Matt Miller is disappointed at how cramped President Obama’s thinking about higher education is:
The president deserves credit for calling out soaring tuition and unsustainable student debt as huge barriers to upward mobility and a strong middle class. But unfortunately, the remedies he sketched in his State of the Union address and in a speech at the University of Michigan last week are textbook examples of proposals meant to signal the president’s “values” (and win votes) while doing little to address the problem.
He then draws attention to an online higher education provider called Straighterline:
It would make the world safe for disruptive innovators such as Straighterline, a Baltimore-based firm that offers college classes online via two main models: $99 per month (for all the classes you can take), or $999 for 10 courses for one year. That’s right: freshman year for under $1,000, with no government subsidy.
Straighterline offers the general and introductory courses that account for up to a third of enrollment nationwide — subjects such as college algebra, English composition, microeconomics, psychology 101, accounting 101, and U.S. history. The 4,500 students it will serve this year then transfer the credits elsewhere.
The federal government will spend more than $17 billion on Pell Grants this year. On top of that the states will spend more than $100 billion—the state of Illinois alone will spend more than $2 billion. Students and their families will spend additional billions, much of it borrowed.
The real cost of higher education has tripled over the period of the last 20 years, much of the increase attributable to increasing administrative costs.
Straighterline, the experiments of Sebastian Thrun, and any number of other online education providers demonstrate a clear alternative: higher education can be provided online at a significantly lower cost, perhaps as low as 10% of what is being paid now when all factors are considered.
If there are questions about quality, address them. It is simply unconsionable to proceed as we have.
In his most recent remarks on the subject Illinois’s Governor Pat Quinn has announced his objective that 60% of Illinois’s young people go on to higher education. Ignore for a moment that the highest proportion of people with higher education in the world (Canada) is 50%. Ignore that 50% is probably the upper limit on the proportion of the population that can actually do the work that higher education requires. Higher education for that large a proportion of young people at today’s costs is unaffordable, let alone at tomorrow’s costs.
We are reaching the point where the wheel hits the road on higher education. Is the purpose of higher education to enable young people to lead fuller, more productive lives? Is it to provide a backdrop for research, the greater proportion of which is utterly useless? Is it to employ a large cadre of adults at wages they otherwise could not realize? Is it to enrich those in the credit-extending industry? We can’t accomplish all of those objectives.