Campuses in the the University of Arkansas System balk at the idea of paying the startup costs of an online institution that is missing its own fund-raising target and may one day compete for their students.
The newspaper and book businesses have been transformed in recent years. But not education. After a 30-year school reform movement, no major urban school district in the country has been successfully turned around. Meanwhile, despite loud and persistent criticism from government, media and families, the cost of college continues to rise faster than inflation and student loan debt is ballooning. So why hasn't education changed?
This nation is making a transition from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. All of our social institutions — not just education but also government, media, health care and finance — were created for the former. The result is that they work less well than they once did. They seem to be broken and need to be redesigned for a new era.
The redesign is happening in two ways: through repair, attempting to fix the existing institutions; and through replacement, creating new institutions to take the places of the old ones.
Repair has been the primary mode of change in the nonprofit sector — heavily regulated, provider-driven institutions like schools and colleges, where the institution determines what the consumer receives, what students must study in order to earn a diploma. In contrast, replacement is more likely to occur in for-profit and consumer driven institutions, in which the user chooses what products to consume and there is money to be made by entrepreneurs who successfully develop alternatives. The news media and bookstores are excellent examples — businesses in which the user determines what to read, hear and watch.
In media, repair efforts by the major newspapers and magazines were generally too little and too late. The rapid emergence of the internet and cable news spawned an array of popular alternatives or replacements — such as Yahoo!, CNN, and The Huffington Post, as well as many others that failed. Between 1990 and 2012, daily newspaper circulation dropped by more than 30 percent. Perhaps most telling: In 2011 The Huffington Post sold for $315 million. Two years later, The Washington Post was purchased for $250 million and The Boston Globe was acquired for $70 million. Adjusting for inflation, the sale price of the two traditional newspapers, combined, was still less than that of The Huffington Post.
In the book business, the independent neighborhood bookstore was largely replaced by megastores like Barnes and Noble and Borders. They were in turn replaced by the online bookstore Amazon.com, which offered major discounts on books and developed a new book format, the e-reader. Today Borders is out of business, Barnes and Noble is reeling, and Amazon has expanded its business to become a major retailer in many fields.
The measure of success in these two industries — news media and bookstores — has been profitability or potential profitability. However, the replacements also share several common characteristics. In comparison with the existing organizations, they are faster, cheaper and more easily accessible. They "have on their shelves" a much larger selection of content and titles, even highly specialized. Because they are digital, they are available any time, any place. They are more consumer-driven than their forebears, allowing users to customize content and, in many cases, to access it without any mediation from the provider. These are the features consumers chose over the existing models. They point to the qualities consumers are coming to expect and demand in all the institutions they deal with.
In this new, increasingly consumer-driven world, educational institutions — which, like government and healthcare, are historically not-for-profit, producer-driven, highly regulated, and repair-oriented — have been the most resistant to change and the slowest to act.
However, history teaches us that no major social institution can escape adaptation. When the United States made the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, the same process of repair and replace occurred. The nation became impatient with those institutions that refused to modernize.
Medical schools were an excellent example. Dissatisfaction with the quality of doctors and their preparation mounted until early in the 20th century when states and the American Medical Association responded by raising and modernizing standards. Poor medical schools were closed. Investments were made by philanthropy and states in enhancing strong schools and creating new ones.
This is what can be expected in education. Dissatisfaction and anger over the current state of affairs is growing. Confidence in the capacity of the existing schools to improve is declining. There is a generational divide on how to respond. Older adults, who remember when schools worked better than they do today, tend to favor continuing to repair them. They are more likely to believe that the institutions they grew up with can be restored. In contrast, younger adults, for whom the schools have always seemed broken, are more likely to embrace replacement.
Younger adults are the future — as consumers of schooling, leaders of schools and educational policy makers. If the schools prove unable to repair themselves, they are likely to be impatient and demand replacement. This suggests that the schools still have the opportunity to choose repair, but the clock is ticking.
There is another caveat here. Although the existing institutions have not changed as quickly as they need to, they also embody features that the nation cannot afford to lose but are unlikely to be embraced by replacements because they are unprofitable. Two examples would be basic research, which is far more expensive and risky than other forms of research, and low-volume, high-cost doctoral programs such as physics. The nation desperately needs these functions, and our future is dependent upon doing them well.
