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A Solution to the Higher Ed Bubble Crisis

Much handwringing and consternation has been spent on the current higher education bubble crisis, which – loosely defined – refers to a combination of several factors all coalescing at once: the rising cost of tuition; the growing irrelevancy of a liberal arts degree; ballooning student loan debt; and skyrocketing unemployment for college grads.

Scholars and academia observers increasingly predict that the end is nigh for traditional higher education pathways, what with online college courses exploding across the globe and the $10,000 bachelor’s degree movement gaining steam by leaps and bounds.

But on the flip side, students aren’t willing to give up that college experience, indeed they’re willing to take on massive debt and tolerate mandated electives that have nothing to do with their major just so they can hang with their buddies and party, date, wax philosophic, play sports, and other college pursuits.

A solution to this conundrum, posits a North Carolina State University business administration senior, is simple. That student, Zach Milburn, suggests a compromise, a way to harness both the college experience and the emerging online-education tidal wave.

But his suggestion, while good news for students and their wallets, is bad news for educators.

In a guest column published Monday in his student newspaper, The Technician, and reprinted with his permission in its entirety below, Milburn suggests universities won’t be replaced by the Internet – professors will.

Here’s Zach to explain further, and he’s quite the clever lad. Give him a full read:

There’s a lot of talk circulating about the modern American university “going out of business” due to the abundance of free information on the Internet and sky-high tuition rates. This is a legitimate concern. The estimated cost of attending N.C. State for the 2013–14 year is an astounding $22,184 for North Carolina residents and $35,639 for those out of state.

Higher education is valuable and absolutely necessary, but are we really getting our money’s worth? For less than half of that price, I’ve traveled to almost 20 countries in the past four years. I can assure you the education received from those experiences is far more valuable than anything I remember from the classroom.

The wisdom and information shared by my professors have helped me tremendously in a variety of situations, for which I am very grateful. However, most of the information I have truly retained didn’t come from required courses.

Why is it that employers no longer look for a college degree alone on our resumes? If you graduate, and the only thing you have to show for yourself is a $100,000 completion certificate, good luck finding a job. What employers want to see today are internships, involvement in organizations and extra-curricular activities outside of the classroom.

Don’t get me wrong — we ignorant college students need the guidance that comes with our hefty tuition fees. We need to know what information is trustable and what information isn’t. We need deadlines and enforcement from authority to get things done. If we were simply given a computer with Internet connection and were told to obtain a college education in four years, many of us wouldn’t last a month (or would we?).

But there are some alternatives. Some of the top private American universities — including Harvard, Yale and Stanford — just began releasing Massive Open Online Courses, or “MOOCS,” for free. Stanford recently released a course worldwide, and a mind-boggling 190,000 people enrolled in it. Although only 23,000 actually completed the course — roughly half the population of NCSU — the feat certainly left its mark in history.

So why do we need universities anymore? If the world’s top-notch professors are offering their courses online for free, why pay thousands of dollars to sit in a room of 400 students to have an almost equal experience as the online students? The answer lies within the “almost” part of “almost equal.”

It all comes down to the real purpose of attending college: the experience. This is the reason why many of us go $80K into debt to attend the modern university — not to take Psychology 101 or to understand debits and credits. We have YouTube for that. Most of us are not here to learn philosophy as a business major or biology as an education major. We can find that information elsewhere, and many of us do.

There is an important human element that cannot be replaced by the Internet alone. We are designed to operate and learn amongst our fellow species, through hands-on experiences — not in our bedrooms, drooling over our laptops. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change the way universities function. We can still maintain a strong community without having professors, or at least as many of them.

Why are we paying professors salaries that we claim we cannot afford, when students don’t pay attention in class most of the time anyway? Why are we paying faculty to lecture when those same lectures are being shared online for free from some of the world’s most experienced lecturers?

I will not criticize without offering some sort of a solution. Let’s go back to the Stanford example: 190,000 people enrolled in the course — perhaps we can work with that. Let’s put a $5 price on that course. A five-course semester now costs only $25. Now let’s say that half of the people don’t enroll because of the price. That still leaves 95,000 students. At $5 and 95,000 students, Stanford just made $475,000 on a single course.

Now let’s say we, N.C. State, start doing the same thing. Would that allow us to solve our intense cost problem? Would we make education achievable, once and for all, throughout America’s disadvantaged socio-economic classes? Why are we still telling people they need to go to college to be “successful,” when frankly, they don’t?

In addition to solving cost problems, we could still use the classroom and building resources that we already have to allow N.C. State students to attend these courses in the same room together. Might that solve the online-university’s community problem?

What if we still have our grad students, or other learned volunteers, function as “T.A.s” for these courses? We could then solve the unanswered questions and student-professor disparity problem.

In conclusion, we could eventually solve our “broken” higher-education problem, our debt problem and the ethical problem of charging students thousands of dollars to sustain an institution that is arguably no longer worth what it claims to be worth.

The university will never go out of business. We need it, and we always will. It cannot and will not be replaced by the unprecedented availability of knowledge that the Internet offers. On the other hand, teachers can be replaced, and to a certain extent, they will be.

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IMAGE: SLU Madrid Campus/Flickr

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.