Scholars find that they can break with universities and make it on their own

The modern university has had a great 200-year run.

It sprang out of Protestant Germany and was cutting-edge for its time. All the components of a functioning university (professors, students, libraries, seminars, and laboratories) were in one place under central control. Multiple areas of study were housed within easy walking distance, an important factor when long-distance travel was expensive and dangerous.

This model no longer makes sense in the age of free information, so universities have evolved into providing a four-year “experience.”

Many schools boast of gourmet-level cafeterias and suite-style rooms. One school even features one free five-course meal per week and a free ice cream truck. All this luxury comes with a hefty price tag. The cost of a four-year education at an elite college has topped $260,000.  

Whenever administrators cut costs, they typically do so at the expense of faculty. Universities hire adjuncts instead of tenure-track instructors, because they rarely receive benefits, have no contract, and earn as little as $18,000 a year. More than 40 percent of teaching staff at universities are now adjuncts.

In this scenario, both students and scholars lose.

Students get worse instruction because adjuncts who would otherwise be great professors lose motivation to teach. They often lack university support in the form of seminar funding, professional-development workshops, and course buyoutsScholars struggle to get by on their meager salary. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported about adjuncts living on food stamps, with some earning as little as $900 of take-home pay per month.

How are some scholars coping with this destructive system? By leaving it altogether. Margaret Hiley did this. She was a lecturer in literature in England but didn’t like the paperwork, teaching restrictions, and arbitrary university procedures. As a bilingual native speaker of English and German, the few enjoyable parts of her academic life were freelance translation.

Then she had an epiphany—why not buck the university system and go completely freelance?

Margaret contacted all her old clients and university colleagues. She put up a website and joined a professional association for translators. She took a course on self-employment. After a year of building up a client list, she quit her job as a lecturer. Margaret now has a near-endless number of projects from academic publishers and private scholars. She is able to charge £90 per 1,000 words of translation from German to English and earns far more than she ever did at a university.

She is part of a growing number of scholars who are taking their academic knowledge to the open market and profiting in ways unthinkable at a traditional university.

Some are even doing so without giving up their day jobs. Kenny Mencher is a tenured professor in art history. He has had wild success with his online course “Art History: Renaissance to 20th Century.” He put it on Udemy, a web-based platform where experts upload video courses. Mencher charges $25 and has over 2,000 students—more than 10 times the number that could pack into a large introductory course—likely netting him far more than the $7,000 that an average Udemy instructor earns per course.

Other scholars are moving to self-publishing. Long the realm of failed authors and conspiracy theorists, it has gained new legitimacy in the last five years as Amazon has opened its publishing platform to any author (the 70 percent royalty rate doesn’t hurt either).

One such stand-out on Amazon is Andrew Hartley, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of North Carolina who has had tremendous success, among many other novels, adapting Macbeth into a thriller. He has adapted it for audio and is now working on Hamlet.

How do some academics do so well online while their colleagues do so poorly in a university?

I don’t mean to stereotype professors as leftists, but it has to do with Marxist economics. Marx said that the capitalists own the means of production while workers can only sell their labor for a wage. A scholar working at a university is selling knowledge for a wage, while the university owns the means of production—the classrooms, student enrollment, and funneling all those students to the professor. But a scholar working alone sells directly to students, keeping the majority of profits.

Let me give you some back-of-the-napkin calculations to clear this up.

Let’s say that you are Socrates teaching his students at the agora. You charge them $2,700 each, the cost an average U.S. student pays for a semester-long course (never mind Socrates accepted no payment for his teaching, but whatever). Since there are 50 students enrolled—normal for a large university course—and the agora is a free public forum, you come away with $135,000. But no modern instructor will ever earn that much.

One course nets more like $12,000 for a tenured professor or $2,000 for an adjunct. All that money is vacuumed up by the university for its gleaming student centers and millionaire football coaches.

But a freelance scholar keeps 50-70 percent for an online course or e-book. Our hypothetical Socrates, if he taught on Udemy instead of at the agora, would still come away with $67,500 for one course. Not bad.

The jailbreak of academics outside the walls of a university is an opportunity for students. Self-learners don’t have to spend $40,000/year for the privilege of expanding the life of the mind. Adults who want to dabble in Russian literature don’t even have to spend $3,000 for a night course at a community college.

Want to learn a complete survey on Greek history and culture? Take Dr. Ben Lugosch’s 53-course video lecture series, all for $10. Want to get an entire undergraduate philosophical education for free? Adjunct philosophy professor Gregory Sadler has uploaded all of his class lectures to Youtube for free. At the risk of blowing my own horn, you can even learn a year’s worth of Middle Eastern history for $15.

Others are turning to educational consulting and earning far more than they ever did as professors. Karen Kelsey is a former tenured professor in anthropology. She is now a consultant that helps scholars get grants, write proposals, and earns three times the average salary of a full professor in the United States.

With the sorry state of the modern university for both scholars and students, everyone stands to benefit from these new learning opportunities, except the university itself.