The Hidden Cost of Homework

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The latest academic kerfuffle involves a former economics professor at Arizona State University who claims he was fired for being a whistle-blower. One of his charges is that the school is profiting from the use of software that requires students to pay to gain access to course materials or turn in homework.

Although the school has appointed a retired judge to investigate the situation in response to student demands, Arizona State has denied the whole thing — and there does seem to be a good deal less to this story than meets the outrage. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the ethics of the enterprise as the former professor, Brian Goegan, describes it.

Last month, Goegan sent his students an email “saying that the university required students to use MindTap, a program by Cengage that charges students money to turn in homework and gain access to course materials,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The reason, he wrote, was to get Cengage to give the school “a large monetary grant.”

There is no evidence of a grant, reports the Arizona Republic, which has been all over this story. And the school says it has not profited from its arrangement with Cengage, an educational software company. Nevertheless, the newspaper reports, the university and the company have “shared money from fees for some economics courses.”

This is a good place to make what may be an obvious point: Although we’re rarely forced to face the question so starkly, the business model on which higher education rests is that colleges make money off their students. Faculty members make significant human capital investments to become experts in their fields, and students pay to learn what the faculty knows. This is true whether the students pay their own way or borrow money.

Similarly, students always pay a charge to “turn in homework and gain access to course materials.” Suppose a college provides to students an educational software product, such as Blackboard or Canvas, at no additional fee. This does not mean that the software is free, or that students are not “paying” to gain access to course materials online or turn in homework. It means simply that the cost of acquiring and maintaining the system is bundled into the tuition.

Thus, one way of looking at this story (assuming Goegan’s allegations to be true) is that Arizona State has simply unbundled a part of the cost of serving its students. In general, unbundling is good when the seller is providing multiple services, because it enables buyers to understand how much of their dollar goes to pay for each. For example, although travelers often get angry when an airline charges for a checked bag, the system has the advantage of allowing those who have only carry-ons to avoid subsidizing those traveling with more.

But this approach only makes sense if the buyer has a choice as to whether to purchase the unbundled service. Part of the concern is that students have no choice. The MindTap software is used in two courses required of economics majors.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to find the ethical problem. The software comes bundled with the online version of Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics textbook, which the courses require. There’s nothing wrong with the school’s decision to assign this excellent and widely used volume. The controversy seems to have arisen from the decision by the economics department to test in these two courses the adaptive version of the software — the version that, for instance, is able to tell students what they are doing wrong in their problem sets. This version available only at an extra cost.

OK, that sounds bad in a headline. But I’m not sure how it differs from the common practice in which the required text is authored by the professor teaching the course. Over the years, any number of critics have argued that professors who assign their own texts have a conflict of interest and perhaps are behaving unethically.

To the best of my recollection, I’ve never required students to buy one of my books for a course. In any event I agree with the American Association of University Professors, which in 2004 reminded faculty that their only interest when making assignments should be the education of the students, but added that “more often than not, the profits are trivial or nonexistent.”

More to the point, except in the case of required courses taught in an assigned section, there is generally complete transparency. Students know which books are being assigned, and if they believe the professor has a conflict, they are free to choose a different class or a different instructor.

This point matters because, when faced with an ethical question, disclosure is generally a wiser course than regulation. If news reports are right, disclosure is where Arizona State erred. The whole contretemps might have been avoided had the university simply informed students that a portion of the fee they were paying for the software package supported its implementation at the school. Such an approach might even have muted some of the usual student grumbling about the costs of course materials.

In short, if the school bumbled, it was not in its decision to require the software, but in its failure to make details of its contractual arrangement public. It’s always unfortunate when so small an error serves as potential springboard for a scandal-seeking investigation.  The cautionary tale, not only for colleges and universities but for other institutions too, is obvious.

For an easily readable text of the email, as well as other relevant links, see this blog post from Paul Caron, dean of the Pepperdine University Law School.

Yes, institutions of higher learning raise a part of their operating budgets from endowment income, but outside the fifty or so wealthiest schools, this income is not very large. Even including those schools, 2018 endowment income constituted less than 10 percent of the budget of the average university. State colleges and universities receive a direct subsidies from public funds, but the basic model remains the same.

I have occasionally assigned chapters of my books, but as far as I recall, students have always received these as part of sets of duplicated materials for which they might pay a fee but from which I receive nothing.

Goegan makes another allegation that, if true, is outrageous: that the school, as part of a larger test of the project, required him to flunk 30 percent of the students in his courses. There’s nothing wrong with a grading curve, even a steep one, but if such a policy was implemented for any reason other than pursuit of the educational mission, it would be just as wrong as it could be. (There would be notice problems too.)

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

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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