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.