In Pursuit of Disruption in Higher Education

The current system of higher education is a historical anachronism. Nearly untouched by the inexorable forward march of technology, the experience of going to college has remained largely the same for hundreds of years. Sure, students now take notes on laptops rather than in notebooks, whiteboards have replaced blackboards, and lectures can be downloaded and listened to on a variety of devices beginning with a lowercase “i”.

But these are tangential changes at best to the core of the college experience. By and large higher education still involves a tweed-coated professor standing in the front of a large lecture hall while students furiously take notes for an hour before making their way back across the elm-shaded quad to the 12’x12’ room known as a dorm. If there has been anything resembling “innovation” by college administrators, it is the the ancillary services they offer. Dining halls are now gourmet, locally-sourced restaurants. Gymnasiums are now state-of-the-art fitness centers. Sport facilities now rival professional stadiums. And classrooms seem to be in competition with sports bars to see how many screens they can fit into a given space.

The drive to offer the best amenities has not improved educational outcomes one iota, but it has contributed to the spiraling debt burdens currently plaguing an entire generation of youth. Perhaps this could be forgiven if young graduates were experiencing the career and financial success necessary to pay off such exorbitant tabs, but alas it isn’t so. According to new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the percentage of people who recently attained degrees, but were working in jobs that typically don’t require them, rose to 44.9 percent on average. For reference, that number was close to 37 percent as recently as 2002.

Fortunately, not everyone is content to stand pat, or worse, engage in the disruption-stultifying scheme of having college graduates who successfully transitioned into taxpayers turn around and subsidize the costs of college students. Instead, some are recognizing that college, and the way we pay for it need to change in a way that incentivizes the best education at the best price.

One of those potential avenues is by utilizing technology to mass-produce education for students who otherwise would not be able—because of a lack of time or money—to pursue it. This new disruption have taken the form of MOOCs, which stand for massive open online course. These online courses enable purveyors of online education, such as Coursera, which is run by a former Yale president, to recruit talented teachers (who don’t necessarily want to battle the politics of higher education or go through the rigamarole of pursing publication in some un-read academic journal) and put them in front of thousands of students.

Froma Hopp writes for RealClearPolitics:

The convenience of online learning opens higher education to poor or low-income students with day jobs. It helps those wanting to pursue work or travel after high school rather than immediately jump on the college conveyor belt.

Online education lets those not prepared for college-level work catch up on what they missed. It lets older workers go back for the skills they need or the intellectual growth they want.

The time has come to shift higher education toward an infrastructure for grown-ups, be they age 19, 45 or 60. Students should be able to pursue the studies they want at whatever pace suits them. And imagine what they could do with the 60 grand.

To be clear, this model won’t work for everyone. There will always be a perceived need to have a closer connection with a professor, especially in hands-on STEM fields, where lab and field work dominates. But for other students, who won’t perceive much difference between sitting in a 200-person lecture hall or sitting in front of a computer, why not offer them a choice, especially when it could save them tens-of-thousands of dollars.

And speaking of payment, some forward-looking colleges are experimenting with innovative education funding models that could do away with the idea of student loans for many borrowers. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, writing for the Washington Post, explains:

Students at Purdue University soon will be able to apply for education funding in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings, a program that could revolutionize college financial aid at a time when costs are high

Through its research foundation, the public college in West Lafayette, Ind. is rolling out the “Back a Boiler” program next month, using a concept known as an income-share agreement, or ISA, that would be available to rising juniors and seniors. Awards will start at $5,000 and will take into account a student’s cumulative debt. Students would repay the debt during the years immediately following college based on a fixed rate linked to their expected income, a gamble that could save them thousands of dollars as compared to traditional loans but also could cost them far more if they land high-paying jobs.

In addition to removing much of the downside-risk of a college education, ISAs could also be a powerful tool to appropriately price certain endeavors. The market knows how many business grads it needs, just as it knows how many art majors it needs, and trust me, the answer to those questions is vastly different. Pricing the risk of future employment allows students greater insight into what exactly they are paying a college to teach them. There is no good reason that the cost of a degrees cost the same amount other than it makes it easy for administrators to administrate, and really, who is concerned about that?

There are myriad other innovations or reforms that could work wonders when applied to our staid system of higher education. But the forces fighting for the status quo are strong, and, oddly enough, they come under the moniker of “progressives.” If college students really want to see progress, especially in the form of lower student loan payments, they ought to consider their political choices, especially given their current lack of higher education options.