There’s a lot of excess noise in just about every contemporary debate about public education, which makes it hard for anyone to see clearly what’s happening, and what needs to happen, in order to pull our institutions of American schooling – from Kindergarten to College – out of the Industrial era and into the modern world.
One thing, however, seems clear at every level: we need to become a lot more efficient in how we spend our money (not to mention a lot smarter in how we use our degree). Which is why I find it interesting that almost no one is talking about what Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed last week.
Scott challenged every community college in his state to create bachelor’s degree programs that cost students $10,000 or less. “Every business has to figure out how to make itself more efficient,” he said. “They’ve got to use technology, they’ve got to use the Internet, things like that. We can do the same thing with our state colleges.”
It’s too soon to tell how effective Scott’s challenge will be, and if Florida ultimately becomes a model of affordable higher education for the country. But his idea certainly comes at an interesting time – and one has to wonder when exactly the keepers of America’s colleges and universities will wake up and smell the MOOC.
On one hand, one could look at the numbers and wonder what all the hubbub is about: in worldwide rankings, more than half of the top 100 universities are American – including eight out of the top ten.
On the other hand, there is a growing sense that investing in higher education does not yield the path to prosperity it once did. Indeed, according to a recent article in The Economist, the cost of college has risen by almost five times the rate of inflation since 1983, and the amount of debt per student has doubled in the past 15 years. Two-thirds of graduates now take out loans. And those who graduated last year did so with an average of $26,000 in debt.
Making matters worse is this untidy stat: the odds of an American student completing a four-year degree within six years stand at no better than 57%. Yet all the while, universities are spending plenty more on administration and support services, while states are cutting back on financial aid.
In this sort of environment, it should be no surprise that new entities are stepping into the fray and threatening the way we think about higher education. In fact, 2011 may be remembered as the year of the MOOC, or “massive open online courses.” They’re free, they’re college-level, and they’re available to everyone. Entities like Western Governors University (WGU) now offer tuition costs of less than $6,000 a year, and students have complete freedom over deciding when they study and take their exams. And companies like StraighterLine are offering online courses for as low as $49.
So amidst all these tectonic shifts, what does the future hold? A few things seem clear: first, there will always be the Ivory Towers of the university, and the growth of online courses will never replace the value of real-time, relationship-driven learning. Second, we need to admit that we have arrived at a point at which the production of credentials (e.g., knowing how to graduate) has come to matter more than the cultivation of anything real (e.g., knowing how to think). And third, the most certain future path for all levels of American education is the one down which learning becomes more personalized and customized – and that, I say, is a good thing. “The best sort of democratic education,” says Shop Class as Soulcraft author Matthew Crawford, “is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best [for each individual].”
Amen. And onward march.