Monday, May 28, 2012

Antioch U: where "flexible" and "individualized" mean cynical and exploitative

Over the weekend I got an astonishing request: a student at Antioch University* emailed me to ask whether I'd be willing to adapt one of my existing courses to a distance-learning format and allow her to take it for credit toward an M.A. degree at Antioch.

It's not the student's email that astonished me; she was polite and professional and obviously following the guidelines given her by the university itself. It's Antioch's educational model--if you can call it that!--that blew my mind. They're a low-residency, mostly online program, with five campuses and apparently only a few faculty employed full-time. Most of the courses are taught by faculty found by the students themselves and paid $125 per credit hour. The payment is officially designated as an "honorarium," I presume to skirt any rules the faculty member's home institution might have against moonlighting. Here, read the full instructor guidelines for yourself.

Nice racket, huh? Antioch is fully accredited and its tuition even seems pretty reasonable--until you compare it, credit hour for credit hour, with the price at a state institution: Antioch students pay $331 per undergraduate credit hour and $497 per graduate credit hour. By contrast, in-state students at RU pay between $146 and $220 per undergraduate credit hour and between $295 and $370 per graduate credit hour (the higher price is for part-time students; the lower price is for full-time students who are taking the maximum course load).

So Antioch students are paying more and getting a vastly lower-quality education, cobbled together on their own, by trial and error--and presumably taught either by desperate adjuncts or by cynical tenure-line faculty based elsewhere who are willing to make a few extra bucks now and again.

Yeah, sure: it's a free country and students can choose to enroll anywhere. But that doesn't make Antioch's educational model anything but a scandal. (Which is what I told the woman who emailed me--albeit rather more nicely and with a few words of encouragement about her intended area of study.)

Shame on you, Antioch.


*The complicated relationship between Antioch University and Antioch College is partly unraveled here, here, and here. I'm not an expert on this history, and would welcome more information.


Unknown said...

I agree with your outrage, Flavia, yet I can't say I'm surprised in a culture that has gradually driven us to pump our own gas, scan our own groceries, and get money from ATMs rather than human tellers, all to drive a business bottom line, that students would eventually be expected to find their own instructors. Worst of all, having to pay more than they would at a public university to do so, sometimes incurring disproportionate amounts of debt. It is pathetic, and your outrage is justified.

Susan said...

I spent many years working as a full time faculty member at a place with a model somewhat like Antioch's. Our doctoral students identified scholars in their area of interest to serve as "adjuncts" on their doctoral committees. We always thought the adjuncts were really badly paid. At its best, the model worked really well - good (and interesting) students worked with terrific people, who were interested in their work. It was hit and miss, though, because finding adjuncts was hard. And it works best for people whose interests don't fit into neat academic boxes.

Low residency programs like Antioch's are very different from online ones in that they do not have a formula for what you should learn. They often serve some of the same target audience, though.

Private education will always be more expensive than public.

Flavia said...


Thanks for this alternate perspective from the inside. I can certainly see how a similar model could work, but the potential for abuse also seems quite high; it requires students who aren't just self-directed, but already know their prospective field very well (well enough to find suitable faculty members--in this case, the course this particular student wanted me to adapt was completely unsuitable for the purposes she wanted it to serve; indeed, neither my specialty nor my discipline are quite what she seems to need).

As for the expense. . . well, I teach the exact same course she was interested in at a public institution! (And at an institution that I presume has much more overhead than Antioch, and not a lot of state support these days). My point is that she could get what seems to me a significantly better education for a lower price. At some private institutions the price differential reflects real value added, but it's not clear to me what Antioch's higher price tag is actually buying students.

Susan said...

Oh, Flavia, I know exactly what the potential for abuse is. When it works, it is terrific. When it doesn't, well, it doesn't. The model is one that does not scale well -- there was a point where my program grew by a significant number of students, and it was a disaster. Just as at f-t-f institutions, there are people who are extraordinary and people who phone it in. My real concern is with the people for whom working individually is a way of not having to deal with people you disagree with.

The real question of quality is how much oversight Antioch faculty have over what students do... And the value added is the flexibility.