Writing in The Atlantic, Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto describe higher education as an industry that is ripe for disruption:
“Over recent decades, the price of higher-education tuition has risen faster than costs in any other major consumer category, outpacing even medical care and housing,” they write. “(T)he value of college is slipping in Americans’ eyes. Fifty-six percent of respondents to a recent survey said a four-year degree was a “bad bet.” Enrollment has been declining since its 2010 peak.”
Worse, “These numbers reflect only one dimension of the various threats now facing higher education. Academic departments across the country are hollowed out and underfunded; the personal finances of graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty members are precarious; and students are fearful of losing their high-stakes financial wager on a degree.”
Yet despite the crisis at hand, Sarma and Yoquinto are skeptical of the most commonly proposed education reforms. At Calbright, we agree with them.
Non-Traditional Colleges Need To Support Non-Traditional Students
The most commonly proposed educational “reform,” Sarm and Yoquinto write, is for colleges to cut costs to the bone. To eliminate services, reduce staff, focus exclusively on STEM training, and make classes less personal by structuring them as modular and scalable.
“After all,” they write,“the argument runs, if colleges refuse to rid themselves of their excesses, they may find that someone else will do it for them.”
The problem with this approach is: it doesn’t work.
There is a long history of educational technology boosters promising that better technology can help millions of students by cutting away all the inessentials of college. It never actually happens.
One of the reasons such “reforms” haven’t worked is that they have not actually changed the nature of the college experience in ways that better support students – they’ve just taken things that were working out to save money.
“Already, educational standardization has brought unintended consequences,” they write. “Especially harmful is the pervasive idea that learning—the fundamental objective of school—must serve double duty as the means to constantly sort adept students from those assumed to be inept. As we described in our 2020 book, Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn, a cognitive price must be paid when courses are optimized to compare students with one another. Such sorting gets in the way of context-rich, curiosity-fueled learning that leads to lasting knowledge and potent skills.”
That insight is part of what makes Calbright different: we don’t try to sort out students who “deserve” to be here from students who don’t, or to compare and rank students against one another. We’re a free, online, community college, and our job is to help all students get where they want to go. We also reduce or eliminate a lot of the functions that traditional colleges have – but we don’t reduce them just for the sake of reduction. We cut out bureaucracy and red tape that gets in students’ way. We make college logistically simple.
There’s another way in which Calbright is different from the kind of unhelpful “reform” that Sarm and Yoquinto write about. At Calbright, we understand that just reducing the traditional college structure doesn’t actually help students: you have to also increase your investment in student support. We reduce and cut where reducing and cutting helps students and simplifies their lives – and we add and invest in support to make sure students thrive in this new environment.
That’s why every student at Calbright has their own success team. They have personal academic counselors, they have career coaches, they have access to mentors and to peer tutors. All of it available for free, at the touch of a button. We make “online learning” a high touch experience because that works better for students than just building a giant online classroom. We have the persistence rates to prove it.
Education can cost less. Colleges can cost less. But effective colleges don’t just cut staff and programs – they invest in student support.
College Can Be Fast, Focused, Flexible, and Free
Indeed, Calbright is already pursuing many of the reforms that Sarm and Yoquinto recommend for the colleges of tomorrow: “investing in students and teachers while stripping away obstacles in their path.” Using online instruction to reduce costs but enhancing opportunities for human connection. Focusing on both hard and soft skills where they are useful to a student’s career plans. Awarding certificates and micro-credentials rather than traditional degrees.
That’s us. This is what college can be. Fast, flexible, focused, and free. Emphasizing the needs of students, and targeted at specific, traditionally underserved populations to help them access 21st century prosperity.
The important thing to realize—and what’s missing from so many education reform discussions—is that it’s not just cutting costs, and it’s more than just “going online.” It’s investing in systems and students in an innovative, research-driven, and intentional way.