If you look at how we pay for college using the “per-credit” economic model I described yesterday (one that divides annual tuition by the number of courses taken per year to arrive at what we’ll pay for each credit in a traditional college environment), then we end up confronting some challenging questions.
For if we peg the value of each credit at $2000 (by dividing a modest $16,000 tuition by eight courses), we need to ask what people think they’re getting when they pay this price.
Two possibilities include:
- The learning received in the course
- One increment towards a degree (a document which supposedly provides financial and other benefits after college)
There is considerable evidence that learning alone cannot command anywhere near a four-figure sticker price.
While one can make the argument that the free price for MOOCs evolved from cultural and technological vs. purely economic factors (having come about during an era celebrating open software and open learning), the failure of AllLearn (an earlier experiment in bringing top-level university courses to the online masses) indicates that people interested in learning for the sake of learning are not interested in paying all that much for the privilege.
One could make the argument that services like The Teaching Company (which charges approximately $100-$300 list for their college-level recorded lecture in various formats) pegs the price for pure learning in the low three figures. But if you look at their prevalent sale prices of under $100, this would indicate a more natural price for their courses well below list. And if we were doing a more systematic economic analysis, it would be worth discovering how many of their “customers” (like me) will only take Great Courses classes they can obtain for free at the public library.
It should be noted that the aversion towards paying for learning does not apply to all disciplines. For instance, in a discussion in a recent Degree of Freedom newsletter, I noted that I’ve happily shelled out $30 per month to subscribe to Lynda.COM, a service that provides video tutorials on a wide range of technological products (including all of the software used to power this site).
And moving past personal and anecdotal evidence, I find it telling that at the Udemy.com open learning site, fewer than 1000 people have been willing to shell out $10 to learn Greek history, while close to 35,000 have paid $99 to learn Excel.
Perhaps this is telling us that while many of us are happy to take advantage of free high-quality learning resources to advance ourselves intellectually, we are only ready to pay for such learning if we can see a direct financial or professional benefit of doing so.
Another piece of evidence comes from the world of certification and licensure where people not only pay $200-$300 or more for an exam that will allow them to work in a specific industry, but can also spend 5-10 times that amount to obtain the training needed to pass the exam. Added together, this pushes the cost of these professionally oriented educational opportunities into the four-figure range we saw when we looked at that price-per-credit from a degree-granting university.
It might seem ironic that a person ready to commit dozens or even hundreds of hours into a MOOC class (a pretty high price to pay if we use some conversion factor – even if it’s only minimum wage – to turn time into money) would likely balk at having to pay just a few dollars to enroll.
Perhaps we are entering an era when the availability of “open everything” makes us understandably reticent about paying for stuff we could get for free (any Movable Type paying users out there)? Or perhaps the kind of reality checking associated with economics simply demonstrates that we are willing to do certain things with our money (like advance our careers) but other things with our time (like advancing our minds).