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Monday, December 20, 2010

What combination of services might provide a far less expensive college education?

The Khan Academy might be at the center of the new college experience. It is a free online not-for-profit organization with a mission of providing a world-class education to anyone, anywhere.

At Khan one can study subjects from Calculus, Chemistry, Economics, Finance, Physics, Probability, Statistics, & Biology. They even have some History classes. But alas they currently offer nothing in Ethnomusicology, Sociology, Physical Education, Recreation Management or Gender Studies. And all of their programs are free.

So why are some college students spending $50,000 a year to study some of these same subjects? Well first the “college experience” is given much credence. And second, it is not the learning that is valued by our society nearly as much as the eventual “degree”. And third, students are greatly subsidized (by parents and government) and usually don’t have to start paying off their college loans for several years so they tend to be indifferent to cost comparisons while at college.

If cost-effective learning is the goal, then between online education, and some complimentary for-profit services including private live laboratories, the “education” component could be achieved at a much lower cost.

Look at the Advanced Placement classes and exams that high school students are taking at an ever increasing rate. These high school students get college credit for demonstrating the mastery of a subject and at a cost that is much less than college. And the mastery of the subject is confirmed via a standardized exam.

But a class in Advanced Engineering Mathematics at one college may not be equivalent to the learning achieved at another institution. We can easily compare the cost; we just can’t compare the learning achieved for the money spent.

The broadly accepted notion that everyone needs to “attend” college, and that college is a great investment no matter the cost or the field of study are finally getting challenged. And with all the subsidies given to those attending college (both the hidden and obvious that currently add up to at least $10,000 per student per year) has allowed the cost to go through the roof.

We rely on the traditional lecture where we pay an expensive professor (or his less expensive graduate assistant) to instruct a class in the method that has been used (with very little adaption) in universities for centuries. We have also combined minor league football, resort living (beautiful campuses, great recreation facilities, comfortable dorms and excellent food), “research” and some very expensive education together into today’s college. But what we haven’t emphasized is preparation of our youth that makes graduates and therefore America more competitive in the world economy.

In addition to the Khan Academy, Google labs, Google books, YouTube, Wikipedia and the internet in general make an infinite amount of information, views, writings, speeches, lesson plans, tests and teachings online and usually for free. I am not suggesting that a student does not need some occasional tutoring and coaching. But is that better achieved in a meeting in the professor’s office or online or via a Skype conference? And if the test results are the measure of success, then it is more straight forward to determine who is getting the education job done and who is failing.

Let’s say instead that one managed one’s own degree in Mechanical Engineering that complemented an unpaid (25 hour per week) apprenticeship program. You work on real world problems at the apprenticeship, while studying online materials, and seeing online lectures with some down-to-earth laboratory work. You pay a coach for occasional career and academic, industry contacts and learn what subjects are in demand in the real world from this adviser. And perhaps there develops a whole online tutoring business where the student can get online assistance on technical subjects at a reasonable rate. And finally numerous chat rooms emerge where similarly situated students discuss Solving Linear Equations or understanding Photosynthesis and learn the material in greater depth by virtue of teaching each other the material.

All told the elements of this new college education might consist of the student hiring an advisor for $1,000, paying $5,000 for lab time ($50 an hour times 100 hours), $2,500 for lab exams (5 exams times $500 per exam), $5,000 for online tutoring ($50 an hour times 100 hours) and $1000 for ten standardized final exams at $100 each. For a total of $14,500 for a Mechanical Engineering certificate. I use the term “certificate” because I also question the concept of a four year “degree” - seems like an arbitrary length and appears extended to meet some unknown goal.

Perhaps over four years a student earns certificates in Chemical Engineering, Physics and Accounting and future employers know by virtue of his standardized test scores how well he knows the material.

Now many in the college establishment won’t like this proposal. They will point to the importance of the contacts made at college (as if this is the only way to meet others in your field) and the broad learning (in other words liberal indoctrination) that is achieved on campus. They will point to the importance of the research on America’s college and the fall off in education that will result if we leave education to the greedy private sector. But they will not say a thing about cost. Because the existing college establishment is infinitely more expensive than a lesson learned online at the Khan Academy.

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