Increasingly, the price of an education is out of reach for many Americans.
By Stuart Butler
November 13, 2014

After centuries of little change, the basic “sage on a stage” business model of higher education is beginning to undergo a radical transformation. Buffeted by high tuition costs and loan debt, students and their parents are seeking better value for their money. Meanwhile, technological change spearheaded by online education is shaking up the economics of educational information and teaching. And new business models, such as competency-based degrees and various online and campus-based learning courses, are reducing costs and offering more customized degrees.

Thanks to these developments, the cost of acquiring the skills needed to be successful in the future economy is likely to fall sharply. That will be good for the economy. It will also open up opportunities for the many Americans who today cannot afford college to get the skills they need without incurring crushing debt. For this transformation to achieve its full potential, however, three things are needed.

First, would-be students must be able to obtain clear information about costs and quality so that they can locate the best value for their money. As Wellesley College economics professor Phillip Levine explains in his new Brookings study, that is no easy task. Much like the health care industry, higher education is woefully inadequate at providing accurate and usable information on the actual costs a student is likely to incur, given a student’s economic circumstances and other factors. So it is difficult to engage in comparison shopping. Levine notes that “net price calculators” developed by the federal government are difficult to use and often inaccurate for particular students. Fortunately, some colleges like Wellesley recognize the market value of good information and are developing more effective tools.

Second, we need comparison information that recognizes a “quality” education means different things to different people. Students place different values on different features of a college, from the availability of certain courses and professors, to the employability associated with certain majors, to the “college experience.” The weighting of such factors has a strong subjective element. That’s why national and international “scorecards” will always vary widely and be disputed, and why the federal government cannot develop a supposedly objective checklist of quality criteria. So it is important for students to have access to scorecards that reflect their own criteria for value in education. Fortunately customized information is becoming increasingly available from private sources. It’s not just US News & World Report anymore. Parents and high-schoolers concerned about the earning potential of particular degrees can consult the Forbes and Kiplinger ratings, for instance, while those seeking a broad education can now consult the What Will They Learn rankings of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The third essential step is to open up the cozy world of higher education to more competition from institutions with new business models. That is certainly happening, but competition is held back by the outdated accreditation system, which protects the traditional providers because federal aid is limited to use in institutions with traditional accreditation. Fortunately, the accreditation oligarchy is under pressure. Degrees based on competency rather than “seat time” are gaining traction, while low-cost degrees are reducing the need for loans. Meanwhile, there are a range of proposals to amend traditional accreditation, from legislation to permit states to develop their own accreditation systems that would retain eligibility for student loans to steps to open up the accreditation system to new kinds of institutions.

Innovation combined with information drives change. Administrators of the hallowed halls and ivy-clad towers of the world’s universities are now learning that lesson.

Stuart Butler is a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at The Brookings Institution.

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