How To Make College Affordable

By Danika McClure

College affordability has been a trending topic in higher education circles for years, as tuition prices have skyrocketed in in the last decade. Many thought leaders in academia have come to the harsh conclusion  that the current higher educational system is unsustainable.

Although elite American universities consistently hold high rankings when compared to world universities, many have concluded that they hold prestige because of how highly selective they are, rather than the economic value of earning a degree. A high quality education that is actually worth the hefty pricetag are is largely unavailable for many students.  .

In his book, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities, Richard DeMillo argues that the redemption of the higher education rests in revolutionaries who are willing to “rewrite a new social contract,” which would ensure that an institution’s quality would be judged by its ability to serve its intended population, not by how many people are excluded from its doors.

DeMillo’s latest book, aptly titled Revolution in Higher Education, offers a solution to the college exclusivity problem, contending that the cure to collegiate access and affordability might be a digital one.

We’ve seen the potential that digital innovation in education could have already, as the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) illustrates. At Stanford  University, computer science professors Daphne Koller and Jennifer Widdom offered their courses to an open learning website which attracted 150,000 students. That same year another Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun offered a free version of his artificial intelligence course, which yielded the same number of interested students.

Through MOOC technology, hundreds of thousands of students were able to learn from and access high level courses from the brightest minds in their field of study. And the widespread interest in MOOCs that occurred in early 2012 and continues today has sparked an abundance of innovation in educational technology and pedagogy that has carried over to colleges and universities across the country.

DeMillo notes, however, that while open course software has the potential to change the way our higher education system operates, enacting this change at the systemic level is no easy task. He does, however, note a few innovators which have successfully changed the way their institutions operate for the better.

One such innovator  is Arizona State University President Michael Crow,  who since his appointment in 2002, has championed widespread university changes in order to expand access to students without decreasing the quality of instruction. In doing so, Crow created what is now referred to as “the new gold standard” for American Universities, using technology to erase circumstances which would normally prevent a student from attending or graduating college.

Under Crow’s guidance, ASU launched its online degree programs, which has grown by over 42 percent since 2013, and minority enrollment has increased by 62 percent–making ASU the largest public university in the world.

In years since, ASU has continued to innovate and advance its online pedagogy to better fit the needs of its students. Recently, an environmental studies course introduced gamification as a tool to complement other parts of the online learning experience, allowing students to immerse themselves in the material. Just last year the school implemented the Global Freshman Academy, which allows students to explore, learn, and complete courses before applying to ASU or paying for the credit. And recent partnerships with Starbucks promise a free tuition to students who work at the company and attend online classes at ASU.  

Other schools have opened admittance to prestigious programs online in an effort to expand access as well, many of which reduced cost to the student.

Georgia Tech president George Peterson opted to use make the university’s prestigious computer science master’s degree available at a fraction of the on-campus price. Pennsylvania State and Columbia now offer online courses on a variety of subjects. Even Harvard, rumored to be a “digital resister” has a digital arm, in the form of HarvardX.

In an interview with Economist, Clayton Christensen, a Harvard professor who coined the term “disruptive innovation”, expresses a belief that American universities are too “too firmly wedded to their old costly ways to embrace the digital revolution.” But for DeMillo argues otherwise, stating “Show me the industry that has withstood the advance of technology.”  As universities look to the future, access, affordability, and quality are factors that might determine which school’s lecture halls stay open.

Danika McClure is a writer and musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl


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