The Cure To The College Cost Disease

May 12, 2020 | Learning Design

(This is a special post contributed by Vance Fried, President of TEL Foundation and Emeritus Professor of Entrepreneurship and Director of the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at Oklahoma State University. A version of this post originally appeared on the Cato Institute blog.)

I’ve worked in higher education since 1987 when I started as an Assistant Professor of Management at Oklahoma State University, with a focus on strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship. My experience with distance education started well before I became a professor. More than half a century ago, I completed my entire sophomore year of high school from the University of Nebraska while living in Oshogbo, Nigeria. Educationally it worked great. The only problem was the communication time delay caused by the Nigerian mail system. It took longer for the mail to travel the 121 miles between Lagos and Oshogbo, than the 6,448 miles between Lagos and Lincoln.    

As a result of my positive distance-learning experience, I’ve regularly volunteered to teach distance courses using the communication method of the time—from mail correspondence to compressed video to synchronous online instruction. Over the last several years, half of the courses I taught were done online through recorded video, discussion boards, and a major written project. The other half of the courses were blended with an in-person element supplemented with online instruction.

Over time, I became convinced college costs could be dramatically cut while improving quality by moving to online and blended delivery. Three years ago I took emeritus status at Oklahoma State and started TEL-Education, a non-profit educational publishing and technology organization. Our goal is to make affordable, high-quality education available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. We develop courses for colleges and high schools to use in providing general education and dual credit courses. 

In the past three years, I’ve grown even more confident that we can create a more affordable experience for students because of the success of our students and the schools we work with. Here are a few things we’ve observed:  

Online courses can be high-quality if they are highly engineered This means the content should be designed to maximize learning, and every part of a course maps directly to a learning objective. That includes every quiz question and every piece of instruction. Nothing is extraneous and everything helps the learner succeed. That includes the platform behind the course. The learning system should reinforce learning and its processes and technology must be easy for students to navigate. 

Self-paced, online courses can be delivered at an extremely low cost. Our Courses on Demand program lets anyone 13 or older enroll at any time on an a la carte basis in college general education courses. The cost for a full year of college is $1,320 all-inclusive. Credits come from regionally accredited partner colleges and can be used towards a degree at that college or transferred to other regionally accredited colleges. Greenville University is our initial college partner for this program, with others joining soon.

Dual enrollment works well in any setting. Every school should be able to offer dual enrollment, no matter if they have a college nearby or not.  Self-paced online programs can serve high school students anywhere. For example, we work with the traditional public high school in Pawhuska, OK. With 50 graduates a year, Pawhuska is a small, rural school with a diverse student body (It’s the Pawhuska of the Killers of the Flower Moon book and upcoming movie). They offer all our courses (currently 16) to their students in both semesters. They can do this because the high school does not have to provide instruction for these courses. Rather, they provide their students with the support system most high school students, particularly the economically disadvantaged, need. Their role is to provide a mix of encouragement and accountability to every student while TEL provides the information, instruction, and distribution.

Online early college high school can be free to the student. For example, we work with EPIC, a virtual charter school in Oklahoma. With a K-12 enrollment of 30,000, it is the third-largest public school system in the state. EPIC provides early college high school to students all over the state. Through a combination of state funding and reallocating other instruction-related funds, EPIC is able to cover the full cost of these courses so their students and families do not pay anything extra.

There is a cure to the college cost disease. The YC Academy is a striking example. We’ve worked with York College to develop this program, which will open this fall. It will give any high school student in the United States the opportunity to earn an associate degree online while in high school. The whole program is run off tuition, without any government or philanthropic subsidy. Total tuition, inclusive of all costs, is $4,000, for the degree. Students leave high school and can immediately pursue a career with that associate’s degree or enroll in a bachelor’s program at another school and transfer the credit, making a four-year degree much more affordable.

The Post-Crisis Future.  While relatively short-term in nature, the current COVID disruption in education highlights huge future trends. The first part of college will be pushed down into high school, so students will be buying fewer years of “college experience.” Also, students will become more demanding buyers of online education, both in terms of quality and cost. Colleges must adjust their services and pricing accordingly.

Through my experience in online education, as a student, professor, and in designing entire programs, I am convinced that students will have more choices and more autonomy when it comes to their college education, starting in high school. As the tools become more widespread and the quality outpaces traditional learning, we will be able to cure the disease of unaffordable higher education.

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