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Cheap, Maybe Even Free, Higher Education

Two recent happenings have me increasingly convinced that it is almost certainly impossible to effect important efficiency and cost-enhancing changes in existing colleges and universities. First, Kelly Field of The Chronicle interviewed me for a story on the fifth anniversary of the report of the Spellings Commission (on which I served). I had to admit that, despite being pretty good, the report had at best a modest positive impact on higher education, largely because of institutional intransigence. Second, the recent ferocity of response of the University of Texas to the mere publishing of data and hints of attempts of increasing faculty productivity was breathtaking. For example, after my Center for College Affordability and Productivity and I did some analysis of the data, my university received a public records request from a UT alumnus asking for all sorts of information about me, presumably part of an attempt to attack/harass/intimidate me for daring to suggest things could be done differently in Austin.

In American higher education, outsiders are expected to be seen but not heard (except, of course, when they deliver the cash needed to run the schools). The recent “state of the university” speech by UT Austin President Bill Powers was mostly an attack on what he considered inappropriate calls for reform by the likes of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Too often the higher-education leadership establishment gets furious when outsiders offer observations about the way they do business.

The way to low-cost higher education, then, lies largely outside the current establishment. We need new approaches, utilizing new technologies. American ingenuity is responding, and we now have several promising ways that Americans can learn cheaply at a “higher” level than what passes for knowledge and wisdom in today’s secondary schools.

Let me mention four innovations. First, entrepreneur Michael Saylor has started a marvelous foundation dedicated to providing free, high-quality course instruction online. The Saylor Foundation courses use lots of excellent open-source materials from places like MIT and Carnegie Mellon, packaged together and supplemented by hired instructors. The Saylor folks tell me their offerings are better than the “Wikipedia University” I sometimes talk about, because they have quality control over content. I took their economics final exam and thought it is was of relatively high quality and well done. My colleagues are so enthusiastic they may take some Saylor courses themselves. With time and more resources, they very well may become a major force in higher education.

Dean Florez of the Twenty Million Minds Foundation stopped by the other day. Until recently Mr. Florez was a power in California politics (Senate majority leader), but he is now on a mission to lower textbook costs, and is aided by some Silicon Valley entrepreneurial friends. Senator Florez spoke enthusiastically about how his group is preparing extremely high-quality text materials for courses available online for free—but was somewhat discouraged by the unwillingness of faculty to adopt them and frustrated at their indifference to the issue of textbook cost. I hope the Saylor and Twenty Million Mind people talk to each other, since each are on to something.

The same day, my friend Kim Dennis gave me the latest catalog from The Great Courses (The Teaching Company); a firm offering courses of high quality by first-rate professors at truly low cost on DVD. I always regret once rejecting an overture from them to develop a course.

Similarly, Burck Smith’s Straighter Line is a great online operation, offering low cost courses, often acceptable for credit at good-quality accredited universities. Like many, Burck is frustrated by the barriers the Educational Establishment places on innovation, but has maneuvered around them pretty well.

There are three limitations to these approaches. Most students view college largely in a financial investment sense, meaning they need a “degree.” I wish employers would start to realize that “learning” and “degrees” are not synonymous, and would appropriately compensate non-degree learners who excel in courses such as those described above. But business leaders, superb at building better mousetraps, are often either naive about higher education and/or don’t want to incur the costs of separating good non-degree applicants from mediocre ones. Thus the new innovators need to work with accredited universities or negotiate with the accrediting agencies themselves, a costly task.

The second limitation is that for many, college is not solely about education or even credentials. There is a big socialization aspect, especially among students from moderately to highly affluent families. It is about making friends, partying, drinking, and having sex. In short, for many, higher education is as much a consumption good as an investment one.  Saylor might help you learn about Plato and the meaning of life, but it won’t get you hooked up with a hot babe or stud.

Third, as my sidekick Jonathan Robe points out, some things cannot be learned online. Saylor might have a good mechanical engineering or chemistry course, but you also need lab experience. Hence the ideal is a blended approach. This suggests Saylor and others might do well to join forces with traditional universities. Why doesn’t the California State University system’s Charlie Reed work with Saylor and offer a blended four-year degree for $10,000?

Change is coming, whether the universities and their minions at 1 DuPont Circle like it or not. Necessity is the mother of invention.

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