If the thought of all of that free online competition or the declining number of high school graduates was not keeping you up at night, here is another trend to get you worrying. The New York Times had a story on Sunday about how billionaire college drop outs are inspiring a new generation of students to drop out or bypass college. The list of new role models is impressive: Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. There are a growing number of websites, books and organization trying to support alternatives: DIY U, UnCollege, Enstituteu and an online support group to say nothing of recent calls for a $10,000 alternative.
I think most of us would agree:
1. You can learn an awful lot without going to college (especially now with free internet content)
2. There is still something highly valuable (both cognitively and socially) about the college experience, and
3. Taking on a huge debt should not be the only option.
Most students do not have $100,000 in debt and some personal investment is justified given the return. But it is easy to see that the combination of current economic and technological factors is going to fuel this fire. So what can we do?
We probably do need some lower cost alternatives. I do NOT think you can deliver everything the best college experience delivers for $10,000, but I do think that we should be looking for thoughtful ways to leverage the free content currently available and add discussions, face-to-face interactions, interactive assignments and other learning opportunities to create an integrated college experience that might serve as a cheaper alternative to the student price tags most of us now accept as a part of our jobs.
I don’t believe much in “should have.” Government funding should increase, but it probably won’t. We probably can’t do much about that, but we probably could create a useful cheaper alternative for the current situation. It is something real and useful that we, as the current citizens of the academy, could do for the poorest members of our society. Yes, legislators should be doing this, but unless you want to run for office, get to work.
Higher education is about to be transformed, but I don’t think all residential colleges are doomed. Some of us will survive. There will also be great new alternatives, and apparently an entire generation that will see no college as viable option. Competition in the middle is going to increase–ferociously! We (as institutions) can either work much faster to improve our product and find new ways to demonstrate its effectiveness or look for new models and new markets and try to be the first to offer a quality alternative.