College costs too much. Tuition and fees have tripled in the last 20 years. It is now apparently just an accepted fact that educated young people begin their adult lives with a heavy burden of debt incurred before they even have their first job! That used to be true only of medical students, who were eventually recompensed by making lots more money than most of us. But now, it doesn’t matter what you want to be when you grow up; it costs more than you can afford. I was astonished when a young intern at the Museum told me she had already amassed $70,000 in debt and still had not finished her Masters Degree in Museum Studies. Now I understand that is not all that unusual.
The repayment period for student loans is 30 years plus 8 more for hardship cases. Students have every intention of paying the money back before that time, of course, but somehow it doesn’t always work out that way. People are actually having their social security checks docked for non-payment of student loans (sometimes their own loans or those incurred on behalf of their children or grandchildren).
Are we crazy or what? Something’s got to give. Sooner or later—let’s hope sooner, young people (and their parents) will find alternative ways for them to become educated and convince employers that they know what they need to know without putting themselves in debt for years to come.
There is every indication that a revolution that will lead to this outcome is underway. I have no doubt that in the future digitized learning will be integrated into a system that also provides warm blooded contact between learners and teachers, does a better job at individualizing learning—and all at a reasonable cost without the need for attendance at a cluster of brick and mortar buildings. It may not happen soon enough for grandson Sam who enters high school this fall. But then again, it just might.
Consider this: does it make sense for 100 students to be required to assemble in a lecture hall on a certain day at a certain hour in order to watch a professor, distinguished or not, pace up and down before them, rambling on while they try to distill more or less what he is saying on their laptops? At least some of them are trying to do that. Others, bored after 15 minutes, turn to Facebook, emailing friends, or surfing the internet. But no problem, those who failed to listen can, at the end of the term, buy notes from the more diligent student, which notes will, presumably, reflect what the prof said and provide the buyer with enough information to pass the exam. And we call this education.
Alternatively, the professor could tape a polished lecture and reach thousands of students. Students could actually be engaged with the material and receive feedback as the lecture progressed, be assigned homework that would be graded, and tested on the material. Study groups could be formed—virtual or actual—and the price of the entire experience would be affordable.
It’s not impossible; in fact it is already being done. Coursera is one company offering 117 of these online courses taught by professors at leading universities: Stanford, Duke, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, to name a few. Daphne Tollner, Stanford Professor and co-owner of Coursera explains how it works in this video. Other sources you might want to check out are Udacity, and Good Semester. All of these courses are free. That’s right, free as in they don’t cost anything.
To think that these experimental efforts will not profoundly affect the face of higher education would be naive. As someone with a great respect for tradition, I want to say that this is one place where we need to discard our older model of education, which is literally medieval, for a newer approach. I may even sign up for a course myself.