Nigel Thrift wrote a somewhat mind-bending article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about the Cheesecake Factorization of higher education. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a choice excerpt:

What I think we will see is this same chain model gradually taking over higher education. There will still be craft models of delivery—just as there are high-end restaurants—but increasingly conglomerates will rule the roost, made up out of universities that were formerly independent entities. These conglomerates will be public-private entities based on supplying performance-based contracts financed by government and on meeting demand from individual consumers who will have large arrays of information about quality variability available. The days of relying on block grants from government will pass.

In response, Beatrice Marovich asks,”What is the McDonald’s of higher ed?” It’s a provocative question and an exercise worth our time.

To answer, we first have to ask, what are the properties of McDonald’s? Ubiquity, for one: McDonald’s is everywhere. And wherever it is, it’s always in the right place. Consistency, for another: McDonald’s pioneered the process of insuring the sameness of its product everywhere. Low cost, for another, with a reliance on cheap materials and by-products to accomplish this feat.

In the comments following Marovich’s sugggestion, some suggest the University of Phoenix as the clear winner of the laurel. But if you buy my take on McDo above, you can see why Phoenix or DeVry, or ITT don’t apply—they don’t reproduce all of the fundamental features of McDonald’s. Phoenix is much more like the Applebee’s of higher ed: a sit-down, quasi-formal affair pretending to be something it is not, then charging exorbitantly for the privilege. Perversely, McDonald’s is actually better than Applebee’s, for certain values of “better” anyway.

Thrift and Marovich both observe that the MOOC trend seems to be an attempt to process and refine higher ed to the point that it can be delivered quickly and efficiently to all corners of the globe. In this respect, MOOCs are one candidate for the McDonald’s of higher ed, not because their “nutritional value” is low, but because the process of McDonaldization is really a matter of logistics and marketing, not a matter of the nature of the product provided. Still, MOOCs are more like service providers meant to facilitate the operation of other organizations. In that respect, Coursera and its ilk are better compared to Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto—the processing organizations that invent and distribute raw materials like high-fructose corn syrup.

Textbook producers like Pearson and Elsevier are also possible candidates for McDonald’sized higher ed, but they don’t have the retail storefront of a McDonald’s—they’re more like the Coca-Cola of higher ed, offering a familiar product found inside.

One might also suggest the College Board, Kaplan, and related standardized testing and preparation organizations as the most McDonald’s-like of higher education, but of course they are not really full-service enough to qualify.

I’m not sure there is a McDonald’s of higher education. Yet, anyway. Am I wrong?

published December 7, 2012


  1. Jose Zagal

    The Art Institutes? Open University?

    Perhaps we should also be looking at educational insitutions that aren’t higher education – pre-school/child care in particular. Many of them seem to work very much McDonalds? Here’s a few of them…

  2. Ian Bogost

    Jose, I think the Art Institutes are just like Phoenix and DeVry, functionally speaking. Maybe I’m wrong. Their costs are relatively high (and sometimes absolutely so) which makes the McDonald’s comparison less apt.

    We could look at K-12, sure, but the arbitrary exercise here is to find the McDo of higher ed…

  3. Peter Leahy

    My ramblings…

    I’d argue Western Governors University is shooting for a hybrid McDonalds like experience. Focusing on competency (demonstrated by either one objective test or several performance tasks depending on the course), with distance learning/Internet as its delivery method, lots of textbook based courses and some MOOCs (especially in lower level pre-requisits), having a standard path to diploma for a program with no tweaking/flexibility after entry, however, you can set your own pace and really work through courses quickly if dedicated (something I appreciate), stressing low cost and scaleability, franchising into Texas, Indiana and Washington to get treated as a state school therefore students can use state grants, etc. I think it might think of itself as more like a non-profit Starbucks but might be more like Hometown Buffet — all you can eat courses in a six month term for one price. Almost all books are now delivered via one standard e-book reader and they work on most mobile devices for a low $145/term fee.

