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The fallacy of the 10K B.A.

In an Op/Ed for today’s New York Times, Arthur Brooks offers himself as evidence that cheap, zero-residence higher education not only works, but is a moral imperative. The moral imperative has less to do with the correspondence part of the equation, and more with the low cost that correspondence (i.e. online) education allows.

See, Brooks is now a tenured professor at Syracuse University — an expensive, physical university, by the way — and he says he would have never gotten there if not for the degree he earned by mail in 1994. In his late 20s, having spent just one “unedifying” year at a traditional university right after high school and spending the better part of a decade roaming the earth as a musician, Brooks decided he’d had enough of the minstrel life and started racking up cheap credits through universities across the country. An institution in New Jersey, with no physical campus, turned those credits, collectively, into a college degree.

Brooks followed his 10K B.A. with a 5K M.A., and then a free PhD. And now he is a professor.

Great for Brooks. He played the system and won. He brags in the piece that he earned three degrees while supporting a family and acquired zero debt along the way, and he uses himself as an example for why online, low-cost degrees should be the future of higher education.

Leaving aside the debate over the relative “value” of personal contact with other students and professors, the importance of a physical campus with a real library that contains actual books that you can pick up and talk about with a friend, and every other aspect of college life that by definition cannot exist in online programs, anecdotes never make for compelling arguments. After all, Brooks’ experience is just that — his experience. Sure, he may not have needed a physical college experience to reap its rewards — so much so that he chose to go into higher education himself — but that doesn’t mean everyone will have the same experience.

The biggest flaw with Brooks’ argument, though, is that his super-cheap education wasn’t cheap at all. All those correspondence courses were made possible by the students who paid tuition at the universities through which Brooks took his classes. Those professors had salaries, thanks to endowments and tuition, that enabled them to offer a class here and there to people like Brooks for very little money. Those campuses were the engine that powered Brooks’ own belated journey to the heights of Academe. And now he’s part of the very system he so glibly disparages as “immoral.”

There’s no question that Brooks is an intelligent man — though his arguments are deeply flawed, specious, and self-serving. He knows how to write, and he has clearly impressed enough people along his path to be granted tenure at a prestigious university. But he prescribes his path to others as a panacea to the current education crisis, which is defined by skyrocketing tuition and increasingly useless degrees. Just how does his example, extended to prospective college students nationwide, offer a sustainable solution?