Message from the Dean: College Education--Unaffordable or Free?

May 23, 2012

College students and their parents seem to be getting it from both sides. As tuition and indebtedness go up, the value of a traditional college education is being challenged. Why keep paying to go to "State" or a small liberal arts college closer to home, if it costs more and more while its benefits are under fire? The mass media is full of reports of this, [1] and I'll use them to make a simple point I've made before: the education students receive in a program like the RCAH is actually a better way to prepare for the rapidly changing world than jumping head first into a proliferating maze of online social networks where, to use an apt phrase from Sherry Turkle, we are "alone together."

Calls to boycott the "ivory tower" are not new. One persistent voice in the blogosphere has been Anya Kamenatz, whose 2010 book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education offered a shotgun approach. Students can and should pick and choose from community colleges, vocational training programs, for-profit certificate programs, and free online courses to get what they need at a fraction of the price. The problem with this approach is, according to The New York Times, that lifetime earnings for college graduates, even after they pay back their loans, still are significantly higher than for non-college graduates.

Rather than diss the Ivies, another alternative is to create a for-profit Ivy that will serve the four out of five students who are highly qualified applicants from around the world, but who but have been rejected by them. The Minerva Project is a new online university that boasts that for half the price, students can hang out all over the world and still have access to the best faculty their money can buy. What happens if something goes wrong on the road? Well, we're told, that can be "outsourced."[2]

The elite non-profits are fighting back, and this battle at the top is a symptom of a deeper problem. The New York Times describes how elite universities are eager to create not just free online lectures, but free online certificates for those who pass their course online. They tell us that this will revolutionize what students learn and how colleges and universities do business globally. Here's the Stanford model,

Unlike previous video lectures, which offered a “static” learning model, the Coursera system breaks lectures into segments as short as 10 minutes and offers quick online quizzes as part of each segment. 

Where essays are required, especially in the humanities and social sciences, the system relies on the students themselves to grade their fellow students’ work, in effect turning them into teaching assistants. Dr. Koller said that this would actually improve the learning experience.

The Coursera system also offers an online feature that allows students to get support from a global student community. Dr. Ng said an early test of the system found that questions were typically answered within 22 minutes.[3]

The bugs are still being worked out of this system (e.g., the creators "acknowledged that there was still no technological fix for cheating, and said the courses relied on an honor system") and just how it will pay for itself remains unclear. In the meantime, however, at least some professors are excited that they can reach hundreds of thousands of students where before it was hundreds at most.

Universities like Stanford and MIT who are on the leading edge of this new sector and whom The Minerva Project hopes to compete with may soon be selling a "business class" version of their certificates with "special access" to their own real faculty for an additional fee. Other universities (perhaps MSU) may feel the pressure to accept these certificates in place of their own courses from MSU students who want "Stanford" or "MIT" on their MSU transcript. Students hoping to find some edge in a tight job market can't be blamed for wanting to enhance their profiles at the same time they reduce their costs. The truth for some students, I'm afraid, is that as a traditional college education becomes less affordable for more students, the alternative they will be offered will be a cheap certificate facsimile of the real thing.

We are not quite there yet. And, as MSU College of Education Professor Steven Weiland reminds me, part of the motivation for faculty at these elite institutions is to reach students in poor countries whose only access to higher education may be an inexpensive online course. On the other hand, we may not be very far from the time when a certificate for completing an online course becomes a certificate program with other effects. Here is what four faculty members at MIT have imagined.

It's 2030. Many other universities are on board and use our system to deliver their online education to whoever wants it, any time, anywhere, any place, at any pace, at any age, with a certificate for successful skill acquisition. Many smaller universities have become certificate schools and proudly advertise themselves as such:

No boring lectures ever. We help you put together a plan that educates you by the best and brightest from all over the world. You learn physics and computer science from MIT; philosophy and Sanskrit from Harvard. Art history from Yale. All our faculty live within a five-minute walk from the center of campus. They are always around to help you through the rough spots, to learn with you rather than teach you. And of course, we have a great emphasis on project-based learning. Once you have gotten through a combination of 32 certificates and projects, you graduate. We don't care how long it takes; take time off whenever you want.[4]

Just who do they have in mind when they refer to "certificate schools?" Small midwestern colleges who can't compete with elite colleges? Large public universities who have lost their state funding and don't have either the endowment or the wealthy alumni to create their own certificate program brand quickly?

While The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has cheered on these developments ("Let the revolution begin"),[5] I am much less sanguine. There will certainly be more online and other new technologies to manage and choose from, but technology by itself does not determine educational progress. Remember the promise of closed circuit television in every classroom? Education is a social process.

New technologies are adopted by people for intentional reasons, not just because they exist. If the purpose of education is to prepare the next generation to address those challenges that are most pressing (increasing health and income inequality, climate change, the militarization of politics, hunger and famine, just to name a few), then online certificate programs are not revolutionary unless they are focused on these challenges. If new educational technologies are used simply to give some students a temporary competitive advantage in the marketplace and protect some colleges and universities from slipping into the ranks of "certificate schools," then they distract us from the real challenges we face.

How do you avoid this distraction? That is what face-to-face education is for. Only by learning more about these challenges firsthand and critically discussing them with those who have had more experience with them than Coursera "teaching assistants" will students be in a position to know how to effectively use new technologies and share their benefits with those who need them most. That, I hope, is what we are striving for in the RCAH. Hands-on experiential learning cannot be simulated. Face-to-face civic engagement projects that change how students see others do not have the same impact remotely. Not only are the nuances of speech and body language harder to decipher, but any empathy students might feel is short-lived and the motivation to act on it is difficult to sustain.

Technology is an integral part of the RCAH program, but it is always technology with a social purpose. Many RCAH students take online and hybrid courses to meet university graduation requirements. The purpose of these new certificate courses is not just to meet needs such as these and make it more convenient for working students to take courses from home when they have to. If they evolve into online certificate programs that make an elite name available at low prices, they will do more harm than good.

However the economics play out, the revolution in education will not be accomplished by streaming online courses at discount rates. It certainly won't be on Facebook; it will be live.


[1] Andrew Martin and Andrew W. Lehren, "A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College," The New York Times, May 12, 2012.

[2] Jordan Weissmann, "Can this 'Online Ivy' University Change the Face of Higher Education?" The Atlantic Monthly, April 5, 2012.

[3] John Markoff, "Online Education Venture Lures Cash Infusion and Deals with Top 5 Universities," The New York Times, April 18, 2012.

[4] MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol.XXIV, No.3, January/February, 2012,

[5] Thomas L. Friedman, "Come the Revolution," The New York Times, May 15, 2012.