mPulse

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Thinking About the Effects and Reform of Higher (Cost) Education

In Massachusetts, the latest user-generated crisis has centered around the evaporation of low-cost student loans due to the credit crunch. Families are scrambling to find ways to pay for their children's university and college education, surprised by this sudden disappearance of what had been seen as a very deep well.

I am not here to comment on the causes of the credit crunch. My thoughts turn, instead, to the revenue foundations that the US higher education system built on. The primary question is: Have institutions priced themselves out of relevance?

Other thoughts also come to mind. Is it time to move away from teaching certain skills/fields in universities and colleges, and consider moving to specialized apprenticeships. This idea is one that conjures up images of the guild system, and it is not a dissimilar idea. Certain areas would benefit from a system led by leaders and experts in the field, teaching real-world practices and implementations, rather than theoretical concepts.

In today's society, the cost of higher education makes people indentured serfs, chained to a bank loan that they thought would afford them the opportunity to get ahead, to make a difference. If we are going to make people indentured serfs (harsh imagery, but how long have you been paying off your student loans?), then why not put them through an apprenticeship, where they can work their way through their education while learning the skill they have entered into.

Work-study and co-op programs have made a stab at that. But I am thinking of learning and working simultaneously. Developing skills, and paying your way in the same place.

Before you classify me as some Luddite or elitist, you have to understand my perspective. I have a liberal Arts degree (History) and found my place in the business world by learning my primary skills on the job. I have played both sides of the fence, and I would say that many others have as well.

And where a theoretical foundation is good in some fields, it needs to be heavily supplemented by real-world practice.

To circle back to the idea of cost, how much of what we require of people in a higher education is directed at the skills that they are most interested in learning? Does a university or college provide the skills needed to support our economy? How do we most effectively and economically ensure that we have an educated and knowledgeable workforce?

These are not for reasons of nationalism or core political beliefs. Every reader here should know I am a Canadian by now. The idea of rationalizing higher education to deliver what people want/need in a way that is effective, efficient, and economic without compromising the fundamental need for a free and open society to have centers of higher learning that foster debate and new idea is one that should be part of the debate in the current election cycle.

How do you deliver an education system that is open to all, and serves the needs of all, without bankrupting the people in the process is one that needs to be addressed.

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