There is an undisputed problem with the majority of traditional higher education institutions. According to a recent story on NPR, the cost of college has increased by an astonishing 400% over the past 25 years, and most institutions (with the exception of for profit schools) have no incentive to reduce fees. The cost of a college education is much, much too high, making the traditional 4-year degree out of reach of the average student (or at least, for those who want to graduate with little to no student debt).
This issue is creating undue hardship on millions of students across the country, causing students to graduate with alarmingly high levels of student debt. Last year, a New York Times article told the story of Cortney Munna, a college grad who had amassed close to $100,000 in student loan debt from her 4 year stint at New York University. Like so many college students across the country, Ms. Munna aimed high, wanting to go to the best possible school, assuming that the high cost would be worth it. However, 5 years later, because job prospects aren’t stellar given the weak economy, Ms. Munna is only earning enough to barely scrape by having to cover her rent and living expenses in addition to working to pay off her student loan.
NPR recently told of another student facing huge amounts of debt. In An Early College Economics Lesson For One Student, a 19 year-old details his excitement at waiting for acceptance letters from college the previous year, enthusiasm which was quickly extinguished. He says:
“A few weeks later, I got my federal financial aid notice or FAFSA. It estimates what your family can pay for college and how much federal aid you can get. I knew the minute I saw those little black numbers it wouldn’t be enough. My mom was still paying off her college loans and I had already spent more than I could afford on high school transcripts, applications, and the ACT test. Tuition at my top school was $30,000 a year, and I was going to be on the hook for two-thirds of it.”
To make ends meet, he is now attending a community college while working two jobs and contemplating how much debt he could handle to go to the college of his dreams.
On the other hand, some students are succeeding in avoiding student debt. Sure, a few are kids lucky enough to have parents that can foot the bill, but many are avoiding debt by taking extreme steps. Last month, the Associated Press told the story of Jesse Yeh, a student at UC-Berkeley, who used the library for books instead of purchasing his own; seeks out free food at campus events; and sleeps only five hours per night, all so he can take a 21 credit course load and quickly graduate. He refuses to take out a student loan, even though it would make his lifestyle a bit more comfortable. “I see a lot of my friends who took out student loans, then they graduated and because of the economy right now they still couldn’t find a job,” said Yeh. “The debt burden is really heavy on them.”
Taking steps like Yeh and other students who cut costs by living at home, working long hours, or taking fewer credits might sound like a great solution; however, the article moves on to point out that these steps are actually risk factors that make students less likely to graduate with a degree.
With student debt creating the same problem that Goldilocks faced, what’s our nation to do to make it “just right”?
I’m sure that most of this information is not fresh news to anyone: most news outlets recently covered President Obama’s organized chat with the heads of several major academic institutions to try and find a solution to stop these rising costs. But, as Dr. Richard Vedder pointed out in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog post, Obama neglected to include true education innovators in this meeting. Higher education as it stands today is an outdated system and any superficial changes made today to decrease the cost of enrollment will most likely fail to get to the root of the problem.
It’s this problem where we see the courses offered on Saylor.org as a strong solution. What would happen if an academic advisor would allow a student to take one – or several – of our courses as an independent study? Or, what if a university decided to use our courses or texts that we currently provide (and continue to gain through our Open Textbook Challenge) in lieu of the standard texts that currently cost students over $1000 per year? The cost to earn a degree – and more importantly, an education – would plummet, resulting in fewer student loans. Our courses come from material developed by academics, which are then assembled into courses by credentialed professors, and peer-reviewed by a team of three. Each course goes through a much more rigorous process than many courses taught at traditional universities – and many of our courses are not regularly offered in a traditional university schedule, but are always available on Saylor.org – so why not give credit to students who wish to study them? If higher education institutions would give academic credit for students who take freely-available OER courses and pass corresponding assessments, then more students will receive the education, certificates, and degrees they desire and need without the hefty price tag.
Photo Credit, Schlüsselbein2007