The Future of Higher Education?
George Leef of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy has an interesting review of self-described progressive Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U, which argues that higher education would be vastly improved by a greater variety of options, rather than forcing everyone into the four-year college model:
The latter half of DIY U is about the many ways in which innovators (“edupreneurs”) are trying to give students new and better options. Established educational institutions want to sell students a big (and usually very expensive) bundle of education and credentials, but innovators are trying to unbundle those services and sell them separately at much lower cost–or even giving them away.
For example, there is Western Governors University, an online university that costs students less than $6,000 per year. WGU was formed in 1999 and instead of simply following the usual procedure of organizing academic departments in the traditional fields, officials convened a council of employers and asked, “What is it that graduates you’re hiring can’t do that you wish they could?”
[…] All of this is about unbundling. If you walk into a grocery store wanting just one or two items, you can get just those items. If you want just one of two items of education, you shouldn’t have to buy a whole cart-full of courses. Kamenetz likes the idea that individuals should be able to customize education to suit their particular needs and desires. So do I.
One big problem, though—in a society that has become credential-crazed, how do people who get their education in unstructured, informal ways (I thought of writing “non-traditional” but when you think about it, this idea is very traditional, going back to the ancient Greeks) show that they have a base of knowledge? College degrees don’t necessarily betoken any learning, but they’re better than trying to explain that you got a lot out of the various topics you studied online when the employer insists on a B.A.
“Accreditation and assessment, the source of the ‘sheepskin effect’” she writes, “is proving the toughest nut to crack.” Innovation may crack it, though. Today, students can compile and publish a portfolio to demonstrate their knowledge and capabilities by using free software like WordPress and Drupal. Since the college degree is no longer a very useful screening mechanism, if a few employers would start saying to applicants, “Don’t show us where you’ve taken courses, but instead show us evidence that you’ve learned something that would be useful here,” the dam may break quickly.
Notice what is absent in this vision of the future of higher education. It involves no government subsidies, regulations, or even institutions. What makes it work is voluntary cooperation and the free market’s fabled discovery process. Students will learn more at far less cost. Laissez-faire will produce enormous benefits if existing institutions don’t strangle the educational freedom movement in the cradle.
Of course, the “traditional” college is primarily a product of tremendous government subsidization. Very few people attended colleges prior to World War II, but attendance rates skyrocketed in the late 1940s through the 1960s with soldiers using G.I. Bill funding to obtain degrees, and their Baby Boomer children — often funded by the newly created Pell Grant — following soon thereafter. Attendance rates continued to grow to the present, but now many of those who attend college never finish, and the focus of college has shifted from a liberal education to a form of halfhearted career training. Ending these subsidies could put emphasis back on older forms of education, like apprenticeships and trade schools, which could focus on practical arts without betraying their stated missions.