Higher Education Cost – make it more worthwhile by adding experience to the academic curriculum

August 8, 2014 at 1:43 PM
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Higher Education Cost – make it more worthwhile by adding experience to the academic curriculum

Allyson Savin and Jim Stellar

We started talking about writing this post at the end of June 2014 when there was a burst of media frenzy that month on the issue of the price of a college education.  We saw and exchanged at least 7 articles that month and probably only captured a fraction of what was happening.  There were two articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, two opinion pieces in the New York Times, one in The Economist on creative destruction, a piece by the Brookings Institution, and an article form Inside Higher Education.com that featured a June report by Education Trust on the need for tough love for colleges. Maybe that report started it all.  The stories continued through the summer in various media outlets and a documentary came out on college costs (Ivory Tower) that premiered at the winter Sundance film festival.

The basic numbers are staggering.  College tuition and fees have risen an astounding 107 percent since 1992, even after adjusting for economy-wide inflation.  There are approximately 37 million student loan borrowers with outstanding student loans today.  About 11.5% of student loan balances are 90+ days delinquent or in default. Outstanding student loan balances reported on credit reports totaled $1.08 trillion as of December 31, 2013, representing a $114 billion increase for 2013.

This frenzy of recent attention has a history in various locations, emphasizing the concerns about higher education being worth the cost and the time.  Going back years, one finds writing about what has loosely been called the accountability movement worried about graduation rates, what students were learning, as well as the cost/value ratio.  More recently, the federal government has jumped in with proposed plans to evaluate and even rate colleges on something like their price vs. value.  We even wrote a blog post last December about the cost of higher education called “College Price vs. Value and Experiential Education.” Add in the ongoing discussion of online education, particularly MOOCs, and the growing influence of big data and one has a discussion that continues even today (8/20).

When AS started college at Northeastern University in 2002, the sticker price was about $40,000 per year for five years (inclusive of tuition, fees, and room & board).  Northeastern is a five year school for most students because of its cooperative education program.  And it is precisely why students are now willing to pay roughly $57,000 per year (inclusive of tuition, fees, and room & board) to attend Northeastern.  In fact, AS would argue it is why Northeastern’s applications have surged in recent years – most notably attracting nearly 50,000 applicants for 2,800 seats.

Northeastern tapped into a fundamental truth about higher education that some have been able to capitalize on while others are just tuning into now.  Simply put, in order to change the ivory tower, the education has to be practical.

There are many ways to do that in and out of the academy and to do so without undermining critical thinking, knowledge generating, writing, and other skill building activities that our history and our friends in industry want us to provide.  The way to do that is to open the academy to industry, service, work with our own faculty on undergraduate research, and study abroad.

In fact, we are already doing this.  When JS was a college student, few did study abroad or undergraduate research.  That is a good start.  But most of the action in the world and most of the money in the world is in industry.  We in higher education have to partner with industry.  Many schools do that, especially the older co-op schools like Northeastern (mentioned above), Cincinnati, and Drexel, which all have 100 years in the practice.

Companies also benefit from this partnership.  Rather than simply waiting for the output (i.e., recent graduates) and hoping that they have the right skills to perform well on the job, they now have a de facto seat at the table.  While at school, AS was constantly in classes where half of the students just returned from 6 months on co-op.  As AS discovered first-hand, accounting classes are a lot more stimulating when half the students can speak intelligibly about the practical application of the theories her class was reading about.  Also, most companies that AS had the pleasure of working for kept a co-op position full time in their departments.  It would be filled twice a year but the benefit to the company was year-round.  Companies and students alike also got more out of the experience.  Instead of being limited to 6-10 weeks like traditional summer internships offer, students have 6 months to learn the job and be real contributors to the company before leaving.  AS was even asked to stay on part-time after one of her co-ops ended and she gladly “worked from home” from her dorm room on the days she had class because her work had been meaningful to both herself and the company she was working for.  And perhaps the best benefit for students and employers alike is that the co-op is akin to a six month interview.  Companies are able to hire the best talent and students benefit by having a foot in the door with many prestigious companies.

But these solutions are popping up everywhere and likely begin more slowly than starting a co-op program.  Still we can all learn from the industry veterans on how to do it right.  We should make teaching better and look to improve the curriculum by focusing on general education, high impact practices, flipping the classroom, on-line learning as hybrids or fully online, etc.  But we should also focus on changing the student by giving them university/college sanctioned and supported experiences that relate to what they think they want to do with their careers while they are still in college.  Do it all — from community service to major- and industry-specific paid internships.  But do it.

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