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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Patrick October 25, 2011 at 8:23 am

I’m very surprised and a little disappointed that I haven’t yet received the
“Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges” comment yet.


avatar Azra November 28, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Not many fans of The Three Amigos I guess! You did make me smile though


avatar patrick December 1, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Thanks, Azra. However, while the phrase has an interesting origin, my quote is actually from Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”.

avatar Luanne Fose November 7, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Frankly, this is welcome news to my ears. I think higher education has needed a “wake up call” for quite some time. Although I do believe in higher education, I don’t believe in professors who maintain the status quo in their teaching techniques and those who rest upon their accomplishments of the past in a sort of academic prima donna bubble. Educational institutions have become top-heavy in administration and too dependent upon lecturer worker bees to carry most of the teaching load at universities for very little compensation. Many of the best instructors I have met were not tenured faculty but lecturers who constantly have to worry about whether or not they’ll have any classes to teach next year. Many professors have become stale in their teaching approaches and have fallen far behind in engaging their students due to their lack of keeping up with new technologies and approaches or even their own discipline and the changes within it. Why should someone pay a premium to take courses from these kinds of teachers if you have enough self-discipline to learn on your own and be assessed on that knowledge for some kind of diploma, badge, whatever? Heck, I could have obtained my Ph.D. much faster if I hadn’t had to jump through the hoops and play the sorts of games that higher education requires. My question is: If online degrees were done properly (which I admit, many of them aren’t), how will we make it up to the people who obtained degrees the painful and expensive way? Thank goodness I’m not still paying off my loans!


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