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?