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Voices Podcast: Redefining what higher education looks like

The director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Kelly, recommends changing the way that students earn college credits as a way to promote greater rates of completion. This post is based on a presentation Kelly gave for the Donnell-Kay Foundation’s Hot Lunch series on September 13, 2013; listen to his complete presentation below.

America has always been an innovator in postsecondary education. From the creation of land-grant colleges in the 1860s to the GI Bill of the 1940s to birth of community colleges, the United States has repeatedly redefined what higher education looks like and who it’s supposed to serve. This commitment to higher education access was unprecedented, and it helped usher in an era of sustained prosperity and economic competitiveness.

But the 21st century poses a new set of challenges, and our higher education system must change in order to meet them. Three stand out:

  1. First, the rising cost of college threatens the economy and social mobility. Labor market projections suggest that the economy will need about three million more college graduates than colleges are expected to produce by 2018. At the same time that we need more degrees, they’ve become much more expensive to produce. Over the past decade, as state funding has declined, tuition and fees at public universities increased 40 to 50 percent. To keep up, students and families have taken on mountains of student debt, and defaults are on the rise.
  2. Second, a growing group of so-called “nontraditional” students—those over the age of 25, working full-time, and juggling multiple commitments—is quickly becoming the majority in higher education. Eighteen- to 22 year-old students living on-campus at four-year colleges now represent less than a quarter of all enrollments. Meanwhile, more than one third of college students are now over the age of 25. Yet college programs tend to reflect the needs of traditional students. Courses, degrees, and even financial aid are designed around rigid academic calendars that may not be flexible enough for adult students.
  3. Third, there are growing doubts about the quality of a college education and whether college is “worth it.” More than 50 percent of students who show up to two-year community colleges qualify for remediation in math or English, and few of those go on to finish a degree. Overall, forty percent of students who start a college degree don’t finish one in six years. Even who do stick it out for four years may not learn much. Research suggests that students are studying less than they used to and that 40 percent do not make gains on a test of critical thinking between their first and fourth years of college.

Far from being immune to these trends, Colorado has been at the forefront of many of them. State funding per student declined by 32 percent between 2008 and 2013, and in-state tuition at Colorado’s public four-year colleges increased 41 percent over the same period (tuition at two year colleges increased 33 percent). Meanwhile, one study estimates that Colorado will be among the top five states in terms of jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree in the years to come.

Time to Innovate

In the past, policymakers have responded to increasing tuition prices by pouring money into student aid and hoping costs slow down. But that’s a race we can’t win. Despite record increases in Pell Grant spending, tuition increases have reduced the purchasing power of the Pell Grant to an all-time low. As President Obama said recently, “Families and taxpayers can’t just keep paying more and more into an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up. We’ll never have enough loan money, we’ll never have enough grant money…”

Instead, we’ve got to identify opportunities to make our investments go farther by dramatically reducing the cost of delivering a college education. And we’ve got to make sure that those cost savings are passed onto students in the form of lower tuition. That means we’ve got to rethink the way we design, deliver, and finance higher education. The opportunities for innovation include:

Encourage unbundling and lower barriers to credit transfer.

Colleges have traditionally been organized around a notion of scarcity. Smart people, books, and lab equipment were scarce commodities so it made sense to house them in one place, ration access to that place, and require students to do most of their learning at that place.

Today, the basic components of a college degree—content and instruction—are more readily available than ever before. Online providers can beam college courses to hundreds of thousands of students around the world for free or at very low cost. And you can walk into a testing center and take a proctored final exam for less $100.

In a world where quality content, instruction, and assessment are available for very low cost, it makes less and less sense to insist that students take all of their courses at one institution and pay standard tuition rates. Embracing this unbundled market could dramatically lower the cost of college degrees. To its credit, Colorado State’s “CSU Global” program has pledged to accept credit from some MOOCs, though nobody has yet taken them up on this idea. Colorado’s policymakers should consider how the market for unbundled online courses could help students complete the courses they need—general education requirements and/or those that are oversubscribed—when they need them and at a lower cost.

Create space for providers to award credit based on learning, not time spent in class.

Finally, it is time to think more creatively about the ways we award credit. A growing number of higher education providers have embraced “competency-based” models of education, where learners are awarded credit based on whether they pass an assessment that measures their “competency” in a given subject. Under such a model, students can move at their own pace and even acquire credit for learning done on the job or in the military. Some students are able to finish a degree much more quickly because they can prove competencies faster than a sixteen week course would allow. At Western Governor’s University, the most well known competency-based provider, the average time to a bachelor’s degree is two and a half years. At a cost of $6,000 per year, that’s far less expensive than the typical four-year degree program.

Assess student needs and customize.

Remediation is a source of concern across the country. Remedial courses are costly and students who enroll in them tend to have low rates of degree completion.

We could reduce the amount of time and money students spend on remedial coursework by assessing them early—preferably before they even arrive on campus—and then customizing their coursework to the subjects they need help in. The California State University (CSU) System’s Early Assessment Program tests high school juniors to let them know if they would place into remediation at a CSU campus. Students can then use their senior year to prepare for the placement exam again. In Kentucky, the Community and Technical College System’s “Learn On Demand” program assigns remedial students to “modules” based on an assessment of their college readiness. Rather than sit through an entire sixteen-week course, students take (and pay for) only the modules they need.

This kind of “bite-sized,” just-in-time approach to coursework is severely lacking across higher education, and leaders should look for opportunities to implement in their states or on their campuses.

Each of these steps is likely to be controversial, because each represents a challenge to the existing model. And many could lead existing colleges to lose some of their market share. But competition is a key to driving costs and prices down. Creating space for entrepreneurs to develop, test, and improve new models of postsecondary education will invigorate the market and serve students better. It won’t be easy, but Colorado should lead that charge.

Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of EdNews Colorado.

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