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Let us agree that the current trajectory of public higher ed in the United States is unsustainable.

My evidence:

- While state funding has increased marginally in recent years, in many states, it hasn’t managed to reach pre-recession levels. This is during a historically prosperous economy of low unemployment, increasing GDP, and stock market records. If we cannot manage to fund public institutions during these best of times, what will conditions be like when the next recession hits?

- Public institutions have become tuition dependent, which has created numerous inefficiencies, even as the cost to students rises ever higher. Some institutions find themselves in a discounting death spiral. A brand new report from the Century Foundation finds that community colleges are chronically underfunded. Under current law, health care costs will continue to eat into the available budget, draining additional funds away from operations and instruction.

- Adjunct faculty, many of whom lack basic economic security, teach a majority of courses.

- Two-thirds of graduates have debt upon matriculation which averages $30,000. The total amount of student loan debt has crested $1.5 trillion. We have effectively “priced the middle class out of college.”

- This should not surprise us, as a college education for an in-state student at a flagship university that cost five weeks of full-time minimum wage work to pay a year’s tuition in 1988 now costs almost 50 weeks of full-time minimum wage work to pay a year’s tuition. That’s tuition-only, no books, no living expenses, just tuition. You could work full-time for four years and have just barely enough to cover tuition.[1]

- Add all of these things together and we wind up with students facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. Each successive cohort is more anxious and stressed than the last. Much of this stress is attributable to schooling. 

A college education is out of reach for more and more students. Those who do grasp it start their post-graduate lives with debt which keeps them from buying homes, having children, starting businesses, experiencing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If they do have children, they will be poorly positioned to help them afford post-secondary education. 

I could go on, but I hope this is enough. Something must change. 

We’ve recently gotten glimpses into two possible future paths. 

One path is Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to cancel at least some student loan debt for 95% of people with canceling all student loan debt for more than 75% of current debt holders. With her “ultra-millionaires tax” on households with greater than $50 million in wealth, she proposes to eliminate the cost of tuition and fees at 2-year and 4-year public institutions. 

It is a proposal, a plan, a goal. It is complicated and potentially fraught and has many specifics that will have to be more thoroughly vetted, and some groups will benefit more than others, but as a statement of values, it is clear. It is a vision that says higher education should be accessible to people regardless of race, class, or place of origin.

The other path is exemplified by Arizona State University’s newest initiative, InStride, which is described in their press release as “a learning services enterprise designed to achieve significant social impact through partnerships with employers to provide opportunities for employees to obtain a university education.”

ASU president Michael M. Crow – who is hailed as the innovator of the “new American university” – identifies the same problem as Elizabeth Warren, saying, “Too many people have been left out of higher education for reasons such as cost, time, or family circumstances.”

InStride, powered by ASU, is positioned as a provider of, “a unique technology platform designed for scalable delivery of digital teaching and learning models to increase student success and reduce barriers to achievement in higher education.”

Unlike ASU, InStride will be a for-profit entity, and is being provided start-up cash by The Rise Fund, which calls itself a “global impact investing fund.” “Impact investing” is a term for funds that say they want to do good while also doing well.[2]

Bono is involved. You may have heard of The Rise Fund recently when news broke that its co-founder Bill McGlashan allegedly paid a $250,000 bribe to get his son into USC. 

As Kenneth C. Green observes in an Inside Higher Ed blog post, InStride is a “market opportunity” to capture share of online students. Even better in Green’s view, ASU is doing this with “other people’s money,” meaning The Rise Fund, which we should remember is as committed to profits as it is doing good, which is why InStride must be set up as a for-profit, “public-benefit corporation.”[3]

ASU President Crow is widely admired for his ability to negotiate the challenges of running a university as his state proves truly innovative in its ability to cut back on its support of higher education. The number of new initiatives and strategic partnerships ASU has rolled out is staggering as they hoover up market share and find fresh ways to monetize university operations.[4]They also do this while calling providing recommended class loads for their writing instructors a “luxury” they cannot afford. 

I think we should also consider who those “other people” are in Kenneth Green’s “other people’s money.” Where does the money for The Rise Fund come from? Whose money is it? Or more accurately, whose money could it have been? 

In his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, author and commentator Anand Giridharadas outlines how the global elite (embodied by people like Bill McGlashan) have used their wealth to steadily tilt the field in their own favor, amassing even more wealth in the process. Given the statistics on increasing income inequality and stagnating (or even retreating) economic mobility, it’s worth asking if under a less inequitable system, some of the money The Rise Fund is going to invest in this initiative would’ve belonged to the people they claim to want to help by investing in InStride.

I’m trying to imagine a world in which Bill McGlashan looks at InStride and decides it’s so good it’s not necessary to employ that $250k bribe to get his kid into USC. 

Gotta be honest, I can’t envision that world.

InStride wants to provide online classes and college credentials to a sizable chunk of the 37 million Americans who have some college but no degree. Similar to Warren’s plan, we should recognize that this is complicated, potentially fraught, and has many specifics that will have to be more thoroughly vetted. Weighed against Warren's plan, which approach is likely to be better for students? How will someone armed with their ASU online degree procured via the InStride program fare in the job marketplace against someone whose father bought his way into USC, for example? 

But as a statement of values, it is clear. For people who cannot afford the cost of college, to achieve a credential, you must be yoked to a corporation which will partner with another corporation in order to deliver an all online education experience. 

From a values perspective, the two separate paths seems pretty clear to me. 

I know which one I prefer to start heading down, how about you?



[1]This is why when anyone tells me they “worked their way through college” I ask what year they graduated, where they went, and what other assistance they might have had.

[2]Or in The Rise Fund’s specific language, they are “committed to achieving social and environmental impact alongside competitive returns.”

[3]Oxymoron much?

[4]ASU is presently embroiled in a developing controversy over their use of a Cengage software product in economics courses which is allegedly charging students to turn in homework, with ASU receiving a portion of the revenues in the process. The Arizona Republic is currently investigating the story. 

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