Possible Answer to the “College Affordability Crisis”

We hear in the media of two problems regarding higher education:
·         The costs have gone up dramatically, making college unaffordable for many.
·         Students who have needed college loans to enable them to go to college are saddled by an incredible amount of debt.

The following statistics bear these statements out. It truly was easier financially to get my Bachelor’s Degree from Michigan State University from 1967-1970, getting my degree in three years and a summer term, working my way through, and leaving with no debt and a new car.

Average Cost of College Statistics and Key Findings

·         Average Total Cost of Public Colleges: $25,290 (in-state) $40,940 (out-of-state)
·         Average Total Cost of Private Colleges: $50,900
·         More than 19.9 million students are projected to attend American colleges and universities in fall 2018, with around 6.7 million going to two-year institutions and 13.3 million going to four-year institutions.
·         The majority of students pay between $6,000 and $15,000 in tuition for both public and private schools in the United States.

According to The College Board®, the average 2014-2015 tuition increase was 3.7 percent at private colleges, and 2.9 percent at public universities. However, looking back at the last decade, the 10-year historical rate of increase is approximately 5 percent.
These figures are substantially higher than the general inflation rate, and also higher than the average increase in personal incomes.”

Projecting ahead those rates of inflation make things look problematic, at best.

The impacts of these higher costs are shown in the rising student debt held by former students.
U.S. student loan borrowers owed a collective $1.6 trillion in federal and private student loan debt as of March 2019, according to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
. . . .
Sixty-five percent of the class of 2018 graduated with student debt, according to the most recent data available from The Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit organization that works to improve higher education access and affordability. Among these graduates, the average student loan debt was $29,200.

The average U.S. household with student debt owes $47,671, according to NerdWallet’s 2018 household debt study.” 2019 Student Loan Debt Statistics

So, What Do We Do About It?

First, I am not persuaded by demands that student debt should be forgiven, except in certain circumstances. The rate of return for the money invested in a college education is still generally positive. People invest money, including for college, because they anticipate a positive rate of return. The fact that they incur debt to get the education should not give reason to let them off the hook. Of course, some people are very adversely affected. For example, many enrolled in rip off private colleges but then never received a degree or other expertise that was of any value. Others incurred debt, then dropped out of their program, with little to show for it. Others made very bad choices in their selected field of study which upon graduation may have little demand for or very low wages for that specialty. In general, I am very supportive of the notion that people need to be held accountable for their actions. If these indebted former students were let off the hook, presumably someone else would need to pick up the check. Many of those expected to do so would be others who have not had the same opportunities for the education that the debtors have, and in fact, may be making lower wages than the indebted. Is it fair to transfer the burden to them? I think not.

If there are loan forgiveness programs for debtors who fill hard to fill public service jobs (such as teaching positions in selected rural locations or poverty stricken inner city schools) or doctors who take positions in rural areas that have great difficulty in attracting doctors, I would have less of an objection. Or, as I have seen proposals for allowing future social security benefits to be tapped to pay off or pay down student debt, I may be ok with that.

But I think the focus should be on doing what we can to control college costs and reduce the incidence of these problems arising in the future.

How to Control Costs

Great advances have been made in online education. I have “taken” perhaps 50-70 excellent courses from the Teaching College in their Great Courses. I have also taken numerous courses from Coursera. There is an abundance of excellent learning opportunities online free (or a small fee for a certificate of completion).

I envision a program as follows:
·         An accrediting body be set up to evaluate and approve worthy online courses for credit to an American Virtual University. Some current courses, such as in the Great Courses series, would likely qualify due to their selecting some of the best English-speaking instructors in the world to teach their courses. Their courses would need to be modified to add the embedded quizzes and tests, but can serve as models of the quality expected. Also, many of the Coursera courses are of the length and quality already with the testing components. And, there are many other top-notch universities with online courses that would surely qualify, such as listed on Udemy.com, oeru.org, edx.org, Udacity, Masterclass, Pluralsight, Lynda.com, Skillshare, and more.

·         The courses would be granted credit in proportion to the extent of the course content. A typical university course granted 3 credits would have 3 class hours per week for 15 weeks, for a total of 45 hours. A rule of thumb is that students should spend an additional 2 hours studying per hour of class, for a grand total of 135 hours. A typical Great Course is 24 lectures 30 minutes each, for a total of 12 hours, but would take longer with the quizzes and tests added. This might be granted a ¼ credit, for example.

·         The courses could have quizzes or tests embedded in the instruction, n to ensure the enrolled student actually did the course, just as Coursera does now. To prevent others from doing the work for them, a camera on the computer could required that biometrically ensure that the student is the one who he/she says it is. For those opposed to the use of biometric monitoring, they could simply choose not to participate in the program.

·         Upon the completion of 90 credits, the student would receive an Associates Degree, which should be easily achievable in two years, even if full time employed. There may be a need for specification of the kind of class mix that would be needed for the degree, i.e., a curriculum developed with different specializations.

·         The credits earned would be transferable to public four-year universities.

Now this approach would not be ideal for some subjects, for which frequent student-teacher interaction is needed. I first thought this would apply to algebra or calculus, for example, but with the low-cost access to online tutoring in these subjects, even that does not seem to be an insurmountable hurdle. But, this is undoubtedly true for some subject matter, such as which require labs or other hands-on learning.

We can also expect pushback on the basis that the student-teacher interaction is needed in almost every subject matter to enhance critical thinking, etc. in addition to rote learning. However, if you have been in many major universities and witnessed how lower level courses are taught, you would see huge lecture halls and even televised lectures delivered simultaneously in multiple location on campus – virtually no different than online courses are delivered.

There can be expected to be huge pushback from educational professionals who would be displaced by this initiative. But, that is the nature of “creative destruction”, similar to the adverse effect the auto industry had on the buggy whip makers. The drop in demand for teachers of some subjects would free up money for more of the hands-on technical trades training that is desperately needed.

If this were done on a national scale, it could be done very cost-effectively, which once set up, could virtually run with little human input (other than continuing to approve additional courses as they were developed, or discontinuing others that don’t prove out) and monitoring the compliance by the students (which mostly would be done through artificial intelligence).

This could be so inexpensive that it could be offered free. The cost saved by reducing the costs of current methods would easily be more than the cost of the American Virtual University.

For conservatives concerned about the “free” nature, this could be offset by requiring people getting welfare or Food Stamps (now SNAP) to be enrolled in the American Virtual University at least at some minimal level. The worst that would happen is that they would become better informed with better vocabulary and language skills.

For people, particularly those for whom English is a second language, there could be course content for them as well.

Paid for by the Rick Olson for Congress Committee, P.O. Box 1079, Prior Lake, MN 55372




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