The process of making all these nuanced and necessary changes can be accelerated by applying the interventions that transformed mass media. Foundations and other philanthropists have the capacity to spawn replacements which are more accessible, effective, cheaper and capable of being customized. Venture capital can invest in potentially profitable versions of not-for-profits that generate revenue by cutting costs and growing their consumer base. States can eliminate regulations that bar quality innovation and protect schools from making needed changes.
Both kinds of change are already occurring in education today. The result is increased competition and growing pressure on existing institutions to transform themselves. In higher education, the most recent example has been the rise of MOOCs — massive open online courses, which may be no more than a fad, but are causing existing universities to rethink their digital futures and launching a number of online education businesses.
Still, piecemeal changes and a focus on the flavor du jour will not serve education well in the long run. The time is now to consider carefully how all our educational institutions need to change, what must be preserved and what must be updated, to choose what to repair and what to replace, and to invest our time, energy, resources, and social capital accordingly.
Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
Several states have explored the possibility of so-called “free community college” programs, which would cover the cost of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates who meet certain other eligibility criteria. Tennessee was the first state to pass such a plan, making first-time, full-time students who file the FAFSA and complete eight hours of community service each semester eligible for two years of tuition and fee waivers. Legislators in Mississippi, Oregon, and Texas have proposed similar plans, although none of those have been adopted at this time.
The most recent plan for free community college comes from the city of Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would cover up to three years of tuition and fees for eligible graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. In order to be eligible, students must have a 3.0 high school grade-point average, not require remediation in math or English, and file the FAFSA. (It appears that part-time students will be eligible for the program, unlike in the state proposals.) The district estimates that about 3,000 students would qualify for the program out of the roughly 20,000 students who graduate each year.
Looking more broadly, these “free college” programs will give very little additional money to students with the greatest financial need. In every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was lower than the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 in the 2013-14 academic year. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees. Eighty-five percent of Pell recipients at community colleges had sufficient grant aid to cover tuition and fees, meaning they would get no additional money from a “free college” program.
Tuition and Fees Not Covered by Grant Aid at Community Colleges, by Income
Source: 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study
Note: Sample includes dependent students attending community colleges.
Costs Are More Than Tuition and Fees
At community colleges, tuition and fees are a small portion of the total cost of attendance. Students also have to pay for books and other supplies, a place to live, and everyday expenses necessary to live while also being a student. While some argue that living costs shouldn’t be subsidized by financial aid because they are also necessary to live, being able to cover these costs is critical to being successful in college. The “free college” programs do not cover any of the other expenses, meaning that students must turn to loans or self-support in order to finance their education.
Only 2 percent of community college students receiving Pell Grants in the NPSAS have their full cost of attendance met by grant aid. Four in 10 Pell recipients have to cover less than $5,000 in costs, while an additional 37 percent have to cover between $5,000 and $10,000. The median student with a zero expected family contribution has to come up with just over $5,000 to cover estimated living costs — something that the Chicago program and other similar programs do nothing to alleviate.
Defining “College Ready”
Unlike some other last-dollar scholarship programs, Chicago’s program has a substantial merit component. The requirements of a 3.0 high school grade point average and testing into college-level math and English leave out the vast majority of community college students. Ninety-four percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates required remediation in math in 2009, suggesting that very few students are able to qualify for the city’s program. About 40 percent of community college students in the NPSAS had taken at least one remedial course, with slightly higher rates for Pell recipients. This means that other states or cities considering merit components are likely to reduce the potential pool of recipients — and reduce their costs.
Making grant receipt contingent on placement test scores could potentially have negative effects on students who end up in remediation. Research by Jennie Brand, Fabian Pfeffer, and Sara Goldrick-Rab using Chicago Public Schools data has found that attending community colleges results in a higher bachelor’s-degree completion rate for disadvantaged students, many of whom are unlikely to enroll in college without the option of a community college. Students who expect to get a scholarship under the Chicago program but are then deemed ineligible due to their test score may be more likely to drop out of college due to the disappointment of not getting the award. It is important to note this effect could even exist for students who would get no additional money under the Chicago program — as long as the perception is that the program is giving them money that is actually being provided by the Pell Grant.
