The digital revolution should have made the cost of higher education ridiculously cheap and available worldwide. It hasn’t and the current price structure only makes sense when viewed through the lens of the self-preservation of power. Democratizing education threatens the centuries-old system of pedigree and the protections that pedigree offers the privileged and the wealthy.
Why have the American universities refused to acknowledge that the costliest part of education, information distribution, is now the cheapest in human history.
The dissemination of knowledge (information), is readily available in multiple formats from leading experts and for free. The universities over the last two decades have countered the Internet disruption that has upended every other business model by validating the price of tuition by marketing the brand of their pedigree(Nanterme, 2016).
The education from the “right” school has always carried prestigious social status promising to usher ones’ social ranking into the world of the gentry. But, in the era of digital access to a vast wealth of information the commodity marketed has shifted from education and knowledge but rather the pedigree of the Traditional College Experience. The cost of continuing a system of higher education that only benefits itself and the wealthy is not sustainable.
You as a citizen should be concerned.
Daniel Pianko states in his Wall Street Journal article that it is, you, the taxpayer who is going to be stuck bailing us out of the 1.3 trillion dollars in outstanding student loans.(Pianko, 2016) A loan system set up to support not the students but the corporations with billion dollar endowments who have deliberately put off the inevitable for the last few decades for their own self-interests. Just like in the Great Recession of 2008 you will be left to financially bail out a morally corrupt system of banking. In order to extract more money from students, the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill made private student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy which freed up private loan money for students which allowed universities to increase tuition (Weissman, 2015). The clear winners here were the universities and the banks, not the students.
The math is straight forward only 37% of student loan recipients are paying down their loan principle, and it is only a matter of time before it collapses. Like every industry disrupted by the distributional power of the internet, it can only be stalled not stopped and when the descent starts it is a fast race to the bottom.
If we are going to mitigate the amount of debt we will have to discharge after the collapse, we must change the conversation about who is responsible. Currently, the popular media narrative is to blame the students for making bad financial decisions. The narrative is; students need to be more frugal and smarter in financing their education, ignoring that tuition is impossible to afford without wealthy parents. How many 18-22-year-olds can earn the cost of attendance for a four-year public university of 30k+ with a part-time or summer job? This means that most students are taking out a substantial financial aid package (i.e. loans). A view that places the sole responsibility on the only party in this mess that would quickly make education cheaper if allowed and ignores the fact that tuitions have outpaced inflation every year since 1971.(Schoen, 2016) Then maybe they shouldn’t go to college is another common narrative. Independent and low-income students face a harsh reality; do they take on debt for an entrance into a middle-class life or risk a lifetime of non-livable wages, permanently locked out of job promotions that arbitrarily require a degree? Or the narrative Oh, they should have chosen a cheaper community college. Ignoring that students can no longer work their way through a community college degree either.(Williams, 2016) Then if they cannot finish their degree due to finances we blame them when they become unemployed or underemployed. It is their fault for not making smarter choices, regardless of which choice they made. Maybe it isn’t the students…maybe it is a series of bad policies from a series of bad actors. If we look upstream towards those who benefit the most from student debt it is the bankers and the university systems, not the students.
The reason we don’t have this discussion in the sacred halls of academia is because locking out the poor is good for the value of the pedigree.
It is rare to see an article critiquing academia for their part in driving up costs of education, and impossible to find a critique of why academia hasn’t done more in reducing costs by democratizing the educational system. When will we question the role that the university systems have played in maintaining their price points regardless of the violence inflicted on their students and the individuals who never acquired a college education due to price? And where is the critique of why higher education is committed to the current system? The reason we don’t have this discussion in the sacred halls of academia is because locking out the poor is good for the value of the pedigree. When the commodity sold isn’t education but the social ranking of privilege it is imperative that the commodity is both expensive and exclusive. The salaries of faculty, staff and administrators are dependent on this structure. It pays their mortgages, feeds their kids, but more importantly it perpetuates their own self-importance in a structure of hierarchy.
The silence from the academia is because there are no good moral reasons for the continuation of the current system of higher education. The current system was born from a state of hierarchy and exclusion. It can’t continue to exist in the world of lateral information distribution. Strict hierarchical educational systems are unsustainable and no one, whose mortgage depends on it, wants to admit it. A rational conversation about what exactly is higher education is desperately needed, to question it and more importantly to deconstruct it. It is time to take a step back and have a real look at what students are actually purchasing, and the bill that the taxpayer will pay with the inevitable student loan collapse.
Breaking down the price of a brand
It is important to remember that non-profits receive their federally recognized status by providing a service that could not exist in a competitive for-profit business model. An educational non-profit, even a private one, receives publically funded financial subsidies through tax breaks on earnings from endowments, donations, and tuitions, and yes even football. They also participate in federally funded grants (such as Pell), federally guaranteed student loans, as well as private student loans protected by a federal policy which doesn’t allow them to be excused in bankruptcy.(Weissman, 2015) In a federally regulated environment, it is the institutions of higher education who set the price, not the market, and they set it ridiculously high for what they are selling. Currently, tuition is continuing to rise while the market space continues to devalue the college degree.
In the third decade of the Dot Com Era, knowledge is cheap, dirt cheap, carry-around-in-your-phone-at-your-fingertips cheap. So how is it still so expensive? To answer that question, we first need to tear apart the branding from the actual product.
The brand focuses on the students participating in a traditional college experience, ivy-covered buildings, football games, dorm parties, the promise of lifelong friendships, nostalgia, the faith that a student from University X is more valid, wise, knowledgeable, and has a better pedigree from a student from University Y. The Brand is just the old pedigree system of class and privilege repackaged into a more palatable term. Pedigree was phased out because it reeked of elitism, racism, classism. The term brand is friendlier.
The belief that historic equates authority and authenticity, that knowledge in itself is not as valid as how or where one obtained that knowledge. A declaration that your acceptance and ability to pay for university X make you a better person. Your parents could pay for it, therefore, you are better from a birthright of lineage. Or a selective scholarship paid your way, therefore, you are selectively chosen from all the others. You have been bestowed a specialness.
An exclusivity that says you are better, forgetting that it is impossible to have exclusivity without the express exclusion of others. The exclusivity of “others” is the basis validating the price of tuition.
The brand of the traditional college experience legitimizes and continues to romance historic myth. The traditional college package consistently re-creates and affirms this idealized antebellum era of exclusivity. An exclusivity that says you are better, forgetting that it is impossible to have exclusivity without the express exclusion of others. The exclusivity of “others” is the basis validating the price of tuition. The inherent institutional inequity is difficult to ignore, once you see it, you can see it everywhere.
The brand also takes advantage of the correlation must be causation narrative of, we are shaping young minds into critical thinkers and leaders! The traditional college experience happens at the age of 18-22, during the growth period of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The college experience may not be shaping the young mind for critical thought as much as the brains forming for the first time the physical area where critical thought takes place. 17-25 are hugely formative years regardless of which experience one lives. But, the bigger question is can an institution incapable of seeing its own participation in systemic inequality really be a place that fosters critical thought or self-growth?
Once we separate all that irrationality of the ego stroking brand away from the actual product, academic course work, knowledge acquisition, competency, then the real price of education can be questioned. Cultural indoctrination may still be expensive but academic course work is relatively cheap to provide in a digital world. The ever-increasing connectivity should be driving the cost down, so, why hasn’t it? Because the university brand on the piece of paper is so intertwined with authenticity and authority it is almost impossible to untangle the actual price of knowledge acquisition from the inflated price of pedigree.
The violence that is built into the university system
So, what policies are in place that maintains the expensive practice of intertwining of knowledge acquisition with the exclusivity of the pedigree? To answer that question, you must understand the regional accreditation agencies, their parent association, and the policies surrounding them which has a monopoly on who can offer credits that are actually valuable towards a recognized degree and who cannot.
A school can offer federal financial aid to its students if it has been accredited by an agency that is approved by the US Department of Education (USDE). There are many such accreditation bodies. For instance, The University of The People, a free online university, offers Associates and Bachelor degrees and is accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) which is approved by The United States Department of Education (USDE). The University of the People can offer degrees that meet the standards of the United States Department of Education, and could if they wished to offer William D. Ford Federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Pell Grants.
However, the DETC is not part of the regional accreditation agencies making a degree from University of the People, almost useless. For a degree to have any value in the corporate world, or graduate studies, or to be valid for most state or federal licensure it has to be Regionally Accredited. University of the People would have to accredited by a member of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA is the association that oversees all of the regional accreditation organizations. It might help if you think of CHEA as a big umbrella in which all the regionally accreditation bodies fall under. This is why any attempt to democratize the distribution of education and undercut the current expensive, ineffective, in person lecture series has failed.
So how big and powerful is CHEA? The following is directly from their website, “CHEA is an association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities and recognizes 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations.” (Eaton, 2015). College credits earned from one of these schools is colloquially referred to as regional accreditation or regionally accredited.
To reiterate, a degree meeting the requirements of the United States Department of Education isn’t accepted at 3,000 degree-granting colleges, universities and 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations.
The problem with the University of The People and their free higher education model is that almost all regionally accredited schools, schools who fall under CHEA, will not accept the University of The Peoples bachelor’s degree. If a student with a four-year degree from University of The People applies to a master’s program at a regionally accredited school their degree will not be honored (but any school accredited by a CHEA member will be valid). Also, if a student needs or wants to transfer credits to a regionally accredited school from University of the People, the credits won’t transfer. To reiterate, a degree meeting the requirements of the United States Department of Education isn’t accepted at 3,000 degree-granting colleges, universities and 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations.
Nor will many state agencies accept a degree that isn’t regionally accredited when applying for state or local municipal jobs. A specific example is that the state of Louisiana requires a regionally accredited degree to work as a K-12 teacher. Many corporations have similar policies and only acknowledge degrees from regionally accredited university systems.
The cheapest self-paced courses that I could find that were through regionally accredited four-year universities, BYU or LSU, will cost approximately $550-$800 for the course tuition not including the $65-300+ for a Pearson textbook with the Wiley Plus online component along with an additional of $60-120 in-person proctored testing fees for a total of $675-$1,220. This is the price for a regionally accredited self-study course that would be accepted at a university as a transfer credit into a person’s degree program. Please note there may never be any direct interaction between student and professor in this course work and most of the courses are overseen by a Teaching Assistant. Proctored testing is usually required but not always and are often multiple choice graded by a scantron machine. These courses are deemed to have met the academic rigor of the regional accreditation requirements. But if a student takes the same course with the same rigor where the only cost is the proctored exam from The University of the People which is accredited by an agency approved through the USDE, the course would have no local, state, or corporate value simply because the course isn’t regionally accredited through CHEA. This is how CHEA controls the price of a college credit, and you need at least 120 regionally accredited credits for a degree.
In a recent interview, Marissa Ann Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo stated that she dropped pre-med when she realized that her friends, who were attending a state school, were studying the same molecules (and basically the same curriculum) as she was at her expensive private university.(McAlone, 2016) She felt she wasn’t fully utilizing her opportunities at Stanford. When it comes to many undergraduate courses, especially the science, technology, engineering, and Math (STEM) so little varies the first few years of course work from school to school the major driver of price isn’t academic rigor but pedigree.
There are only a few leading textbooks that dominate the field and the subject matter content is pretty much the same. The quizzes and tests across universities are usually made up of similar test questions from the same books. The in-person university lectures consist of 100 to 1000+ students listening to a professor read off a powerpoint slide provided by the same textbook company. Lectures covering the same subject matter are already offered freely on iTunes, YouTube, Khan Academy, etc. often by better professors from more prestigious schools.
So, what should be the cost of a college course? How much does it cost to deliver a quality educational experience without the cost of pedigree? Many full and complete college courses are freely available on the non-profit educational website EdX by major universities and offer verified, but not regionally accredited certificates. Coursera, a for-profit venture, charges $49 for each course of their nine-course series from their John Hopkins Data Science Certificate program.(Chung, 2015) This price covers everything online software, textbook, and even includes the required face recognition security software for proctored quizzes and tests from your own computer’s webcam. A nine-course Data Science Specialization Certificate offered by John Hopkins is less than $400. Oh, and the Coursera app allows you to carry your courses around in your device. It is literally a carry-around-in-your-pocket-at-your-fingertips cheap. The academic rigor is there, the accessibility-for-all (democratization) is there, the cost isn’t.
But why hasn’t this angered parents and students spending upwards of $200,000+ for the cost of attendance for a four-year degree? Because the parents spending that money know what they are purchasing and it isn’t; knowledge, ability, or competence. It is good old-fashioned Pedigree. The steep tuition is to cover the price of a branded traditional college experience for their traditional college student. The traditional college student is 18-22-years-old and financially dependent on their parents. The parents know that they are buying a certificate that clearly states that their child has been indoctrinated into white western culture safe for corporate employment at the executive level. It is the admission price into the American gentry.
It is a system of classism, and it is a system that is government subsidized by tax exemptions which benefit those who need it the least.(Marcus, 2016).
The problem university presidents are trying to solve isn’t how to make college more affordable but rather how to structure the brand so it retains its monetary value even though homeless people can pass the curriculum.
The glossy brochures from first and second tier colleges don’t discuss or acknowledge that in 2002 it was estimated that 72% of the students seeking higher education are non-traditional students or that by 2010 it has grown to 84%.(Choy & Phillips, 2002; Pelletier, 2010) Or that according to the FAFSA applications from 2014, 56,000 students identified as homeless.
The non-traditional students as a group far exceed the traditional students but have vastly different access to educational needs. However, the non-traditional students are deliberately left out of the conversation of making college more affordable. The problem university presidents are trying to solve isn’t how to make college more affordable but rather how to structure the brand so it retains its monetary value even though homeless people can pass the curriculum.
The inevitable race to the bottom
John Hopkins figured out there are over 3.5 million reasons why drastic change is inevitable and that change is quickly approaching a collision with traditional higher education. The money to be made with a $49 price point is lucrative. That course, the one with the academic rigor and none of the nonsense, the one John Hopkins put their brand and reputation behind, in its first 7 months they’ve had 1.76 million sign-ups. 71,589 students have completed a verified signature track certificate. A conservative estimate of the amount of money made by just counting those who completed and not the 1.76 who signed up is 3.5 million dollars. Over 3.5 million dollars was earned for the Data Science Certificate tract.(Bogdanovic, 2015; Chung, 2015) If a for profit can offer verified course work from a major university for $49 and net at least 3.5 million in revenue then why can’t the non-profit traditional universities with all their government subsidies and tax write-offs offer a similar option?
This correlates that a for-profit market value of a four-year degree is approximately $2,000.00 when adjusted to the Coursera John Hopkins price points.
Maintaining the brand price while there is also a simultaneous race to the bottom is going to get increasingly difficult for administrations. Coursera is a for-profit company and they have figured out a price point of $49 per course on the John Hopkins Data Science Certificate. This correlates that a for-profit market value of a four-year degree is approximately $2,000.00 when adjusted to the Coursera John Hopkins price points.
Why are they not interested in creating a democratized educational system, is no longer the question? The question is, have the traditional universities missed the opportunity all together?
When major employers such as Google publicly state that all their analytics don’t support a connection between GPA and job performance, and fourteen major companies update their policy that they are no longer requiring a job candidate to have a college degree, how long will the demand for the traditional college experience last?(Jackson, 2017; Nisen, 2013) Can the university system remain relevant when major corporations can’t support their legitimacy?
It is the time that higher education goes through the same market adjustment that the internet has brought to every antiquated business model from that last century.
Higher education’s financial self-interest is their undoing.
The six regional accreditation agencies under CHEA claim that they preserve academic standards and promotes themselves as educational leaders of the world. It is important to point to the end of the first paragraph of An Overview of U.S. Accreditation written by Judith S Eaton, President of CHEA, “Accreditation in the United States is more than 100 years old, emerging from concerns to protect public health and safety and to serve the public interest.” and they do this by, “External quality review…”.(Eaton, 2015)
CHEA has been a complete failure in the health and safety of students. Currently, there are over 300 regionally accredited schools that have come under investigation by the Department of Justice concerning Title IX violations.(Kingkade, 2016) The cases mainly focus around the systemic mishandling of sexual assaults on college campuses some going back decades. Where was the external quality review to protect the students from sexual assault?
Currently, nearly all the major state and private universities under CHEA have a football program and according to the NCAA settlement, college football players carry three times the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.(Solomon, 2014) How does being part of CHEA protect the student from the one thing higher education should be unified against, degenerative brain disease?
Eaton is correct that accreditation has been around for more than 100 years but CHEA was only created 20 years ago. It came into power just after the American Online explosion of the 90s and a cultural awareness and a social movement for education to be accessible via the Internet was born. Although distant learning has been around since the 1700s through correspondence, and then in 1984 the computer assisted distant learning became viable with the dial-in Electronic University Network. The 90s internet boom brought some major breakthroughs, the Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences, at Nova Southeastern University, awarded their first online accredited doctorate program, and CALcampus became a player in the online course delivery systems in 1994(Mizell, 1994; Morabito, 2008). These were big deals. This questioned current power structure of education and threatened to make an accredited college degree available to everyone at a greatly reduced cost. The timing of the formation of CHEA is suspect. CHEA was formed in 1996 just after the promise of a low-cost delivery methods became available. The worst-case scenario is that CHEA deliberately monopolized higher education and stifled the democratizing of education to maintain financial self-interests inflicting violent harm of debt and servitude and denying a quality education to millions, or the very best scenario is that CHEA just accidentally got in the way of progress.
The concept of regional accreditation, in theory, has many great merits. Yes, there should be a universal standard but CHEA should not be viewed as the gold standard. It is clear that CHEA does not serve the public interest but rather the interest of the institution. CHEA has failed students both regarding educational opportunities to the poor and disenfranchised but also is delinquent in duties in providing physical safety of its football players and equal protections of Civil Rights to its female students. It is a shame that the DOJ isn’t investigating why CHEA’s external review system has failed, or a class action lawsuit from victims of sexual assault hasn’t held CHEA accountable for their failed external review. It might be because it is the university who pays CHEA and not the students. CHEA’s loyalties and motivations are clear.
There is no free college tuition plan that can fix it now.
Many progressive leaders are arguing that, If we just make state college free then the problem will be solved. This will just make the problem worse. The real reason that tuition has outpaced inflation is directly caused by universities having more access to government money.(Schoen, 2016) Historically states cut funding for the poorest and funnel the money up to the kids of the upper classes. One example is Michigan, a portion of its federal block grant designated as welfare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), “[I]ncludes a program that gives private college scholarships to students from households with incomes as high as $250,000 or more”.(Clark, 2016)
Our current system perpetuates exclusion and inequality upon the very persons it is endowed to serve and protect.
These affordable college plans would just keep funding an antiquated system. It also ignores the inequity which is built into the current higher educational model. The university system can no longer mandate its own necessity by demanding that only knowledge acquired through its cloistered walls is ‘valid knowledge’. Our current system perpetuates exclusion and inequality upon the very persons it is endowed to serve and protect. It is time to make the acquisition of knowledge the gold standard, a high value placed on its rigor, and its price point on the actual cost of the delivery method to deliver that knowledge, not some extrapolated price of its free market worth. Because that is not how non-profits are supposed to operate.
There are just too many current options in how one can acquire knowledge and there are just as many ways for that knowledge to be verified. In 2015 the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) was taken by 64,504 students. 32,252 scored the mean or above in a test that covers four hard science courses and one social science. There should be an automatic Associates of Science degree offered by the NIH to those students. Why is this not an option?
It is time to question, really question the institutions of higher education and the purpose for their existence. The traditional university systems are not able to serve the 84% of non-traditional students pursuing an education, and yet they continue to receive public money. Our phones no longer have buttons or cords, drones deliver packages, our cars drive themselves, and AI is offering faster medical diagnosis than a skilled physician…the world has changed. It is time to restructure higher education, whether we keep the arcane university system is yet to be seen.
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