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Sans Students: Is this what university classrooms will look like in 2020?

Higher Education is an unmovable object with an unstoppable force heading straight for it and universities are at ground zero. Classrooms as we know them may be doomed and the question is whether our country will lead the world in adapting to a new model, or whether we will be the last ones to accept reality.

The Value of the College Degree
The unmovable object in Higher Education is importance of the college degree in American commerce. Business lives or dies on information. The person who can access, filter, analyze, organize, and explain information tends to be valuable in a company.

High schools are tasked to help students graduate with basic competencies, but they are dealing with children who are still maturing into adulthood and that process needs to be complete before they are morphed into business men and women.

Those who believe high schools should be vocational schools are assuming that all children will become a construction laborer or office drone, so why bother with college prep? The concept of education as a training ground for corporate zombies is too simple-minded to apply in a country that encourages all citizens to reach their maximum potential.

College is where young adults are given the tools to become valued business leaders. College classes require a student to learn how to access and report information, which is central in business competitiveness. The business that can out think its competition always wins, which may be why many top businesses are more concerned about the degree, not the major. A college degree is more than a piece of paper, it is a badge of achievement that says this person is ready for the business world.

The Relentless Rise in the Cost of College
The unstoppable force is the rising cost of a college education. With cuts in federal and state budgets a greater share of the burden is being heaped on those who are least able to avoid it. In Mitt Romney’s failed bid to be President he suggested that students should borrow from their parents to pay for college. That was one telling sign that Romney is out of touch with the real world the rest of us live in.

March 2012 protest in Sacramento over tuition hikes

In 1991 the annual average cost for a university education was at $7,602 or over $30,000 for four years of college. In 2001, that annual cost had risen to $12,922 or over $50,000 in four years. In 2011, the annual cost had risen to $22,092, which meant it cost over $88,000 for the average college four-year degree. That is the equivalent of buying a new car every year a student attends college. If the trend continues it will cost a student an average of over $41,000/year for college by 2021, which means a four-year college degree in 2021 may cost over $167,000.

Students and their parents are already outraged by the rising costs, but it is universities who control the expenses, and therefore control the costs.

Based on current trends, the average annual cost for college may exceed $40,000 by 2021

Students want to be competitive for careers that will lead them to higher paying jobs, but they have no means to afford college and the list of parents who CAN pay over $22,000 a year for four years are on a first name basis with Mitt Romney.

The Other Unmovable Object – Faculty
Teachers at the college level have traditionally been considered the most important asset to a university and for centuries they were treated with dignity and respect by administrators, but financial pressures have made them a target for saving money. While students face escalating tuition and fees, university faculty are also a target of the unstoppable force. Professors have been constantly asked to accept budget cuts and teach more students for the same, or lower pay. 

Some universities have replaced expensive tenured professors with temporary faculty employed by contract on a semester by semester basis. Temporary faculty make a fraction of a full, tenured professor. Not surprisingly, a teacher that may not be offered a contract the next semester tends to be more accepting of increased class sizes, or other cost-cutting measures.

What may be surprising is that a college teacher is likely not receiving a significant portion of the tuition paid by the students in his or her classes. A temporary professor may bring in $100,000 or more in revenue each year for the university, but a temporary professor is often paid less than $4,000 per class with no benefits. Low pay and increased pressure to do more for no additional money makes the teaching environment unpleasant for the student and professor.

A Revolution Caused by the Internet
Ironically, the Internet was originally intended to allow one university to have quick access to the knowledge database at other universities and research laboratories. As it expanded and became commercially available in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the public began to have access to a vast storage of on and off-campus knowledge without a student ID. Within a decade homes across the world were linked into a mass of dynamic information via business and personal websites, blogs, chat rooms, and other social media sites.

Suddenly anyone could access information and share ideas and they didn’t have to pay tuition to have easy access to it. Certainly some of the information was in error, but often people found information that outpaced the knowledge produced in books. Universities no longer held the monopoly on information.

Government Must Change
State governments and Higher Education face these problems:

  1. A college degree is still a valuable achievement and desired by the public and business.
  2. Tuition and fees are too high and the public can no longer afford them.
  3. Professors have been devalued in a system where more and more of the revenue is channeled away from the them.
  4. University administrators and government legislators have created a paradigm for Higher Education that is unsustainable.

Social media has changed the expectations of the public. People expect to be able to have ready access to anyone to whom they are paying for a service.

Controlling advanced knowledge within ivy covered walls is no longer possible in a world where anyone can do a Google search and know as much or more about the most current knowledge on any topic. However, just doing a Google search does not teach a person how to filter, analyze, organize, and report that information.

State-run universities have a unique opportunity to reinvent Higher Education. The challenge is that they are the most unlikely to do it. Administrators have Accreditation organizations that are established to dictate what Higher Education is and will be today and tomorrow based on the best practices of yesterday. That doesn’t work in a world where today is already history that was recorded by over 340 million tweets a day (March 2012 data.)

When the unstoppable force hits the unmovable objects (value of a degree and the need for faculty) few things about Higher Education will remain unchanged. Now is the time for State-run universities to dodge the upcoming annihilation and take the lead in reinventing Higher Education. They can start considering the following guidelines:

  • Tuition must stabilize and regress. Fees should be eliminated. Universities can assume that there will be no money available to siphon off for student activities, the football program, or any other money-absorbing entity. 
  • Support materials (textbooks, etc.) will be digital only and the cost will be pennies on the dollar of what students have been paying. Goodbye, McGraw-Hill. Hello, Faculty Publishing.
  • Classrooms will be more like Boardrooms with fewer students where the Professor is the CEO of knowledge and students must bring their best or beg for a second chance with someone else. Much of the lecture and information gathering will be done via webcasts and/or outside of class time. ‘Class’ will be where the work outside the classroom is brought in for discussion and idea sharing.
  • Class schedules will not follow a semester system and will be on a schedule that is more like a project team.
  • Faculty will lead students while at the same time work toward advancing knowledge on the subject matter.
  • The most important person to the student will be the educational coordinator (i.e. Counselor or Adviser in the old paradigm) who will create an individualized degree that is based on achieving a level of mastery information handling, not a number of credit hours.

The framework in which this happens must be within a government structure. Private enterprise has proven that when they try to create a system of higher learning they fail. It solves nothing to make Higher Education a profit-based program that is a poor imitation of the old, outdated model. If government can successfully create a new model it will make the United States of America the leader of advanced knowledge. If not, we can expect to be exporters of our future.

Links to:

What America Must Do:  Step 1 – Silence the Wackos in Politics
What America Must Do:  Step 2 – An Extreme Makeover of Government at All Levels
What America Must Do:  Step 3 – Restore Government Revenue and Fair Taxation
What America Must Do:  Step 4 – Balanced Budget By 2015, Debt under 50% of GDP by 2020
What America Must Do:  Step 5 – Restart a Federally Run Space Program