(Courtesy of The New York Times)
Governor Perry’s challenge to Texas education officials to develop a $10,000 bachelor’s degree was prompted by an earlier prediction by Bill Gates that the cost of a degree could plummet, perhaps to $2,000, due to revolutions in technology.
The digital revolution can bring texts and interactive resources into the hands of students at a fraction of the costs of traditional textbooks, while communications technology makes it possible to stream and receive lectures from anywhere in the world, and for students to interact with teachers at a distance in real time. Both Gates and Perry are counting on the information revolution to do for higher education what it has done to other sectors of the economy – removing the barriers of space and time in the delivery of content.
What this analysis fails to recognize is that education is about more than content delivery. There are essential components of an undergraduate experience that cannot be replaced by an iTunes store. Hands-on experiences in laboratories and studios – precisely the skills required by jobs in technology or allied-health fields, for example – require physical facilities, supplies, and supervision, all with real costs that can be reduced only so much.
Moreover, there is real value that comes from direct engagement with a teacher and classmates in an actual (not virtual) classroom. Numerous studies (including the recent “Academically Adrift”) identify rigor in coursework (especially reading and writing assignments) combined with some personalized attention by a faculty member and a challenging learning environment as essential components to student success in the classroom. This is not readily replaced by automated distance learning at the high student-faculty ratios required to drive costs down to the $10,000 level.
The value of a college degree depends not only on the cost or investment, but also two key questions: Does the degree empower students to achieve their own personal objectives (both short and long term)? What is the quality of the learning experience?
All of us in higher education (even those of us in private, highly selective institutions) need to take rising costs seriously and embrace approaches that will reduce or contain them. But rigorous academic preparation of students and quality of student learning must be part of the equation. A low-cost degree, that fails to meet either of these two criteria, is a poor value.