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Lowering the Cost of College While Increasing the Value of the Degree

Posted By Administration, Saturday, March 10, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

March 10th, 2012

There is much talk and some truth about the decline in the employment value of the college degree. Presumably, the talk about college degree devaluation refers to colleges and universities outside the "elite” circle of institutions whose names alone open doors. And presumably, the talk is not as much about the 2-year technical and vocational degree as about the degree from a four-year college or university.

But, even so, the "degree devaluation” views can reasonably be applied to a couple of thousand American institutions (50 percent) and perhaps as large a percentage of international institutions.

Those who do hire college graduates complain about those graduates’ abilities: they can’t write, are not self-starters, don’t know how to work in teams, and expect all tasks to be scaffolded for them. In other words, they have learned to be passive learners and not active agents.

And yet, at the same time that the value of the college degree is dropping, the cost of that degree has reached an unsustainable level. We have two coincident problems that seem paradoxical: the cost goes up when the value drops?

Since we have a double-barreled problem – costs of college increasing past the breaking point and the degree dropping in value – an ideal approach to this double-barreled problem would also be double-barreled.

Fortunately, a trend within higher education is already underway that addresses both problems. That trend is toward "high-impact educational practices (HIPs).” The name is from 1998 and I would prefer that they were called "high-impact learning activities,” but I’m not going to split hairs. Shifting toward these practices on a large scale could both improve the value of the degree and lower the cost of getting the degree.

These practices have been widely talked about. Before publication by AAC&U, they were also validated in all learning settings.

But the HIPs have been thought of, and were designed as, supplementary to the core curriculum. Why should they not, instead, be a model for the core curriculum? Randy Bass at Georgetown has been speaking about this question for several years.

And, recently, many people in the eportfolio community have begun talking about the dynamite pairing of HIPs with eportfolios. If you are doing an internship, how great if you also use an eportfolio to evidence the value of your internship? The same for undergraduate research or service learning and other HIPS. How great if while involved in a learning community you can also take advantage of the social pedagogy inherent in eportfolio? Bret Eynon, Director of the Connect to Learning FIPSE Project is emphasizing this in our work with 23 campuses in the U.S.

Re-thinking the core curriculum using student activity and ownership of learning as the base criteria for design addresses the degree-value problem because active students at stake for their own learning are – we believe – better prepared for work today than passive learners who do not own their learning and who do not have a stake in the success of their learning except upon graduation when it’s too late.

The cost issue can be addressed with a re-design toward authentic, experiential and evidence-based learning. If students own their learning, if they are working in teams, if they are not just listening to lectures, if they are in fact at stake for their learning while in college, then we can start to see a way to address higher-education’s cost issue. Students active in their own learning necessarily implies a different role for teachers. There is a multiplier effect in students taking charge of their own learning -- with guidance from a teacher, a larger number of students can learn effectively than with lecture. Lecture is not a scalable or especially effective default learning practice. Active learning practices are.

And, conceivably, some students could graduate earlier than four years. If we base a degree on achieving learning outcomes and not seat time, it is only logical that some students will achieve those learning outcomes sooner than others. Even in the lock-step curriculum model so prevalent today, some students graduate early. Shortening the time to degree would save money for some students.

By far the highest percentage of the cost of running institutions of higher learning is personnel. This cost drives everything. As state governments withdraw funding from state-supported institutions, colleges and universities have no alternative, with such a high fixed-cost base, but to increase fees and tuition.

Not only people but their benefits are amazingly expensive. From a business perspective, people cost is the major factor to consider in bringing down the cost of education. Granted, those in higher education have been creating online learning, automated learning, large lecture classes and other ways of extending teacher-centered learning for decades. These efforts would seem more hopeful if we all still believed in teacher-centered teaching as opposed to teacher-guided learning.

A more hopeful approach to reducing the cost and increasing the quality of learning is to let the students – the learners – do the work of learning. I don’t mean a free-for-all approach, but a curriculum design like problem-based learning. When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to have an amazingly enlightened teacher in social studies. Many of you reading this may have had equally enlightened teachers along the way. In my case, when we were scheduled to study the First World War, we did not listen to lectures but instead were challenged with this question: "What caused World War One?” We were split into teams and we had to come up with our own hypotheses through research and then present these hypotheses to the class a few weeks later.

How can you answer the question about causality of the war without looking into the history of WWI? How can you answer that question without puzzling about what causes anything to happen? We knew the immediate "cause” was the shooting of the Arch Duke, but we also knew that was not what our teacher was hoping we’d find – if that was all that was expected of us, then why create the weeks-long project?

We looked at the situation in Europe, the issue of monarchies, and even the question about What ever causes wars? We might have even looked at the invention of gunpowder, but I just don’t remember. In other words, we were learning the art and science of being an historian.

How could I have known then that my social studies teacher was mentoring me for the work I do today?

No, colleges and universities will not convert to a full curriculum transformation to more active learning as quickly as is necessary until a crisis hits – or has it already? – and enrollments start to drop. But, they can immediately do one thing: allow students to do more of the work of learning. In my high school class, we students did most of the work for three weeks of learning about the First World War. In theory, our teacher could have gone down the hall and got another class going on the same question. He could have two classes running at the same time.

This suggests a model of attracting more students to an institution while leveraging teaching faculty more efficiently. If we had had electronic portfolios in my high school, we could have captured evidence of our process of searching for causes of WWI. Those electronic portfolios could have been evaluated by anyone with expertise in history learning outcomes for our age. My teacher could have been running two classes working on historical problems such as ours and still not faced a doubling of grading responsibilities. Just as, today, some eportfolios are being assessed and evaluated by professionals and peers other than the teacher, my teacher could have been relieved of that job.

Using designs for active learning, a college or university could create an optional and alternative curriculum toward the degree that is more student work intensive and less faculty work intensive. Students could choose the "active learning” curriculum or the standard curriculum. It is not so unusual now for students to have more say in how they construct their degree, and the idea of an optional alternate curriculum degree is either already in operation in some places or as good as in operation.

The organizing and management capabilities of information technologies make it much easier to customize operations rather than requiring one lock-step program for all.

A degree that is based on eportfolio evidence of active learning may not now automatically get a college graduate in the hunt for a job to the next round of resume-screening – although this may change in a few months as electronic transcripts catch on and the attractiveness of an online resume with links also catches on – but we should be clear that the move to digital records is the HR direction underway now. (Already, HR people search applicant’s activities on the Web as one data point for hiring decisions).

Therefore, it is a good time for institutions of higher learning to be working on core curriculum redesign or at least an alternate, optional curriculum design, that we believe better prepares students for the world today. By the time these alternate designs are adopted, the world will certainly be ready for them.

Reminder: Register for the AAEEBL Northeast Regional ePortfolio Conference, March 23 (Friday) on the beautiful Harborside Campus of Johnson & Wales University in Providence RI. This is a one-day conference. The program is interactive and features regional, national and international leaders in eportfolios.

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