I assume the following statement is well understood by the vast majority of the educated public by now, as the bells of alarm have been rattling at an increasingly frenetic pace since the student debt total crossed the trillion dollar mark, but I will say it anyway: the price of a traditional four-year college experience has gotten outrageously out of hand.
No doubt, something should be done to combat this issue, but before any real progress can be made, we must first understand the circumstances that have led to such a burdensome outcome for all parties involved. We know that the college degree, for all its financial stress, is still a valuable proposition in the long run (although this certainly varies depending on the degree), so students will not simply stop consuming the product of Higher Education. What is it that the traditional universities are doing to run up such a bill?
Unfortunately, as it turns out, much of this enormous cost comes down to construction. Some call it the Edifice Complex. New facilities, sparkling gyms, top of the line dorms and private bathrooms for all: very little progressing of the actual educational experience. In an arms race to recruit the best and brightest (or, more likely, the wealthiest), schools that have no business trying to attract the top students are quite literally running themselves into the ground trying to expand their physical offering. Every school wants to be Harvard: problem is, there already is a Harvard, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere too soon.
The solution to this craziness is likely to exist online. While some still question the value of the online university, the reality is that these programs are getting stronger, smarter, and more efficacious by the day. In fact, with the rise of companies like Coursera and Udacity, we are starting to see a reverse movement, where the top physical schools are seeking out an online presence.
Those students that explore an online degree will be getting more out of their experience than just the freedom to continue a career and plan their education around their existing schedule: they will have the knowledge that their tuition isn’t going toward the construction of a rock climbing wall. Or a new football stadium. They will be paying for an education. The migration to online universities is already well under way, but if brick and mortar universities continue this arms race, the migration will undoubtedly speed to a sprint.
Colleges and universities are financing their growth on the backs of the student population (with a little help from the taxpayer in the case of some state schools). Though this group of financiers undoubtedly has a breaking point (one that’s day of reckoning is likely on its way), the same cannot be said for the K-12 public school system. While Higher Education is notorious for moving at light speed in terms of adoption and reinvention (as well-evidenced by the University of Virginia kerfuffle of 2012), K-12 is almost identically known for its sloth-like advancement. So while changes to the University landscape are likely to happen in the blink of an eye, K-12 will be far slower at adapting to issues of funding and financing.
Here’s the thing: students spending ungodly barrels of money to obtain residence on a college campus are rewarded with near universal access to myriad facilities and opportunities for essentially 365 days a year. While these kids are undoubtedly getting ripped off, they do at least seem to have legitimate ownership over the resources they finance. The same cannot be said for the taxpayers of K-12.
Nights? Doors locked. Weekends? Closed. Summer? Only if you are a struggling student in need of catch-up and/or punishment. Holidays? HAAAAH!!!
Even if you are a student with direct admission to public school facilities, you are likely well-censored in terms of access. If you are just a regular Joe Taxpayer with no kids and seemingly no direct contact with the local public school (besides the fact that, ya know, you are helping to finance the entire operation), you are far more likely to be rounded up by the police than be granted access to, say, the computer lab of the elementary school.
Our public schools are comprised of millions of dollars of equipment - hardware, software, beakers, athletic facilities; heck, even cafeterias and bathrooms seem like a pretty useful tool for the public to access. At a time when education budgets are shriveling up into little raisins of their former selves, when should-be core curricula like athletics and the arts are cast aside as a mere luxury (a real laugher to anyone with a hint of knowledge of the education development of young students), shouldn’t we be maximizing our dollar when we have the chance? Governments both local and state-wide are sitting on BILLIONS of dollars of facilities that are left untapped for a majority of the public, and for a large chunk of the year.
It seems to me that there is a more worthwhile use of the facilities that we already own then, well, going unused and untouched for long stretches of time. As we continue to hardwire our schools and introduce new technologies to the classroom, why not leverage these new gadgets for the good of the community?
On a separate note, I have spent the majority of the day watching the news coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook with a burst of illness coursing through my body; devastating doesn’t begin to describe it. Hug your family a little tighter this holiday season.
The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.