Reflections on Higher Education Reform: “Free College” and the fallacy of the college degree as a necessity.

By Christiane Warren, Ph.D., Guest Contributor

January 15, 2021

In today’s public discourse both on and off university campuses, the overwhelming consensus asserts that a college degree has become a necessity, even a collective right to secure individual economic security and to address past and present wrongs of racial and economic inequality.  If the cost of college remains high, many students, and disproportionally this means, students of color, are unable to attain a college degree.  Thus, existing levels of social and economic inequality continue to persist and even grow, contrary to the long-cherished belief that a college education serves as the key to social mobility and economic stability.

The answer to this generally accepted causal connection, as offered by the incoming administration and its Progressive supporters, can be found in an expanded role of Federal funding and regulation aimed at removing financial barriers from college attendance. While noble in its basic sentiment, these ideas are highly problematic and largely unrealistic in their implementation. Furthermore, much of their justification is built on a flawed premise, shaded by ideological subjectivity, and will lead, not to greater equality, but only to the hastened demise of the American higher education structure.

To address the issue in detail, it is necessary to clarify the current crisis in its actual terms: The first assumption, that a college degree is a “must have” and thereby should be fully funded by the public, namely the taxpayer, is false. Not every person needs to, nor is academically able, to earn a college degree. Most jobs still do not require four years of study. By reducing the college degree to a means for obtaining employment, we lower its educational value and place an undue burden on many students, who are neither prepared for, nor truly need four years of intellectual study in abstract thinking and theoretical analysis to obtain employment and relative financial security. Most of today’s occupations can be entered into with an arguably improved, High School education and 18 months to 2 years of vocational skills acquisition.

Yet, many argue that the modern-day high school diploma no longer serves the needs of the 21st century workplace. The responsibility and cost of educating the American public has been displaced, largely on community colleges and state universities, where most under-prepared students attend. The need for additional services both in student activities and services along with the steep increase in assessment requirements, have greatly contributed to the growth in administrative costs.  Many educators place emphasis for reform here, demanding that colleges offer even more robust support systems, alter admission criteria and adjust course curricula to reflect the learning needs of academically under-prepared and financially marginalized students.

This acceptance of so-called “credential creep” as a fact due to the overall failure of many public high school systems, is inherently wrong and should be vigorously fought. Shifting the responsibility of general education from high school, which is free and mandatory, to colleges, which are voluntary and require payment, is contradictory to the tenets of equity and defies basic common sense.  It also further contributes to the escalation of costs and persistent educational inequality. When the educational responsibility of the secondary school system is transferred to post-secondary sector, society ends up paying twice for the same service and perpetuates instructional redundancies. Students spend additional time, financial aid, and energy, learning in college what society paid for them to learn while in high school. Not only does this deplete already limited public resources, but it also decreases their chances of success, and thus leads to greater drop-out and loan default rates.

Educators and reformers acknowledge the problem; however, they advocate for colleges to provide more support services in the name of racial and economic equity. Doing that, however, only exacerbates the original problem of inequality and further adds to the cost of higher education.

For those who truly seek reform, both for students and for society, the answers are far from easy. Points for exploration may be found in ending social promotion in public schools, curtailing systemic disciplinary discrimination against male students of color, raising the professional status of public-school teaching through recognition, salaries and support, and limiting the reliance on standardized testing as the primary measure of student achievement. By bolstering the depth and quality of the general education students achieve through their high school diploma across the board, the necessary community and critical skills, so valued can be acquired before leaving school. Thus, post-secondary learning can be either focused on acquiring specific job training skills or furthered in college for those who have both the inclination and ability to do so. Doing so should be preferable over lowering standards and expending money to teach the same course work again that was not processed in high school, during the first 2 years of college.  While on the surface, free college, especially with an emphasis on community college appears to be a laudable concept, however, on closer examination, it is based on flawed assumption and will inevitably prove to fall short of its social justice goals, while burdening the American taxpayer with an unsurmountable bill.

More About the Author

Guest author, Dr. Christiane Warren, Senior Consultant at Anna J Cooper Education Advocacy. Recognized for producing growth and cultivating success in the career and education space, Dr. Warren has served as tenured faculty, department chair and academic dean for entire divisions and in the Academic Affairs office at both 2-and-4 year institutions in NJ and NY. Read more about Dr. Warren here.

