Higher Education: What You Know, or What You Can Afford to Pay?

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May 11, 2012 |

Between the Stafford Loan debate, the President’s call to increase the number of college graduates in the country, and historically high unemployment rates for people without college degrees, there has been no shortage of discussions about the importance of a college degree. Pundits across the political spectrum declare that America needs more college graduates. They correctly point out that a college graduate will earn far more over the course of his career. They present the data showing that the majority of jobs will require a college degree in the coming decade.

This discussion fails to answer a fundamental question: what is a college degree? We know what it should be. A college degree should be an acknowledgment that a student has mastered coursework and vital skills and is ready to apply those skills in the workforce. A college degree should be a symbol of what you know.

Unfortunately, a college degree is more a symbol of what you can afford to pay than a symbol of what you know you can afford to pay, not what you know.  We’ve seen college tuition increase by 439% between 1981 and 2007, the average college graduate leave school with $24,000 in debt, and the skills college graduates develop on campus not prepare them for the workplace. In too many cases, college has become a luxury, not an investment.

To meet the country’s college graduation goals, we need innovation that will lower the cost of higher education.

Fortunately, individuals, companies, and organizations are trying to address this issue, and making some headway. A recently-announced partnership between the Saylor Foundation and StraighterLine could be promising. For a couple of years now, the two organizations have offered online, self-paced college courses, mostly in introductory subjects such as English 101 and Biology 101.

On May 9, the Saylor Foundation and StraighterLine teamed up to give students two ways to earn academic credit at a far lower cost than they would pay at a traditional two or four-year college. Starting in the fall, students can take free courses from Saylor and then enroll in StraighterLine to take an exam (Saylor does not offer exams, and their courses previously could not count for college credit). After passing, they will receive ACE-recommended credit, which they can take to an institute of higher education to get credit towards a degree. Alternatively, students can enroll in a StraighterLine program from the outset, using Saylor’s free materials to supplement their experience.

Saylor Foundation’s courses are free, and StraighterLine’s courses average about $39 per course. These courses – which are nearly identical to the online course offerings of most two and four year institutions – cost students a fraction of what they’d otherwise pay. If more students can afford a college degree, maybe America can start producing the college graduates the pundits say we need.

The partnership is promising, and an excellent example of the innovation that the nation’s higher education policy needs to foster.  Yet the underlying issues causing skyrocketing costs and the limited ROI of higher education are deeply entrenched.  It will take a lot more innovation to solve these problems.  The Saylor Foundation-StraighterLine project will not fix all of them. But it is a step towards making a college degree a symbol of what a student knows, not what she can afford to pay.

 

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