How to Improve “Free College” Programs
“Free college” programs do have some positive attributes, in spite of the limitations noted above. Some students from middle-income families will get additional financial aid as a result of the program. But the concept of “free college” could even benefit Pell recipients who are unlikely to see any additional financial aid under the program. Research has shown that making students aware of their financial aid eligibility results in increased college attendance rates, and similar effects could result due to the programs' publicity. For those reasons, it is important that the Chicago and Tennessee programs be rigorously evaluated to see who benefits, and for what groups of students the program passes a cost-effectiveness test.
These programs should also provide some additional financial aid to students whose Pell Grants cover tuition and fees in order to cover living costs. Even a $500 award at the beginning of the semester would help low-income students manage upfront costs like books and rent payments, and could be paid for by slightly reducing awards for students who are not Pell-eligible. The program would still give larger benefits to financially squeezed middle-income families, but students with the greatest financial need would also see some additional money.
It is also important to consider extending the programs to returning adult students, who typically do not qualify for these programs. The median age of community college students is approximately 23, and a program that provides assistance to these students (most of whom have exceptional financial need) could prove to be very beneficial. Finally, it is important to publicize these programs (and their conditions) widely so students and their families know that community college can be an affordable, high-quality educational option.
Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) is an assistant professor in the department of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University and blogs at Kelchen on Education. All opinions are his own.
Bullying and intimidation on anonymous social media platforms have been a pervasive problem on college campuses for some time. Each academic school year seems to bring a new app or website to prominence as the mechanism of choice for posting hostile messages.
Discussion of Online Bullying
Kenyon's Sean Decatur and Inside Higher Ed blogger Eric Stoller will discuss how colleges should respond to Yik Yak on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free weekly news podcast, on Friday. To be notified of new editions of "This Week," sign up here.
This year, Yik Yak is the app du jour; racist, sexist, and homophobic comments posted on Yik Yak have led to student protests on some campuses, and attempts by administrators to block access to the site on others. But Yik Yak is not the problem; in fact, I am confident that the hype over this particular app will soon die down, and it will be replaced by some new, more exciting tool. The problem lies in a culture that accepts – indeed embraces – the act of broadcasting, behind a protective mask of anonymity, statements that most would find offensive.
Kenyon College, where I serve as president, has not been immune to this. Anonymous postings to social media have spurred vigorous debate on campus in prior years. This year, however, the posting of statements that attempted to find humor in sexual assault as the campus prepared for Take Back the Night Week provoked a particularly strong response. Part of the conversation on campus has focused on the specific content: the fact that rape and sexual violence are never laughing matters and the reality that these types of anonymous postings have a threatening and chilling impact on the campus community.
More broadly, this discussion has stirred renewed dialogue on the very nature of anonymous postings and disrespectful, uncivil dialogue on campus. Academic institutions must create spaces for dialogue and conflicting views – this is the very heart of the concept of academic freedom. At Kenyon we value (and indeed celebrate) both the right to express dissenting views and the responsibility to respectfully listen to those opinions. We may disagree and challenge with rigor, but always with respect.
But our embrace of academic freedom as a principle means that we must reject bullying and intimidation that squelch debate and dissent and inhibit learning. Personal attacks and provocative statements made behind the shield of anonymity are not protected by academic freedom; rather, these actions restrict and stifle it. Difference, dissent, and debate must occur in an open, respectful environment, and the type of targeting and bullying of individuals or groups that occurs in anonymous social media harms this environment.
In an effort to promote an open, respectful environment that enables difference, dissent, and debate, a group of students have started a project on Facebook (#Respectful Difference). The project uses social media to positively assert the values of civility and respect and the importance of dialogue to bridge different views. The concept is simple: Members of the Kenyon community (as individuals or groups) are photographed with simple statements about why they value respectful difference, post them to social media, and challenge peers and friends to do the same. By reclaiming social media as a space for civil discussion, and by rejecting anonymity, this project has been a way for Kenyon students, faculty, staff, and alumni to assert the central values of academic freedom.
Will this simple project change the culture that fuels anonymous online bullying? We’d be naïve to believe that this is sufficient to solve the problem. Hateful speech arises from systemic inequality, which must be addressed in order to achieve cultural change. The campaign has drawn some fair criticism on campus that a call for open dialogue is not enough, that root causes must be challenged as well. But this student-inspired campaign starts the process for an open dialogue that is a prerequisite for change and it sends a powerful message about the values of our community.