the effort to centralize on-line course offerings. I would caution all of us to remember what happens when local control is given up to a centralized agency or corporate-type entity. Here, on campus, to extend to a food analogy, many of us recall a wonderful Middle Eastern restaurant near the Science building, a place where we could buy fresh foods—falafel, salads, sandwiches—and get a really decent meal for less than six dollars. When the campus went “corporate” and signed a long-term deal with Aramark, that deal required running the local food vendor out of business. In fact, the facility out of which they worked has been torn down. If you’re new to our campus, you’ve never seen it. By the way, the restaurant owner, I’m told, was an alumnus of this institution.

And I’m also old enough to remember when bookstores were student co-ops, owned by students with student boards and student-oriented services. Corporate entities like Follett have long replaced those.
When I mention co-op bookstores to my students, they think I’m referring to a utopian fantasy.

But I’m not naïve about “branding” – far from it, as I watch people pile into the Starbucks next to our library, myself included (where else do you go for coffee on campus?). Yet, with the importance of such “branding” to this generation in mind, students might want to consider how a degree from “CSU Online,” a separate degree from your own, but using the brand name of the CSU, would affect the reputation of your own degree, should the quality not match what you are now getting.

Students might also raise the issue of WHY your generation has no time for full-time student life, why your costs are sky-rocketing while you are working 20, 30, 40 hours a week, and more, just to afford student lives even as you have to fit courses into them whenever you can get on-line to take those courses. And why the public is accusing you of taking too long to finish your degrees. Much has been made of the fact that it no longer takes four years to complete an undergraduate degree, but that has everything to do with the fact that few of you are really able to be full-time students, and through no fault of your own.

When we statewide Senate faculty last May got the opportunity to rebut our on-line consultant Mr. Katz, I said that, as a faculty member, I was concerned about being associated with an institution whose motto was beginning to look a lot like “6 Billion Served.”  Make no mistake: I want access to extend to all the Californians who have a right to such access–but not if quality is to be sacrificed on the altar of availability and convenience. And I’ll take that with fries.

Susan Gubernat, Professor
Department of English