College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

A Degree at Any Cost? Not So Fast

By Howard E. Horton — September 29, 2015 4 min read
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The 2016 presidential candidates have made it clear that ensuring more Americans attain college degrees, without incurring burdensome amounts of debt in the process, is a national priority.

Hillary Clinton recently proposed her “New College Compact,” a $350 billion plan to make college more affordable and reduce student debt. Republican candidates were quick to respond, with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida pushing for more alternatives to traditional four-year college, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush criticizing the former U.S. secretary of state’s plan for the burden he says it would place on taxpayers. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s fellow Democrat, jumped into the education debate early, with a plan that would provide free tuition at public universities, funded through a small tax on financial transactions. It expands upon President Barack Obama’s proposal earlier this year for free community college.

Free higher education may seem like an obvious solution at a time when business leaders decry the “skills gap,” and four-year colleges continue to seem like the playground of the elite. But in our zeal to service new learners, we must be equally mindful that we don’t unintentionally shortchange students in the process.


Today, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average national graduation rate for students at public, two-year community colleges stands at a paltry 20 percent. But in programs that provide exceptional support for students, such as organizing them into specific learning communities and providing them with ongoing coaching, we see that such graduation rates can increase substantially. Would it not make more sense then to funnel any additional public dollars into such support programs, before flooding classrooms with more students who would come into these colleges with only a small chance of graduating? An “open door” policy that creates an entitlement program for free community or public colleges runs precisely this risk.

Other proposed solutions to our current higher education system—including programs claiming to lower costs and speed time to graduation—come with their own sets of problems.

For example, educational communities rejoiced when Harvard and MIT formed the venture known as EdX to offer MOOCs, or massive, open online courses. MOOCs were praised for their potential to democratize higher education—to take the teachings previously guarded jealously behind ivy-covered walls, and impart them to the masses. But the lack of faculty and peer interaction in MOOCs has made them less advantageous for students who require these interactions to succeed in their coursework. As a result, MOOCs have a notoriously low completion rate and have not yet been widely adopted in the nation’s colleges and universities.

Competency-based education, or CBE, is another model that’s begun to get traction in higher education, allowing students to master skills without having to actually take any classes. In the CBE approach, students review instructional material with minimal support from faculty and without much interaction with peers. While these programs can work to impart a hard skill, such as the ability to solve an algebraic equation, they really can’t help students master the softer skills needed for workplace success, such as the ability to work in teams or to make a business presentation. These kinds of skills require tutelage from faculty members and real interaction with student-peer cohort groups.

We should be looking toward affordable but high-quality education options.

That’s not to say CBE is completely without merit. CBE could play an important role in higher education, imparting skills quickly and at an affordable cost. Similarly, MOOCs can be part of the solution of access and affordability if combined with in-person instruction or private online tutoring.

For example, two Massachusetts community colleges have used EdX’s MOOCs to create a “flipped classroom,” in which a teacher helps students in person to make sense of the material offered in online coursework. The classroom is “flipped” because “homework” is happening at the school, while the instruction, through online delivery, is happening at home. Faculty members remain a critical piece of the college experience and the educational equation.

We should be looking toward affordable but high-quality education options for students—and these are becoming more commonplace as demand for them increases. The problem with “free” versus “affordable” is that you are going to get what you paid for, and the problem with shortcuts is that you can too easily be shortchanged. Horace Mann, who led Massachusetts’ first board of education, argued: “Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

As we commit to making higher education more accessible and more affordable, let’s make sure we also commit to providing a level of quality that will equip all of our graduates, regardless of their backgrounds, to go as far as their minds and motivations can take them.

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as A Degree at Any Cost? Not So Fast


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