Does Higher Education Need To Change The Status Quo?

by Patrick Kammermeyer on October 23, 2011

An online video called “College Conspiracy”* is spreading virally with almost 2.5 million Youtube hits since it’s posting in May, 2011.  The video claims that college education in the U.S. is one of the largest scams in history. Among the video’s claims: College debt has now surpassed credit card debt; tuition and textbook costs are rising sharply each year; and the real value of a college degree is falling quickly. It’s that last claim that strikes me as cause for concern.

While some hyperbole and drama may have been used in this video, it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that this message is resonating with an ever-increasing number of people.

Even folks in academia are beginning take note of the issues involved. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Colleges Need Some Big Ideas to Drive Change From Within,” highlights the concerns:

“Higher education faces a litany of challenges right now: rising costs; low completion rates; and delivery systems, curricula, and teaching methods that show their age.” 1

Not surprisingly, change is slow in coming. Institutional change is rarely fast moving, and in this case the unwillingness to change quickly may have something to do with the notion that higher educational institutions have a corner on the credential business. But embedded in the article is a poignant question: What if Colleges lose their monopoly on credentials?

Digital badges are already being used by non-traditional educational institutions to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. It’s inevitable that the concept and implementation of digital badges will grow and evolve to cover broader and deeper types of learning. It’s also inevitable that prospective employers will take an increasing interest in these badges.

The challenge to the traditional higher education model seems to come primarily from two camps.

The first is the for-profit online course providers. Online course providers like StraighterLine and Ivy Bridge offer many college-level courses for a fraction of the price. In 2011, Fast Company named StraighterLine as one of the “10 Most Innovative Companies in Education”.2  There has been a dramatic increase in the proliferation and growth of for-profit online course providers. This trend shows no signs of slowing.

The second camp challenging traditional higher educational institutions are the various Open Education Resources (OER) initiatives. OER has been around for a decade, but recently has gained some traction. Some forward-thinking higher educational institutions have embraced OER and realize the broad benefits in joining various consortiums. Many others have turned a fearful and skeptical eye towards such efforts.

Increasingly, traditional educational institutions are assessed from an economical, technological and pedagogical point of view and then compared to the alternatives. This comparison is beginning to raise questions about the value added with higher educational institutions. Ultimately, the real challenge to these institutions may be less about which “big ideas” or innovation to pursue, and more about recognizing that changing the status quo is vitally important.

* Interestingly, this viral video was removed because of supposed copyright infringement. It would be interesting to know exactly what was behind it’s removal.

1 The Chronicle of Higher Education; October 7, 2011; Vol. LVIII, Number 7; front page.

2 Fast Company, “10 Most Innovative Companies in Education”, March 15, 2011.

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