Dan Ariely: At $61k a year, college is a bargain

Is college too expensive and are free online courses the answer to the rising cost of full-time college? Dan Ariely’s not so sure. Photo courtesy of Flickr user DG Jones.

MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses. By now, the acronym’s notoriety is increasing. But the success of these courses may not be. The New York Times reports Wednesday on research from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education showing that course participation and completion rates for MOOCs are far lower than hoped for.

Of a million MOOC users, the study found that only an average of half of those registered for a course ever viewed an online lecture for that course. And only 4 percent ever completed the course. A survey from the University of Pennsylvania of those using the school’s MOOCs suggests that MOOCs’ intended beneficiaries — students who think they can’t afford full-time college or students in poor countries without access to higher education — aren’t the main users. Instead, people who already hold degrees make up 80 percent of the users.

Interviewing behavioral psychologist and good friend of Making Sense Dan Ariely for our upcoming story on the economic waste of giving Christmas gifts, we got to talking about college costs. Our cameraman mentioned that comprehensive tuition (including room and board) for his son at Cornell is $61,000 a year. So we asked Ariely whether MOOCs — like the one he taught this year — are the answer to the high cost of college. But before updating us on the unexpected costs of teaching an online course, he took issue with our premise that traditional college is expensive.

Paul Solman: College costs are not insupportable? We sat down and the cameraman was complaining about the cost of Cornell, and you said to him…

Dan Ariely: It’s too cheap. Look, the reality is that it’s a real question about how we think about education. Colleges are expensive because they provide a lot. So if you take an average student and you say, let’s take all the property on campus and divide it by the number of students on campus, each student basically has a huge house — it’s true. It’s divided between the dorm and dining rooms, labs, and classrooms, and so on, but the amount of facilities is really incredible. And then you talk about the people at their disposal — the faculty, assistants, administrators and people in healthcare. It’s basically a tremendous amount of people that are serving the students, and a tremendous amount of infrastructure.

The four-year college experience, by the way, is amazing. I studied in Israel, which doesn’t have the same 24-hour-a-day college experience, and I still regret that I did not get to experience this. But this is just an expensive endeavor. Imagine you’re going on vacation for four years. How much would that cost? Right, if you compare that to college, you would say college really is quite cheap. Now, it’s an educated vacation; you get lots of things, but the amount of stuff that you’re getting is really quite incredible, so the experience is amazing. I don’t think it’s expensive for what you’re getting.

The problem is that in absolute terms, it’s expensive. And then the question is, what other versions can we have? And this is where community colleges come in; these are cases where people don’t sleep over on campus; they have only part of the day, and this is where you start having technology as part of it, when people can study from home. So we have watered down versions of that experience. It is going to be more affordable, but I think that when you think about college, the amazing thing is how much you’re getting, not how much it’s costing.

Paul Solman: But you are part of the technology, right? You’ve got this Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. Were you watering down the college experience for those people?

Dan Ariely: There’s no question that this was a very different experience than what I could provide on campus. So we taped about 30 hours of me lecturing, and then we spent about another 3,000 or 4,000 hours editing that, adding slides and shooting outside, and basically trying to make this not just a watered down class experience, but a different experience. We added guest lectures; we did all kinds of other things to the class, and then we distributed it on Coursera, which is one of the platforms for MOOCs.

And what’s interesting about MOOCs is, you know, for many years, there’s been online video courses. Even the Open University 30 years ago, you could get VHS tapes and watch it.

Paul Solman: Well, Sunrise Semester — maybe that was from a commercial station — but you could tune in early in the morning and watch your course on your television.

Dan Ariely: And what’s the interesting thing about the MOOC: you release the videos at the same time for everybody. So what happens is that everybody is watching it in the same week, so you have a coordination between all the students. … And then on top of that, they have discussion groups. If you have a concentrated amount of students, they can sometimes solve each other’s problems, and they can basically vote on which problems they’re really having and which ones they are not.

And then the professor, or whoever teaches the class, can decide to pick up the top question and resolve it for many people. So we spend a tremendous amount of time, and energy and effort. We distributed this class for free to about 140,000 students. It was a wonderful experience. We had students from over 180 countries. Huge variations of ages and religions and people created songs and all kinds of media presentations. It really felt like an amazing community at that point. But it’s not the same experience as being able to have coffee with me. … If you think about this idea of an education being one directional, and then discussions among the students, that fulfills some of it. But it doesn’t allow the students to have really in depth discussion about something.

