Thursday, January 21, 2010

Broadband internet can help curb rising college costs

By StraighterLine CEO Burck Smith - 01/18/10 11:53 AM ET

With the economy stuck in neutral, improving skills and increasing educational attainment remain keys to our economic recovery and long-term national health. But with tuition rising faster than inflation, getting a college degree or securing the skills needed for a 21st century job is as hard as it’s ever been.

We need to contain the cost of education by utilizing new tools to allow people to get the training they need to get a job. The good news is that we have the technology and tools to do this. The bad news is that the policies and infrastructure necessary to drive cost savings to students, like ubiquitous access to high-speed Internet access, are not in place.

Distance education is, by far, the fastest growing portion of higher education. It’s cheaper to deliver a course online than face-to-face. Students who participate using broadband place much less of a strain on an institution’s resources like light, heat, and parking lots. In addition, distance education courses typically do not have pre-scheduled lectures with required attendance. Instead, students rely on videos and other multimedia presentations. With content delivery available at the student’s discretion, students are freer to move through a course at their own pace, rather than a fixed course schedule.

By reducing costs and allowing self-paced courses, distance education enables new pricing models that can dramatically reduce the cost to the student and taxpayer. For instance, what if courses were priced by the month rather than by the course? Students who complete the course rapidly save money as do those who realize quickly that they are not ready for that particular course. For high-failure rate courses, such as remedial education, this approach can dramatically lower the debt burden for struggling students and reduce the cost to taxpayers financing state schools. In making learning less costly and less risky, the door of opportunity swings more widely open for more people.

Though such innovation and savings are possible, they are hampered by an outdated state and federal regulatory structure and, for some, lack of access to a high-speed data connection. For instance, colleges are reluctant to offer subscription pricing because it doesn’t fit how federal student financial aid and state financing are delivered. Also, colleges are reluctant to reduce the price of distance education courses because that would reduce the revenue that they use to subsidize other parts of the college, often non-academic elements. Lastly, students taking courses from course providers that do offer innovative pricing models -- such as StraighterLine, the company that I founded and run – sometimes encounter difficulties when trying to transfer equivalent credit from one college to another.

As I wrote in “Public Policy Barriers to Post-Secondary Cost Control,” a forthcoming chapter of a book sponsored by the Gates Foundation and published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), “the only way to educate more students without breaking the bank will be to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and accountability of higher education. This requires us to re-think the regulatory structure of higher education to create conditions more favorable for academic and price innovation.”

As such, we need to implement reforms that will give students more meaningful choices about where and how they take their college courses. For instance, with low-priced distance education courses, students may take dramatically more of these courses – thereby saving themselves and taxpayers billions of dollars. StraighterLine offers courses in a subscription format at prices below that of community colleges without any of the 50-70% state and federal subsidies that colleges enjoy. These courses have been reviewed and approved for college credit by a variety of accredited colleges and regulatory bodies.

With policy changes and a commitment to expanding broadband access to everyone, students and taxpayers can solve the annual complaint of ever-rising college prices and the crippling burden of student debt. Not only will this save money, but it will dramatically increase the use of distance education and quicken the pace of higher education innovation. The only way we, as a nation, are going to provide 21st century skills at a price we can afford is to create a technical and regulatory environment that allows us to innovate in ways that higher education hasn’t done in centuries.


No comments: