At Tyler Cowen University, No One Would Have Tenure

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If you were to design a university from scratch, what might it look like? The idea isn’t necessarily to have a model for other schools to follow, but rather an experiment. Assume that various legal, contractual and accreditation constraints do not stand in your way.

I would start with what I expect students to know. They should be able to write very well, have  a basic understanding of economics and public policy, and a decent working knowledge of statistical reasoning. I would give a degree to students who demonstrated “B-grade” competence in all of these areas; what now goes for passing C-minus work wouldn’t cut it.

Most important, the people who write and grade the students’ tests would not be their instructors. So students would have to acquire a genuine general knowledge base, not just memorize what is supposed to be on the exam.

Next, each student would have the equivalent of a GitHub certification page. If you learned three programming languages, for example, or won a prize in a science fair, that would go on your page as a credential. But it would not count as a credit toward graduation. Some students could finish their degrees in a year or two even if their pages were not adorned with many accomplishments, while others might fill their pages but get no degree.

My imaginary school would not have many assistant deans, student affairs staff or sports teams. The focus would be on paying more money to the better instructors. There would be plenty of humanities classes, primarily aimed at helping students learn how to write well, but the topics might range from Dante to hip hop. Students would have the option of living on campus but not be required to do so, much as they do at my current employer, George Mason University.

Instructors would not have tenure, but would have to compete for students — by offering them classes and services that would help them graduate and improve the quality of their certification pages. Teachers would be compensated on the basis of how many students they could attract, in a manner suggested long ago by Adam Smith, who himself lived under such a system in 18th-century Scotland.

The very best instructors could earn $300,000 to $400,000 a year. They might attract students through their research, or with their active online presence, or even by helping students negotiate online courses from other institutions; the students themselves would judge the efficacy of those investments. Faculty would also be paid for mentoring students, as each student would choose a small circle of advisers to serve as guides to the system.

The school would hire online instructors too, many of them from poorer countries and working at lower wages. So you might take French from a tutor in Senegal, or have a high school teacher from Tamil Nadu read your essays and offer writing tips. I am a big believer in face-to-face instruction, but in my school it would have to compete with online instruction. For this reason, I think my school would have a much more diverse faculty and instructional base than any other institution of higher education. None of the instructors would be required to have any undergraduate or advanced degrees.

The university would also accept students from the entire world, and charge them a modest mark-up over marginal cost. Admission would be offered to anyone who could navigate three months of modestly difficult prerecorded online offerings, available initially for free.

Students from distant locales would be restricted to the subsequent online offerings, perhaps supplemented by locally organized study groups or some of the better courses at their local universities. Their certification page would state their status as distance learners, and the job market would decide how much less the online degree is worth. If exam security were a problem in some areas, the school would require those students to take their finals in statistics, economics and writing by traveling to the U.S.

This school would probably not attract many of today’s Ivy League elite. But they are not the ones who require better and cheaper alternatives. It is striking how most major institutions of higher learning are many decades or centuries old, and how reluctant they are to change their models or to become significantly more inclusive.

Am I sure that my “fantasy university,” if it ever became reality, would work? Of course not. So I encourage you to come up with your own proposal. Because I am sure of this: Higher education is in desperate need of more innovation, and there’s room for more than one idea.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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