Liberty University blocks news re: Liberty University

Jerry Falwell, educator

Quick—what’s the most federally-funded institute of higher education in the nation? Don’t think about the headline of today’s post; just say UCLA or Ohio State or something. Actually, the answer may surprise you: it’s Liberty University, the “Christian evangelical university” founded by television pastor and former fraud indictee Jerry Falwell. Liberty* is a larger recipient of federal student aid dollars than any college or university in the country, in large part due to its online program, which enrolled 53,000 students last year. Along with the 12,000 students at its residential campus, those young scholars gave Liberty $445 million in taxpayer dollars—$25 million more than last year’s federal allocation to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The news is counterintuitive, given the Falwell family’s ultraconservative and explicitly anti-federal politics. Maybe that’s why, for at least part of last week, Liberty University blocked campus internet access to the Lynchburg News and Advance, the paper that originally ran the story. Or God did it—whatever.

Those of us who consider education an ideologically neutral system for producing good citizens and rigorous thinkers are, um, nonplussed to learn that the lion’s share of federal student aid is going to a school whose founder described the failure to teach biblical creationism in public schools as “a violation of academic freedom.” That he became a multimillionaire by yelling about said Bible on television only sweetens the pot. It also explains why his school is such a pioneer in the field of online classes, which is to college coursework as watching TV in your sweatpants is to going to church.

In part because overeducated wage serfs are our primary demographic, several Combat! blog readers teach online composition and rhetoric courses. I will leave it to them to assess the comparative efficacy of such instruction in the Comments section, and say only that if unethical degree-selling exists in the nation’s higher education system, it surely abides near the intersection of online classes, Liberty University and $445 million. With a combined resident and online enrollment of 65,000 students, Liberty employs 418 full-time professors. Compare that to my alma mater, University of Iowa, which enrolls 30,000 students and has a faculty of 1,700.

That Iowa uses four times as many professors to teach half as many students should tell us something about the quality of instruction Liberty is offering. Those numbers aren’t really commensurable, though, since Liberty also employs 1,462 adjuncts. That’s 77% of its instructors, a percentage eerily close to the 80% of its students who never set foot on campus. Again, an online teacher can be just as good as a classroom teacher—q.v. professors Sanger, MacLeod. Whether an online classroom can be as good as a physical one is another question, though.

Michele Bachmann thinks so, which would frankly cement our opinion had we not be taught to recognize that particular fallacy. “There’s no question that higher education has outstripped costs,” she told an audience at the aforementioned U of Iowa, where people are sufficiently respectful as not to shout out “what the fuck does that even mean?” in the middle of a presentation. Presumably it would be good if something “outstripped costs,” since that would mean that it is growing faster than its expense, but it seems like Mmm-Bach means that it’s in trouble. The Minnesota Representative and winking presidential noncadidate posed online courses as a remedy to growing costs, calling them “relatively free and accessible to almost any student.”

We’ll leave it to the reader to decide what Bachmann, herself a graduate of Oral Roberts University, means by the phrase “relatively free.” While we’re engaging in underhanded rhetoric, I will also observe—apropos of nothing in particular, of course—that a system in which anyone with $30,000 and a computer can buy a bachelor’s degree renders that distinction meaningless. The official line of contemporary America is that everyone should go to college. That’s a questionable proposition in itself, but when “go to college” means “borrow money from the government and give it to the son of a televangelist in exchange for online Spanish classes,” the system verges on meaninglessness. We could all take that online IQ test and declare the United States a nation of geniuses, too. It wouldn’t make us any smarter.



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  1. Small surprise, this intersection of evangelism, poverty, idiocy, and hypocrisy.

    Is Liberty University for profit, by chance? These for profit universities — not to mention anything but the top 15 or so law schools — are modern day cotton gins, separating the soft and precious fluff of those capable of reasonable cost-benefit analyses from the seedy, stemmy bunch who cannot.

    I have a great and relevant, I promise, story.

    I helped put on an event on Capitol Hill a while back. I was ‘manning’ the check-in table. A somewhat dowdy young staffer comes up, and checks in. I greet him with my Trademark Professional Warmth(R), ask him if he has any questions, etc. I tell him that the event is underway, that there is plenty of food inside, and plenty of seating, and that he should head on inside. He goes to the door, and pushes it. He pushes it again. He pushes it again. He pushes it again. I tell him that it opens outward. He thanks me, pulls, and walks inside.

    A couple of minutes later, I count up the check-in list to see how many attendees there are. I can’t help but notice what office he’s from: Rep. MmmBach.

    After a few more minutes alone in the hallway it’s clear nobody else is coming. I quietly step inside, and quietly close the door behind me. Near me, next to the food table at the back of the room, is the young man described above. He is holding a paper plate. On that paper plate is a pyramid of dessert bars. Four, then three, then two, then one. He is doggedly mowing through them. Some minutes later, he grabs three sandwiches, fits them on his now empty paper plate, and leaves the event. As he fumbles with the door, I clasp him softly around the upper arm. I lean in and whisper “Thank you so much for coming.”

  2. “That Iowa uses four times as many professors to teach half as many students should tell us something about the quality of instruction Liberty is offering.”

    Now I don’t know nothing about no education, but I recall hearing on a Freakonomics podcast that studies have shown class size does not change educational outcomes. These studies, I think, were focused on k-12 education, but it stands to reason that class size is even less impactful in higher education where the teacher is more of a guide through relevant material than someone who needs to spend time one-on-one with a student. Nor would I expect most professors to try and tailor a lesson to the specific educational needs of individual students were the class very tiny.

    Perhaps this concern for teacher/student ratios is a common sense fallacy.

    I never took on an online course [that I didn’t drop a few weeks in after completing no coursework] but I always imagined them to be a very worthy substitute for the majority of literature and lecture based classes I took enroute to a history degree. If the instructor was inclined to deliver a prepared speech accompanied by powerpoint, you can get that just as effectively over the internet. If the instructor were more inclined to have class discussions over readings, then you can get that even more effectively over the internet. And where your grade is based on paper and essay writing, the detailed critique your instructor may choose to provide you with is just as easily provided over the internet.

    Where “distance education” might fall short are math and science fields where students need to ask questions midway through the discussion in order to understand the next step. In liberal arts, if you don’t get some piece, you’re just missing one piece, and it probably can wait until later.

  3. Au contraire. When it comes to classes in foreign language education, size does, indeed, matter.

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