Friday, October 7, 2011

Who moves first on cost, access, and quality in higher education?

It is widely agreed that in coming years higher education needs to reduce costs, increase access, and improve the quality of learning. Setting aside the enormous matter of how to do all of these things, I am wondering today who will move ahead on them.

In a few instances, individual institutions have taken steps on one of the pieces of the cost/access/quality knot.  MIT and Yale have made course content freely available online, though doing so has not increased access to MIT and Yale degrees or reduced the cost to degree seekers.  A few schools have, in the past decade, frozen or cut tuition, but often for a single year, and to no spillover effect on other campuses.  (The recent Seton Hall decision to cut tuition for top scholars seems to be little more than a naked play for a handful of better students, thus continuing the American tradition of making education affordable to those who can best afford it.)

Even if an institution was to successfully move on all three pieces of the problem, it isn't clear that its success would extend broadly enough to actually make a difference for more than its own students.  So where are the networks of schools who could make headway on the problem?

First, a word about where they aren't.  I don't imagine state systems successfully cutting costs to students while simultaneously increasing access and improving learning.  State systems face more and more budget cuts, making tuition increases, not cuts, the rule of the day.  And even if they were to get up steam on cost cuts, state systems are too diverse to move together.  It is hard to imagine how, for example, how Snow College and the University of Utah could make common cause on this matter. Nor is it likely that the big higher education associations are going to lead.  Their memberships are too large and their purposes too much to defend the status quo to really shake things up.

Who can move first then?  My money is on regional or affinity networks of colleges and universities, and the organizations that support them.  Ambitious leaders of accrediting agencies can make headway on the quality of learning, since they are obliged to certify it.  Associations like the Appalachian College Association are in a position to unite regional political and educational leaders around the dual challenges of cost and access.  And collections of like-minded schools like the New American Colleges and Universities (since they are dispersed across the US and rarely compete directly for students), ought to pioneer and test new approaches to cost, quality, and access.

If I'm right, then the emergence of effective smaller organizations of colleges and universities will be a sign that American higher education is getting its bearings, and is capable of responding to the big issues before it.  Keep your eyes open.

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