An Alternative Direction for Higher Education

by Rebecca Stuhr

I have worked in higher education for nearly 30 years, which means I’ve only not been connected with an educational institution as a student or employee (librarian)  for two or three years since starting school at age 5.  I was raised in an academically inclined household, my father has a Ph.D. and was a professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. He went to Yale on a full scholarship. I don’t know whether or not there was any stigma attached to that scholarship, but I’m sure that he went to school with many young men whose parents had no problem paying the full tuition. When I went to school, I had 50% of my tuition covered by my college, my mother and father paid 25% and I covered the remaining 25% with student loans. I had work-study, and worked during the summers to have money to support myself during the academic year. I covered 25% of my four years of college with a student loan. I graduated  $4,000 in debt, which I took ten years to pay off. Doesn’t sound too bad does it? I could rent an apartment, pay for food, make plans for the future, and pay off my loan without feeling overwhelmed. It wasn’t that every family had $4,000 a year hanging around to pay for tuition, that is why 50% of my college costs were covered by my school. But it is also true that $2,000 is not equivalent to $30,000, which is what 50% of college tuition is likely to be today. It just isn’t the same thing, and it seems as though there is no end to the spiraling cost of education.

I find that when I find an article that addresses the state of student loans (that in some cases accumulate interest at 6.8% or 7.8% from day one), I find that the students are being blamed for placing themselves in the position of being burdened by impossible debt because they didn’t read the small print carefully, or they didn’t weigh their options by choosing a less expensive route, say two years of community college followed by two years of a state university. That also suggests that if $30,000 or more isn’t an insignificant amount of money for you, you have no business going to school that has tuition in that range. It isn’t the fault of the lender that students are burdened with this terrible debt upon graduation, it is the student’s fault for accepting the only terms available to them. And then we are back to a place where only the privileged are allowed the privilege of the best education with the most personal attention providing the greatest opportunity. I will just add for those of you who might not have thought of this yet. Our young up and coming generation is burdened by enormous debt during a time of high un- and under employment, unable to afford health insurance, or in many cases, live on their own. Doesn’t spell a positive future for any of us.

So, I am wrapped up in this vision of disparity and what I see as the irrevocable brokenness of higher education as we know it: Institutions as corporations, students as customers, schools as cost centers, services as revenue streams, branding and marketing to the potential full pay (who I understand have the entitlement to negotiate on just what full pay means) while putting the best quality education out of reach of the less advantaged.

What can be done? I’ve been formulating a scenario in my head over the past couple of years. While I believe that there is a place for organized educational institutions. My idea would not support the kind of research that takes place in major universities.  I think, nonetheless, that there has to be a quality alternative that operates in parallel and that will provide the personal attention and opportunity that is a hallmark of the best colleges and universities. We could be trendy and call it alt-ed, but I’ll just call it a parallel scenario for now. I imagine it as a cottage industry. It requires little infrastructure and serves a local community. It takes advantage of our wired and digital environment to make sure that each participant’s accomplishments are reviewed, shared, and will represent the equivalent of a transcript — albeit a much more detailed transcript than your typical list of grades.

As you read this, I am sure that you will be saying, but what about this, and how do we address that, and you haven’t thought about this. Well, remember, this is a parallel course. It isn’t meant to be the same, it is an alternative. The beauty of starting fresh is that you don’t have to reject anything or incorporate everything, you can take what you like from existing structures, but beyond that, we’re building from the bottom up. There can be more than one version, but in the end, the students have to have learned critical thinking and writing, public speaking, and to have delved deeply into subject areas associated with study in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. (And of course, I haven’t thought about everything and there would be many, many details to work out.)

My parallel scenario takes place in a small storefront, a kind of one room school room. Really, it could take place anywhere that is accessible and allows for sustained concentration that may include lectures, independent work, and group work. Cohorts would be small because the staff would be small and initially sustained by grants. Because the cohorts would be small, it would be possible for individuals to be at different levels in their educational process. The staff would determine the curriculum, which would likely center around the traditional disciplines, while individual student projects would reflect student interest. There is no intention that this would be an easier route or less demanding than a traditional course of studies. In fact, because there would no way for the students to go unnoticed, or to skip class, cheat on tests, fall asleep, text, Web surf, or otherwise be halfhearted about the program in such an intimate setting it might be much harder. This would be more than a flipped classroom. Much of the work required including class time would take place in the center. Arrangements would have to be made for access to journals, books, and databases, participation in inter-library loan. Perhaps there would be some kind of reciprocal agreements set up or grants jointly applied for with public libraries. We would further take advantage of the digital environment by making use of the electronic portfolio. All student work, including all comments on the work, would be filed into portfolios, that students would be able to take with them and that would be archived by the center. These portfolios would clearly demonstrate writing ability, videos might represent oral skills, content would demonstrate the ability to undertake research, synthesize information and to critically analyze texts and images of all kinds. The portfolios would be certified in the same way that transcripts are and clearly represent the successful student’s skills, knowledge, and expertise.

Students attending these cottage centers of higher education would not pay tuition. There might be work in kind, size would limit the level of paperwork (bureaucracy), but I acknowledge that long-term sustainability would have to be something that was worked toward. I don’t think it is impossible, and I think that there are academics out there who would enjoy and thrive as scholars in such an environment. They would be positive developments within communities, and could lead to some students going on to more traditional institutions for graduate degrees, or perhaps be all they need to pursue meaningful careers.

This is a first attempt to write down my ideas. I want to consider thinking this through and even envision setting something up within my working life.

Update August 7, 2013

Just after writing this idea up, a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education described a scheme that has many similarities to my idea (you may need a subscription to view this article):

The ideas differ in several respects, one of them being that the Chronicle article describes a for-profit enterprise that would grow and expand. My system would be not-for-profit, and a little bit more like a Montessori school–in that there is a basic concept of what a Montessori school should be, but each school is (or at least many are) stand alone and serves its local community. It isn’t a franchise. But it is good to see a similar idea out there that stresses the importance of personal attention — the author uses the term anti-MOOC (keeping class size at 25-30).