There’s a growing number of books on higher education reform. One that I recently found interesting and provocative is DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz (staff writer for Fast Company who regularly publishes in a variety of places). Thankfully, Ms. Kamenetz was willing to answer a few questions for us.
Do you think high schools today push four-year college onto students who should be considering other paths (associate degrees, trade schools, etc.)? And if so, what, historically, has led to this bias?
It’s not just high schools that push the four year college ideal. American citizens overwhelmingly support that as the ideal, especially when you ask them about their own kids, and politicians follow their lead, making discussion of alternate paths taboo. Nobody wants to track kids but I think there’s a basic lack of awareness that more years of education doesn’t always add up to a better life. The key is for people to be able to pursue the course of study that’s right for them.
What effect do you think subsidized student loans have had on college tuition? What has been their impact on the college attainment rate of lower-income students?
Loans are “free money” that make many parents less sensitive to price and make colleges less likely to compete on price. But because of debt aversion, studies show that low-income students don’t necessarily see loans as a safe way to pay for college–and they may be right about that. Student aid is complex. Pell grants, unlike college loans, at least are means-tested. But federal aid by itself is not going to make college more affordable–in fact the opposite is likely true.
When families want their children to attend both reputable and affordable colleges, are these desires competing?
The current prestige-based rankings, eg US News, are bad measures because they don’t get directly at the parts of a college education that actually mean something for students. For example, prestigious colleges have been able to get away with casualizing their teaching force–meaning student face time is more and more with grad students and part time adjuncts–while simultaneously increasing their administrative staff and offering huge salaries to big name professors who do very little teaching (not picking on Paul Krugman here). You can have higher per-pupil instructional costs without actually improving teaching. That says nothing of the parts of the rankings that are dependent on totally irrelevant things like campus amenities.
You see a future where students take more control of their higher education through MOOCs, ad-hoc learning communities, and other implementations of technology which make information widely accessible. Do you think the credentialing problems with MOOCs will be solved, and if so, how?
I don’t see any “credentialing problems” except through the lens of a bias toward traditional institutions. I see people, today, putting MOOCs on their resumes, using that to enhance their job search, and employers making their own determinations as to whether that information is credible. Or even more to the point, I see people using the information provided by MOOCs etc to create their own jobs and companies and enhance the work they do every day in a lifelong learning setting without any need for credentialing at all.
I want to clarify that I think we’ll always have a public need for institutional frameworks that support learning for society’s most vulnerable members. That probably includes the poor, the very young, and traditionally marginalized groups. However, if you replaced “students” with “people” and “higher education” with “learning” you’ll see that the future I outline above is in most cases already here.
Some advocates of online education suggest that “traditional” college will soon be unaffordable for all but the most wealthy. Everyone else will go through college online, if it all. Do you agree? And do you think that unmotivated, less prepared, or less gifted students (many of whom, sadly, lack financial means), will be successful in this environment?
Yesterday I was listening to a radio piece about the demise of the shopping mall. The mall owner was saying that in a few years only the most luxury, high end mall experiences will be thriving. Malls for the middle class and discount malls will be repurposed for other uses. if you can’t afford to shop at the Apple Store and Saks Fifth Avenue, then you can go online or to the big box stores without any of the amenities that middle class people used to enjoy.
I do see this kind of bifurcation happening with college. Basically, after an optimistic period of expansion in the postwar era, the football stadiums and the green lawns and big clock tower and the six-plus years of exploration and personal growth will once again be provinces of the rich, increasingly the international rich, (and a lucky few, lottery winners who are there to provide “diversity” for the rich) as they were throughout the 18th and 19th and early 20th century.
The difference today is that I think technology can greatly enhance the public or mass higher education experience in more or less the same way it enhances our shopping experience: affordability, convenience, choice, efficiency, personalization. What I call for in the $10K degree paper and elsewhere is that we focus the use of public funds to create hybrid experiences for students, combining online offerings with in-person instruction and peer support, with the ultimate aim of creating students who ARE motivated and ARE prepared to continue to learn on their own for a lifetime.