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Unfounded Fears: Making Higher Education More Affordable

Universities are beginning to see value in widening the accessibility of higher education through open and free options, but as with all disruption, the changes are accompanied by fears. Photo by Mostafa Fawzy.

There is a lot of anxiety right now in higher education. There is uncertainty around key financial drivers for higher education. The value of many degrees is being subjected to scrutiny. Access to student loans is undergoing significant changes. Budgets are being trimmed. Students are protesting fee increases. And there is a perceived threat from open content to the ability to charge tuition.

Given all of this, who wouldn’t be nervous? But if we start to pick apart the actual level of disruption—OpenCourseWare and MOOCs notwithstanding—we don’t yet see very much change in the way that courses are delivered and certainly not in the decisions by prospective students whether or not to attend college. We treat the issue of content as a new one, but had you asked a New York City student in the 1930s why he or she bothered to attend college when the New York Public Library contained all of the available great books of the day, what would have been the reply? Probably the student would say something about the opportunity to rub shoulders with professors and students or perhaps about the educational requirements for entering a profession.

So if we really try to understand what’s happening, we should look more at the issue of “free” rather than “open.” Public universities across the globe typically charged no or little tuition. But they were still elite institutions, growing up at a time in which tiny percentages of national populations had access to higher education. Today, with institutions of mass education becoming the norm, the elite institutions have all raised tuition faster than the inflation rate and sometimes much faster. This matters because it turns out that access to quality higher education is controlled by cost for many families.

Fortunately, I see a lot of hope on the horizon and not just from the OpenCourseWare movement, which provides course materials freely and openly. There are initiatives being taken by universities such as the University of Washington to use open courses as the mechanism for providing access to its degree programs to students at a lower cost and knowledge equivalent to those degrees at no cost. Here at the University of California, Irvine, we see the Open Chemistry initiative. While not offering a degree path, it effectively allows anyone in the world to sit in the lecture halls and watch all of the core undergraduate courses offered by the Chemistry Department.

If I had to point to the biggest unfounded fear about Open Educational Resources and OpenCourseWare, it would be that what universities offer is still scarce: access to high quality academics. UNESCO correctly pointed out this problem is not getting better, despite advances through technology in the scaling of educational opportunities, it is getting worse. To truly make quality higher education available to the entire world, we need not only the content produced by highly qualified professors, but we need to produce more of them.

Larry Cooperman will be speaking on this topic at the Sloan Consortium’s International Conference on Online Learning on October 11, 2012. For more information on his talk, please click here.

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