Paul Solman: Or feel much sense of human connection.

Dan Ariely: We try to have some. Every week, students would pose some questions and I would go online and try to answer some of those, but it’s not the same. And what is particularly [lacking from online courses] is the students don’t have the capacity to work with us on research. One of the amazing things about a full-time college is that students are not just taking classes; they’re actually participating in the research process. I have a lot of students working in my lab. They run experiments; they think about things; they basically learn by doing. And that’s something that can only happen face-to-face, when they are actually sitting in the lab.

I would say one other thing about the MOOC. The MOOC sounds like a great idea, and it is a great idea, but it also has a tremendous cost that people don’t understand. When I went into it, I thought, okay, we’ll tape; we’ll edit. I completely didn’t understand how long it takes to edit. … The truth is, it’s actually very time consuming because when you have a big group of people like this, even if only 1 percent of the 140,00 people has a problem, it’s a lot of people.

So, for example, there was a mother who called her daughter for dinner. The daughter was 12, and she took the class. Her mother turned off the computer in the middle of the exam, really upsetting the daughter. Now, this mother went to every possible length to find out my phone number, and to call me up multiple times until I went back and opened a class in the exam just for her daughter.

Of course, I had to do it, but it is just one case. I had lots of those; every day something like this would happen. So the reality is that this one-to-many approach is really working well, as long as it’s flawless, but it can never be flawless.

Paul Solman: And you hadn’t anticipated that.

Dan Ariely: I did not anticipate that. For each person, different things go wrong at different times. But I have lots of funny stories. Here’s a slightly odd one.

We allowed people to take the quiz multiple times, and we gave them different versions of the quiz. If they don’t get a good score, they can take it again, take a different version of the quiz, because I really want them to learn. Somebody decided that this was an experiment that I was conducting on them. He submitted an official complaint to the committee at Duke that regulates our research. Now, the moment he submitted the complaint to them, they had to investigate, as they should, but, you know, a day of my life is gone at that moment.

All these things — technology, people, complaints — make the class incredibly time consuming. I really want to do it again, but I really need to be sure I have the time to do it again, even though I have such sum costs.

Paul Solman: You mean, to do it again might be too expensive, in terms of your time?

Dan Ariely: That’s right. Because more new things will happen; 1 percent will have trouble again with all kinds of things…

Paul Solman: And next time, it could be a million people, not 140,000.

Dan Ariely: What’s the expression? May you be unlucky to be successful.

Let me tell you one more thing. I spend a lot of time creating these classes online, and then I try to use two of them in my regular face-to-face class. And I did what is called “reverse classroom,” so I asked the students to watch the video at home and then come to class to discuss it. It was incredibly successful. I think the students enjoyed the videos and then they enjoyed the discussion. The other thing I tried to do, again with my face-to-face class, was to get them to watch the videos and to have all the discussion about it online. And that one was not as useful.

So the students in my regular class basically had three versions: they had me in person; they had watched the video and come in to have just the discussion; and they watched the video and had the discussion online. And they basically rated them in that order. They said it was the most useful to have me in class. Not too far from that is to watch the video of the material and then have the discussion in class. Much less appealing was to have the video and then have an online discussion on that.

That’s part of the story — that you are losing something as you become more detached from the students and have less face-to-face time, but you have to figure a version of how this could work out because of the cost of the full-time colleges and universities.

Paul Solman: Aren’t they going down? Some friend of mine just told me about a highly selective school that within the last few weeks is telling all its department heads to cut 25 percent from their budgets, and I was wondering if it wasn’t the harbinger of the contraction, if not the death, of the small private liberal arts university, given the onslaught of technology and the costs of going to one of those.

Dan Ariely: I suspect that colleges that people go to, and travel to and move for — Harvard, Duke, Princeton — are not going to suffer from this technology. In fact, I remember when I was still teaching at MIT, the president at the time, Chuck Vest, when he proposed the first online version of MIT, “open course work,” he said, “This is basically because coming to MIT is very different than just being in classes.” And I think there is going to be a category of universities that basically are saying, coming here is not the same as taking the classes.

But I think that as you move to universities that are more about just coming to classes — community colleges, large lecture halls — those don’t get the same amount of benefit from the interaction with the faculty and therefore the tradeoffs between them and online could become much closer and people might opt more for online.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions