Can tech break the college monopoly?

Online courses will revolutionize higher education when learners can earn low-cost credentials that lead to jobs, writes Kevin Carey in the New York Times. Carey is the author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere

. . .  traditional college degrees are deeply embedded in government regulation and standard human resources practice. It doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are — if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, it’s illegal for a public school to hire you. Private-sector employers often use college degrees as a cheap and easy way to select for certain basic attributes, mostly the discipline and wherewithal necessary to earn 120 college credits.

However, Carey believes alternative credentials such as badges will break colleges’ “near-monopoly” on job qualifications. And most students go to college to get a better job, he writes.

Not so fast, responds economist Bryan Caplan.

Degrees signal an array of traits: not just intelligence, but work ethic, conformity, and more.  “Harvard dropout” tells the job market, “This person was promising enough to get into Harvard, but so lazy and/or non-conformist that he wasted this golden opportunity.”

Conformity to social norms is a valued job attribute, adds Caplan. “Employers focus at least as much on workers’ general competence and people skills” as they do on specific skill sets.

He’d love to believe Carey is right, but he concludes “the status quo has a massive built-in advantage” because of the importance of “conformity signaling.” Furthermore, “governments at all levels annually cement the status quo’s advantage with hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies.”

An Ivy education can be free — with no degree

Guillaume Dumas, a 28-year-old Canadian, participated in classes, partied and networked at Yale, Brown, Berkeley, Stanford and more — without paying tuition — from 2008 to 2012, he told Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic. He didn’t enroll. He dropped in.

For a few hundred dollars a month in living expenses, Dumas “reaped most of the perks of college: learning, partying, and meeting intelligent, like-minded people,” writes Pinsker. He didn’t earn a degree — or go into debt.

Guillaume Dumas

Guillaume Dumas

At 19, Dumas enrolled at a city college in his native Quebec “because that’s what everybody does,” he says. He started on a psychology degree, but wanted more.

“I was just sneaking into classrooms in literature and philosophy and poli-sci and even psychiatry,” he says.

He began sampling classes at Canadian universities, such as Concordia, University of Montreal and McGill, then tried Brown and Yale and later Berkeley and Stanford.

“A diploma starts to look a lot like a receipt printed on fine cardstock,” writes Pinsker. “It is proof not that one has learned something in college, but that one has paid for it.”

Dumas now runs a dating service for upscale singles, which provides an adequate income.  “There’s never been so many career or business opportunities in the world that don’t require a proper diploma,” he says.

Some people would be better off “not paying tuition and keeping that money to travel the world and launch a business,” says Dumas. He estimates that 5,000 or 10,000 people could drop in to college without anyone noticing. “They will just disappear in the huge institution.”

My first husband attended graduate classes at Stanford without being enrolled. A professor hired him as a research and teaching assistant, though he was forced to lay him off after a year or so.

National University could make college affordable

Thanks to advances in information technology, we can “create a 21st Century National University that will help millions of students get a high-quality, low-cost college education — without hiring any professors, building any buildings or costing the taxpayers a dime.” So writes Kevin Carey, who directs education policy at New America, in his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.

national university was George Washington’s wish, Carey writes on CNN. He even left money for it in his will. Now it’s doable.

Anyone with an Internet connection can log on to Coursera, edX,, and many other websites offering high-quality online courses, created by many of the world’s greatest universities and taught by tenured professors, for free.

Tens of millions of students have already signed up for these courses over the last four years. Yet enrollment in traditional colleges hasn’t flagged, and prices have continued to rise. The reason is clear. The free college providers can’t (or won’t) give online students the one thing they need more than anything else: a college degree. Elite universities like Harvard and Stanford don’t want to dilute their exclusive brands. Nonelite universities don’t want to give away something they’re currently selling for a lot of money.

The U.S. Department of Education could create a nonprofit with the authority to approve courses and grant degrees, he proposes. “Any higher education provider, public or private sector, could submit a course for approval,” paying a fee to cover the cost of evaluation.

While many of the courses will be free, students will bear small costs for taking exams through secure online channels or in-person testing facilities. (Textbooks will be free and open-source). Students will also pay a modest fee of a few hundred dollars for the degree itself, enough to defray the operating costs of National U.

National University wouldn’t have football or fraternities, but many people would give that up for a low-cost credential.

Carey is speaking on his ideas about the future of learning this afternoon (Wednesday). Go here for the livestream.

Competency-based programs give credit for skills learned through work, independent study or other means, writes Matt Krupnick on the Hechinger Report.

That means those students can earn degrees more quickly and at a lower cost — even lower now that the U.S. Department of Education has begun a pilot program under which students at 40 institutions will be able to use federal financial aid to pay for it, which was not previously allowed.

But what about quality?

Competency-based programs “could very easily devolve into diploma mills,” said Amy Laitinen, a former White House and Department of Education advisor who is now deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and an advocate of the concept. “It could go south very quickly.”

Sweet Briar College will close due to financial problems. A residential liberal arts college for women, Sweet Briar charged $47,000 a year, including tuition and room and board. Even with financial aid, the average was $25,000 a year. Not enough young women wanted a single-sex education at that price.

A college shake-out is coming: Sweet Briar won’t be the last private college to fold.

Unbundling college

Higher Education Is Not a Mixtape, writes Derek Newton in The Atlantic. Entrepreneurs predict college will be “unbundled,” letting students assemble a variety of online courses to produce a lower-cost degree.

However, students (and their parents) “shop for schools, not for professors,” Newton writes.

The consumer choice is for the bundler — the brand, the label, university — and not the individual course content. . . . the 2012 UCLA annual survey of incoming college freshmen found that nearly two-thirds said “a very good academic reputation” was “very important” in their decision on which college to attend.

Prestige is expensive, especially if it includes living in a dorm.

The upper-middle-class want the college experience as one big bundle, but colleges that serve working-class people will be unbundled, predicts Daniel Luzer in Washington Monthly.

. . .  since 1980, inflation- adjusted tuition at public colleges has more than tripled. People are seeking out online education because the United States increasingly fails to makes real college affordable to working people.

Unbundling could help people seeking job skills and credentials. That’s a large group. But Luzer has a point: Four (often five) years of college is now a luxury good, even as we tell young people it’s a necessity.

‘College Promise’ isn’t likely

From Whiteboard Advisors, Education Insiders predict the future:

A different way to do college

Minerva is a selective liberal arts college without a classroom or campus, reports PBS NewsHour.

The dormitory is on one floor of this old apartment building Nob Hill. Students will spend the first year here, and then the subsequent six semesters living and studying in six different cities around the world. Next year, they head to Buenos Aires and Berlin.

But the professors don’t go with them. In fact, they can be anywhere, including home, because they see their students exclusively online, via a proprietary software platform called the Active Learning Forum. It fosters a face-paced, engaging, seminar-style class. No lectures allowed.

Minerva has partnered with the Keck Graduate Institute, part of the Claremont University Consortium, to gain accreditation.

In Oregon, 13th grade = free year of college

Some Oregon students are signing up for a fifth year of high school — that’s really a first year of community college. Districts use state per-pupil funding to pay for community college tuition, fees and books — and throw in a counselor to help students handle the transition.

Hacking higher ed

Online “competency-based education” (CBE) is a faster, cheaper, more flexible way for adults to earn college credentials valued by employers, I write on Mozilla’s new e-mag, The Open Standard.

CBE lets students progress at their own pace. They may watch mini-lectures, read, work through exercises, chat with virtual classmates, consult with a faculty mentor – or apply what they’ve already learned on the job, in the military or through independent study.

“The idea of divorcing learning from seat time – rewarding people for mastery – has radical implications,” said Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To earn credit, students demonstrate mastery of a “learning objective” by taking quizzes and tests, writing papers or completing a project. Those who haven’t fully mastered a competency don’t get a B or a C. They keep trying until they learn it.

Most programs work with employers to design the competencies, so students — nearly all are working adults — will have the skills employers are seeking.

President Obama has endorsed the idea. The Education Department is experimenting with student aid for CBE students.

Western Governors University was the pioneer, but now state universities — the University of Wisconsin and, just this week, the University of Michigan — are offering online CBE programs.

Colleges limit borrowing, cut defaults

Under pressure to cut student loan defaults, colleges are refusing to accept unsubsidized federal loans that require students to begin making interest payments immediately. Florida’s Broward College won’t accept private loans. Would-be borrowers have to attend a money-management workshop. Defaults are down.

Competency degrees help working adults

Working adults are turning to online competency-based programs to cut the cost and time of earning a degree.