    I chose WGU specifically to compare it to my brick and mortar experience as well as to test out the competency/accelerated model. I’ve been considering launching an Educational Software company for kids (focused on basic skills in Math, Reading and Science) but linked to parents and schools via Apps. I thought going through something like this would give me an idea on the state of distance learning and this competency based approach. I think I’m getting an education comparable to a top 100 public university — not UC Berkeley but not poorly taught community college either. To be honest I’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t work or is not close to ideal still in distance learning though to be honest I do like pieces of their model like student mentors, course mentors and phone numbers to call for help. As far as my original goal, I have learned more about what might work for App based basic education by using DuoLingo.

    Their IT degrees tend to focus on practical skills and certifications but not programming as a fundamental starting point. Interestingly they are graduating more Masters in Mathematics Education than any other program now. They target working adults with some past college experience. I feel the audience sweet spot is someone with real life work experience, who might normally have gone back to a community college then if they stuck with it on to complete at a 4 year degree at a state school. So not likely training many future academics.

    What WGU (a non-profit) is doing however is saving some folks from heading to University of Phoenix (and a lot of debt). They are challenging the traditional system trying to meet the needs of a specific type of student (mid-career without that piece of paper to get a promotion) and to increase the number of knowledgable workers (at least more knowledgable than they were before) in certain specific fields but they are not in the business to really make them leaders at least not yet.

  4. Joe

    Franchised-but-consistent, downstream-of-VC-and-startups, and ubiquitous and universal branding makes me think of TED / TEDx.

    I’m not sure how that jives with cheap – I don’t see a McDonald’s analogue for attendees – or traditional academic publishing, which TED speakers usually sidestep, ignore, or attack. Or maybe traditional academic publishing ends up taking the role of traditional farming methods, replaced by something even more rote, mechanized, and “efficient”?

  5. Zach

    I nominate Kahn Academy. It’s accessible and covers a wide variety of subjects, its videos are easily distinguishable as being from Kahn Academy, and the price is right. The only problem with completing the higher-education analogy is that KA doesn’t confer a degree, but you get what you pay for.

  6. Gordon Goodman

    Higher Education in the US is in the unenviable position of being the inheritor of many historical threads from Thomas Dewey to medieval guild to the Catholic church that make the conversation confusing and incoherent. It is going to take enormous presence of mind to sort out not only our purpose but our values and be painfully honest with ourselves. As one looks at the many alternatives technological modes of delivering instruction, some of which will eventually routinely surpass our conventional modes in effectiveness (and the best examples already do and have for some time), we will be moving towards models that naturaly benefit from economies of scale. Just like there will be indie game developers, there will be indie education developers but they will not represent the bulk of the market. I really like travelling bards but I don’t get most of my music and news from them. I guess I tend to agree in some respects with Nigel Thrift’s premise but I am hoping that I can work in one of those indie game shops or high end restaurants. Having travelled to many parts of the world where the local cuisine is so far superior to MickeyD’s, it is concerning to see how rapidly it catches on and changes the indigenous eating habits. MacDonald’s is crack in food form and it is made to appeal to the least sophisticated tastes. That model sounds about right for consumers of a product who are mostly young. oh, shit! By the time students get ready for college, their habits of consumption will have already been shaped so maybe the battle lines on this one are not what we think.

  7. davel

    I’d say the McDonald’s of higher education is lower education. Everyone goes there, the tests are the same nationwide (with the corresponding loss of “nutrition”) — and they have clowns!

  8. Rayya Ghul

    George Ritzer first wrote about McDonaldization in the mid-90’s and there is quite a range of literature around about it now. Ritzer has extended this idea to McDisneyization of tourism and to the McDonaldization of Society.

    Articles about the MDonaldization of HE (like this one have been required reading on HE Education courses for a while now. Using Cheesecake Factory instead was probably deliberate …

    You probably knew all this – sorry if I’m speaking out of turn.