With more of us being priced out of higher education, there’s a startling divergence in how the folks who control the entry ramps are responding. But one of their responses could actually be quite good for you.
Most colleges and universities are bulking up to do more of what they’ve done for the past half century: running increasingly ambitious fund raising campaigns to support increasingly expensive buildings, administrations & faculties. A few other schools, along with a disruptive cohort of education-oriented companies, are moving in the opposite direction: de-emphasizing the traditional overhead in favor of providing as many students as possible with practical and affordable alternatives.
In this later category, there are some new and exciting options that are highly tailored to your needs if you see additional education as your way of getting either a first job, or a new & better job. At the same time these alternatives are becoming available however, the traditional college experience is getting farther from reach for nearly everyone who is neither rich nor “obviously brilliant” enough to be subsidized by someone who is.
The future of higher education could be a relatively small number of wealthy schools catering to the lucky few, with highly affordable, skill-based alternatives available to everyone else.
Inputs from a couple of different directions tend to support the truth of this forecast.
In his new book, Average is Over, economist Tyler Cowen argues that the US is well on its way to even greater income polarization than we’ve already seen, with all but about 15% of our citizens living not “in the middle” but “on the margins.” Among other things, he envisions American cities looking more like Rio de Janiero, with massive favelas ringing small but wealthy enclaves.
It’s already not so different in Philadelphia, so I couldn’t help but think about Cowen’s observation when I was on the University of Pennsylvania campus the other day, and took this picture of its magnificent new nanotechnology center.
It is, as the local architecture critic described it, “easily the most impressive new design in the city since the Barnes Foundation opened last year.” But that’s not the whole story. Within a mile radius, I could easily draw lines from several dying outposts of Philadelphia’s public school system to Penn’s newest trophy classroom.
That these two tiers in education (and in American life) are increasingly a fact doesn’t make it ok. Indeed far from it. But in at least one way, some viable, alternative paths to productive life and work have started to open up for everyone who is rapidly being left behind.
I’ve talked about the value of a liberal arts education that is widely available on this page before. But there’s no disputing its staggering expense, the difficulty that many graduates have securing a paying job after making the investment, or many employers’ complaints that their jobs are going unfilled because their applicants lack the necessary skills.
You know what I’m talking about.
More than likely, either these frustrations are yours or are being experienced by someone close to you—which is what has made the rise of “massive, open, on-line courses” (or MOOCs) so promising. Now, it looks like the MOOC approach to higher education is starting to realize its promise by offering students the highly tailored course work they need for the jobs that employers have been unable to fill.
Much of the impetus is coming from the employers themselves.
MOOC provider Udacity has started to offer free “niche certification programs” with on-line courses in areas like computer science and supply chain management they’ve developed with input from Google, AT&T and others, in what they’re calling the Open Education Alliance. According to a recent news article, each company in the Alliance has:
committed to build at least one class at a cost of about $250,000. In return, [contributors] will receive access to a talent pool guaranteed to have studied the skills the employer wants. . . .
MIT and MOOC partner edX are offering a similar, low cost (up to $700 for a “verified certificate”) alternative in collaboration with employers like United Parcel Service, Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble. While we’re waiting to see which pay model works the best, the wolves in the ivory towers have already started to growl.
Is this a “vocational” approach to higher education? You bet it is. Is there a loss to students in receiving a “narrowly focused education” like this? No question about it. But it is also a loss to have philosophy majors working at McDonalds and downsized management employees cleaning toilets–when they can find gainful employment at all.
It’s also unfortunate that my old schools (like Penn), and others like them, are doing so little to fulfill the nation’s education needs, as opposed to the needs of an increasingly small minority of students.
Today, we are wasting many of America’s best minds because access to higher education has more to do with financial resources than individual promise. These new MOOC certificate programs are not The Answer to this wider problem, but they may well be part of our way out of the totally unacceptable place that we find ourselves in today.