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The UnCollege Blog

Wow! Higher Education Has Changed in My Lifetime...


When the economic downturn struck in 2007, the higher education system was greatly impacted.  Facing what would amount to insurmountable budget cuts, universities inflated tuition costs, and cut spending, forcing students across the country to pay more than ever for colleges. As a result, students have amassed trillions of dollars in student loan debt, yet are still ill prepared for the workforce.

Thought leaders have since concluded that the state higher education in America has long been on an unsustainable path. Despite the fact that elite American institutions rank highly among world universities, these schools have increasingly become highly selective and prestigious merely because of who they exclude. Quality educations that are worth the hefty bill are inaccessible to the majority of the population. For those relegated to mid tier universities--it’s questionable whether or not there is value in pursuing an education.An unstable economic climate in conjunction with students being ill prepared to join the workforce have led many to the conclusion that the system of higher education is in need of a complete overhaul, but what might that future look like?

In his book, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities, Richard DeMillo argues that the redemption of the higher education system rests in the hands of revolutionaries willing to write a new social contract; one that would ensure that an institution’s quality would be judged by how well it serves the people it is intended to serve, not by how many of them it excludes. These are ideas he expands in Revolution in Higher Education, where he documents the innovators who have taken  on the task of changing the system.

Innovation began in 2011 with the advent of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Jennifer Widdom opened their class to a larger audience. When their courses were finally offered on Stanford’s open learning website, an unprecedented 150,000 students signed up. Shortly after, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, offered a free version of his artificial intelligence course via web platform. Once again, 150,000 students joined. That same year, another Stanford professor, Andrew Ng taught an online Machine Learning class to over 100,000 students.

Across the country at MIT, Professor Anant Agarwal used open courseware to teach an online version of his required engineering course to over 160,000 students, promising he would provide an MIT-branded certificate to any student able to complete the course.

The advancement of MOOC technology has provided both career and educational benefits for students in the years since. Studies show that 62 percent of participants said they felt better prepared for their jobs after completing a MOOC, and 43 percent said the MOOC helped them become more competitive applicants for a job. Others have reported that the courses have helped them choose a major, or were able to have academic requirements waived.

Beyond the benefit to students, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) caused a rift in educational pedagogy. Educators embraced to the idea of using technology to enhance the learning experience and make education more accessible to students. The advent of these courses ensured that technology would be an important facet in the  future of higher education, but leaders had a difficult time coming to an agreement about how much change was needed and how quickly it should come. There were outspoken administrators however, who made sweeping changes to their universities shortly after the recession.

One such administrator was Arizona State University president Michael Crow, a once lonely critical voice in the higher education debate, who surmised that research universities had become too exclusive in their quest for prestige and high rankings. Fully believing that unequal access was a threat to higher education, he created the New Gold Standard for American universities.

Under Crow’s guidance, Arizona State University launched its online degree program, one of the first of its kind to allow students to earn their degree from anywhere in the world entirely through an online platform. His efforts to make higher education more accessible have paid off--Under Crow’s watch the population of minority students enrolling at ASU has increased by 62%.

In the years following, ASU has continued to innovate and progress its online programs to better need the needs of students. Recently, an Environmental Studies course introduced gamification, allowing students to immerse themselves in games where content and curricula are experienced contextually. This year, the program unveiled its Global Freshman Academy allowing students to explore, learn, and complete courses before applying or paying for credit.

Other schools have since followed suit. Georgia Tech begun to offer its prestigious computer science course at 20 percent of the on-campus cost, and the University of Virginia’s tackled the question of affordable access through what administrators called the “Commonwealth University.”

The advent of the MOOC coupled with the rapid prevalence of online degrees sparked an unexpected shift in higher education. If the progress of these revolutionaries continues, they will have changed the way education is delivered, altered the economics of running a university, and the nature of the social contract between institutions and society. For higher educational institutions to survive in the future, they will have to add value beyond a simple recital of information, as the use of technology will allow more students to access quality information at a fraction of the cost.

In the wake of economic instability, universities have lost sight of the people they are intended to serve. The revolution in higher education seeks to change the social narrative, making quality instruction a global right. The future of higher education demands a drastic shift, where the quality of an institution is based on inclusion, rather than exclusion.  

Educational discourse seems to be headed in the right direction. Colleges throughout the country have begun self-directed learning programs, adopting artificial intelligence software to provide a personalized learning experience for students who traditionally struggled, and there has been an increased emphasis on career development programs to prepare students for their careers after college. Despite the bright future higher education has in store, change is slow going, and until massive reforms are made, students and parents will continue bearing the cost of a broken institution.

Did you like this post? Check out: Ivory Tower: The Truth About the Student Debt Crisis