THE SKY IS FALLING IN HIGHER EDUCATION

But not the prices.

-Alan Yeck, Founder of AltRaged

Trigger Warning: Strong language; swear words

I read a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (https://on.wsj.com/3ndFknY) about another higher education scam. It may apply to every institution, but it’s not the exception.

Let’s start with this. There is no reason, other than fiscal negligence, for the absurd costs of a degree today. $40,000 for a bachelor’s degree at a state institution is insane and frankly, you’re insane for paying it. Move to the nonprofit, private, liberal arts sector and you can easily triple, quadruple that amount. Our political leadership has yet to reign in these institutions because frankly, they are making money themselves off of the ongoing mismanagement of higher education.

I had a conversation with a college president and some board members last May about their responsibilities to the students who are in their care at their institution. It was not well received but knowing how higher education works, the internal wirings including the large storage rooms located on every campus containing years of fuck-ups they hide from parents and the public, I wasn’t surprised.  Because of COVID19, this residential, liberal arts campus went from classroom instruction to 100% online the following Monday. This institution, for the last few decades had ignored (fought) online education as a viable medium for instruction. Now, it was embraced by administration, and accepted by faculty (like geese accept being force fed to later become foie gras).

While online education has been a proven delivery method since the late 1990s, for those that have never taught it, or have never been on the learning end, it isn’t like moving from an acetate overhead projector to a whiteboard. There is a solid, developed pedagogy behind both ends of the internet that the school had no idea about. Those colleges and universities that welcomed this use of technology for instruction have depths of research and networks of curriculum developers. They have dedicated administrators and tech support, continuous improvement and evaluation of the systems (beyond the individual courses) to make certain the online teaching and learning experiences for both the professor and the student would be as rigorous as what the student could receive in the classroom. They also provided in-depth instructions, videos, articles…to the students on ‘how to take an online class.’  Faculty at these institutions are certified, normally an internally developed program, to teach online. They must understand the capabilities of the Learning Management Systems in use as well as the pedagogy behind them. They must understand how to take a classroom course and move it without damage to the online environment. All of this is again evaluated on an ongoing basis against industry best practices (new developments in technology are daily but the tail of tech can never wag the academia of the dog). Change or adaptation in academia makes land turtles look like jaguars chasing down a gazelle – which is why it’s important to plan, execute, evaluate, improve, repeat. That’s not the norm in higher education and especially in the private, nonprofit, liberal arts, honkey campuses.

This institution moved forward, students struggling, teachers struggling, coursework succumbing to the attitude ‘better than nothing.’ To be fair, the same thing was happening across the country so they weren’t less than ethical as other colleges and universities that were being less than ethical. Some students did fine. Others not so much and they wanted to withdraw without penalty; no grade and they wanted their money back. It’s not what they signed up for. Students have rights and must be educated on those rights and then use those rights – many just accepted the grade, cost, poor quality, and finished the term. Others fought and some won. The compromise I suggested to another college was to award an incomplete “I” grade without any restrictions on when it had to be used. This allowed for the students who did poorly to retake the class at no penalty without having to pay for it again. Seems fair, right? This other institution thought so and that’s exactly what they did.

Part II of this are the dormitories. Housing students is big business on campus with an average cost of about $12,000 a year (on top of the cost of their degree). Now, let’s cut to last month and senior administration’s decision to return students to classroom instruction, on campus, dorms filled. Brilliant move – talk about the care of the students and cash the checks as quick as possible. Then when COVID19 starts making it’s way around, move to online education again – but keep the dorm money.

It’s amateur hour on campus with few administrators ever having any leadership mentoring, which is clearly seen in how any crisis is handled but especially today. Arrogance on the other hand is a choice – a disastrous choice – and its consequences have moved beyond financial and accreditation to life and death scenarios. 

  • Demand accountability for how an institution is handling COVID 19.
  • Demand accountability for how an institution is spending their money (your money).
  • Demand accountability from the elected officials receiving millions in PAC and Super PAC donations from the student loan industry to keep the status quo.

Higher education teaches ethics. Maybe senior administration and board members should be required to take the course themselves – it’s not like they are fooling anyone on their own campuses. I mean if you’re going to screw the students, at least give them a free sweatshirt.   

