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February 27. 2013 6:08PM

Another View: New model for designing, funding college education is needed

The model for designing, delivering and funding a college education is broken. Inflation in higher education is triple that of consumer prices. Only half of today's college graduates secure a job that requires a degree. College debt has reached $1 trillion in the United States, soaring past credit card debt with default rates that are three times that of mortgages. How did this happen?

This industry has been able to unilaterally define its product, convincing the customer that it knows what is best for them, while keeping its basic business model unchanged for generations. It has successfully established, as conventional wisdom, the myth that this product is the exclusive path to prosperity. Best of all, it has persuaded the federal government to fully finance every customer without regard to the product's value or the borrower's credit. Thus, all constraints on pricing have been eliminated and no one should be surprised by the inflationary bubble.

The recent increase in reporting on this phenomenon has largely centered on symptoms: skyrocketing tuition, extravagant new buildings, graduates drowning in debt and the absence of jobs. Consequently, recommended strategies for improvement are misguided: increase government funding, forgive loans in default and strip out delivery costs. Unfortunately, none of these strategies address the problem's root cause: curricula based on antiquated notions of what constitutes an "educated person" that are largely disconnected from the ultimate consumer of the product - employers.

The great conceit of educators - and the accrediting bodies which validate them - is the presumption that they know best what bodies of knowledge are appropriate to prepare an individual for a career. Curricula for all college majors are built around that "educated person" philosophy, requiring 120-plus "credit-hours" - including hundreds of hours of course time in unrelated subjects - to earn a bachelor's degree. Yet, there is no empirical support for these whimsical requirements. Consider this: Isn't it a strange coincidence that a third grade teacher, a social worker, a surgical nurse and a civil engineer all require precisely the same amount of instructional time to acquire entry-level job skills?

In fact, these arbitrary minimums, developed and perpetuated by academia, filled classrooms and ensured growth for generations. But the industry can no longer defend the status quo against a perfect-storm. The cry for a more direct path to employment, in less time, at lower cost, with less debt must be heard inside the campus walls. Moreover, in many regions demand will shrink dramatically. (The number of high school graduates in New Hampshire will drop more than 20 percent in the next 15 years, according to "Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates," a publication of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education).

An industry that remains deaf to demands for drastic re-engineering will go the way of Circuit City. Educators must look to free enterprise, where the efficient and effective transfer of knowledge is measured by achievement of competency, not time, and each training regimen is determined by the needs of the end user. The time has come to re-think college from the ground up.

First, provide data to help prospective college students and their parents make more informed decisions about their readiness for college, their choice of major and the return they are likely to get on their investment. For example, according to USA Today, the U.S. is training twice as many K-5 elementary teachers as needed each year. That is information that should be disclosed to anyone considering that major. Require colleges to provide placement rates and salaries as a condition of participating in any government loan program.

Second, "reverse engineer" curricula. Begin with the competencies, as defined by employers in the respective fields. Develop delivery methods, outcomes and assessments that develop the student to those specifications. Use low-cost delivery methods, e.g., online, based on effectiveness in transferring knowledge, not simply because they are cheaper.

Third, scrap the credit-hour system. It is an artificial contrivance unique to higher education. Certainly there are individuals who could master the competencies of many entry-level positions in fewer than 4,000 hours of classroom and homework time dragged out over four years. Allow colleges and employers to collaborate on specific learning methodologies (in-class, online and internships) that focus on the employer's needs.

Finally, force colleges that wish to participate in taxpayer student loan programs to "unbundle" their product. Federal loans should only be available for the portion of tuition and expenses that is career-directed. Let cash-paying students, private donors and endowments pay for oversized gymnasiums with Jacuzzis and climbing walls.

Fred King is a professor of business at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord and the author of "Squeezing Value from College."


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