What Is the Solution to the High Cost of a College Degree?

high cost college degree Karan PowellThe Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured a new venture that will offer free courses for college credit as part of a “freshman year for free” initiative. Last April, the state of New York announced that it would make college “tuition-free” for the middle class at both two- and four-year colleges. In early August, Rhode Island, in turn, announced free community college. U.S. News and World Report in 2012 reported on 12 colleges who exchange tuition for some sort of service and were cited as “tuition-free” institutions. And lastly, BestColleges.com recently reported the top 10 best colleges with free tuition.

In a time of increased focus on affordability and completion, the questions that need to be addressed include: Is college really free? Who will pay for it? What is the value of college to students? To society? Will it be successful? Is higher education facing the same inadequacies and complaints regarding K-12 education, which is also free to students and families in the public school systems around the country? What will it take for free college to be successful? To be sustainable? What is the viability of the free college solution and the long-term impact of this movement? More research and study is needed to address these significant questions. As U.S. News and World Report so aptly noted in April 2014, “‘Free tuition’ plans don’t solve the college cost problem!”

Are alternative approaches needed? Perhaps “free college” and the “focus on degrees” is only part of the solution. What about reinventing the traditional college experience? Why do we repeat a year of college (“four-year degrees”) when at least one year in general education is comparably similar in curriculum to secondary school? Why not a three-year model (like Europe) where competency in general education is the prerequisite for entry to college? Why does every college invest precious resources in the development and instruction of basic writing, math, and history courses? Could general education not be a commodity shared across institutions? How might this reduce the cost of education, especially for similar courses taught across higher education?

This degree of change (in either scenario) would require revamping the education system (9-12 and general education in college). Might this reinvention also address another major complaint heard across college campuses today regarding reading, writing, and math competencies of incoming freshmen? Why not pilot such an approach? Why not engage in dual offerings with high schools for concurrently completing general education requirements along with high school graduation requirements to reduce redundancy? Clearly, this would help reduce the cost of higher education by reducing time to completion and required tuition.

Why not think of higher education as lifelong learning, where institutions provide “just-in-time” education or “the right education at the right time” over a student’s lifetime? Why not offer education plans and programs that build upon a student’s experience already attained? Could the pursuit of a degree be replaced with stackable credentials or micro-credentials that lead to certificates or degrees depending upon the student’s life or career path? Why not rethink this education model in partnership with businesses and together (higher education, government and business) invest in the future, providing more affordable education options to students and more career-/job-ready employees to corporations and government?

Competency-based education is one such model to award credits for life and work experience, while prior learning assessment (PLA) is another. Being transfer credit-friendly in acceptance of earned credits is another way to reduce costs. There are many ways to approach the question with innovation and thoughtful consideration, if indeed we in higher education are committed to reducing the costs of obtaining an education.

Certainly, rising tuition at institutions nationwide is an issue that can no longer be ignored (hence, the free college movement). A related question is – does higher price equate to better value? Should a high school graduate have to choose between going to college and possibly accruing enormous debt, or not going and capping their future earning potential? These are all essential questions for deep consideration and resolution. As institutions of higher education, we must revisit our mission, reflecting on the question: What is the value of a college degree today, and in the future?

I, for one, am proud that we at APUS truly understand the value of a degree and its increasing value in the work force and are committed to offering quality education at an affordable rate. That fact notwithstanding, the free college movement requires that we and all institutions ask ourselves, what more we all must do to serve the changing landscape of our societal and economic realities? How do we provide an affordable and accessible education today, and in the future? These are tough questions and important ones for higher education to address on each campus and as a community. We must face the questions head-on: What is the best value for the student? For the workforce of today and for the future? How do we educate as well as advance our disciplines and our practices in a cost-effective and innovative way?

I welcome your own thoughts on these critical matters of shared importance.

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