Failure Is Not An Option

Alan Yeck, Founder of AltRaged.com

Prior to COVID-19, technology wasn’t widespread enough for online education to even be an option for any health-related closures until, at the earliest, the swine flu pandemic of 2009. Prior to that, any schools whose campuses couldn’t stay open just closed. We might have been able to go on  for a few days to a few weeks, but nothing can compare to our current situation of campus closures and needing to switch entirely to online teaching and learning.

We moved to online education very rapidly for two distinct, and not entirely opposing, reasons . One is a conscious, self-defined clean perspective, full of laurels and intellectual collegial banter about moving teaching and learning forward despite our current circumstances. Damn the torpedoes, we care about the students’ learning, and this virus cannot defeat the sanctity of post-secondary education. The academic high ground.  The other reason we moved to online education at breakneck speed for the money, not the student. It’s an ugly reality for many schools today: enrollments are down, finances are critical, and they’re already cut to the bone. Remove an entire term’s tuition from a budget established last year and more than a few school doors will shut for good with others crippled for the foreseeable future. Please understand I’m not arguing this point but using it to highlight the importance of what has to happen next for our students.  No one taking an online class this term should receive a failing grade.

Having earned my entire MBA at Walden University online, at a time in my life when any other way would have been impossible, I am a huge proponent of online education–an evangelist for it.  I was taught online, I’ve taught online, and I believe as technology continues to progress, what we call online will become the standard medium for education around the world. We’re not there yet, but we’re not far off either. Numerous studies over the years have shown that online education can be as academically rigorous as that done in the classroom, if not more so. Of course, there are institutions, courses and teachers that have given online education a bad reputation within the industry, but those same institutions, courses and teachers also likely deliver poor classroom instruction. They are consistent. The delivery medium is arguably the least important factor in determining the quality of instruction. Internet or in-person, are the students engaged?

Online education is comprised of four elements: teacher, student, curriculum and technology. When all of those elements are fully functional, learning will take place. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that’s the case. We’ve taken students who initially enrolled for a classroom course and thrust them into the online world with little to no preparation. We’ve done the same to faculty who taught classroom courses. We’ve taken courses designed for the classroom and quickly “adapted” them for online delivery. Three of the four basic elements required for successful online education are somewhat questionable, not to mention other challenges like students who do not have Internet access where they live (could be financial or lack of service). Everyone has done their best, above and beyond the call of duty, to get everything up to speed for online education. You’ve done an amazing job–-truly commendable. Thank you. My point is what all our points should be about–the students.

For advanced learners, online classes are terrific. They performed well before this nightmare, and I’m sure those students are doing great right now. They aren’t the ones we need to worry about. Studies at Harvard and Stanford have shown that struggling students are more likely to do poorly in online classes than their peers with higher GPAs. In their most current model, online courses can be tough, especially for the students who have not had adequate preparation. These students’ outcomes are worse than they would have been had these same students taken in-person courses. After failing a class, these students are much likelier  to withdraw from college.

We have to recognize and address:

1) Not all courses lend themselves to online education.

2) Not every course that was “adapted” for online instruction would meet best practices under normal circumstances

3) The level of instruction for new online teachers probably didn’t follow the same non-COVID-19 process of thoroughly learning the technology and more importantly the pedagogy for online instruction

4) Some of our students would struggle with online learning regardless if everything else was perfect.

Academically challenged students need a classroom and face-to-face interaction with their teachers (not one through Zoom). Of course, there are exceptions to both groups, but policies should never be established around the exceptions. The educational authorities have given us tremendous flexibility to respond to the crisis, and we need to do the same now with our students. Any student who had enrolled in a classroom class, who does poorly online, should be given an Incomplete “I” at the very least to be made-up when they have the option to return to the classroom.

When the nation moved to online teaching overnight, our institutions, state and federal educational agencies, and the accrediting bodies all made it known that they were going to become as flexible as possible to help us accomplish this never-before-attempted high-wire act (no net). The missing part to this flexibility is a unified decision about awarding “I” for any failing grades this term. Another conversation going around is to not award any failing grades, period, this term–-all students pass. Radical? We’re in radical times. If there is going to be an error on our part, it should be on the behalf of fighting for our students. Anything less and we fail them.

Do not fail a student who didn’t sign up for an online class, taught by a teacher who didn’t sign up to teach that class online, when it wasn’t designed to be an online class in the first place. To hold them to the same grading process we’ve always done would be an unacceptable, arrogant, unethical, indefensible and unforgivable position to take. Either an “I” or “P” option must be given to all.