A recent study from The National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that engineering student’s earning potential warrants them paying more for their college tuition than liberal arts majors. I know we need to find a better way to even the educational opportunity playing field, but raising tuition for engineering students and continuing to perpetuate myths around learning and earning intensifies rather than solves our nation’s problems.
Let’s examine the myths and realities.
Myth 1) The premise that tuition costs should be commensurate with earning potential. Studies show that college is already out of reach for most Americans. Given our nation’s acute shortage of engineers, mathematicians and scientists, raising the price of an engineering degree is counter-intuitive since it would shrink what is already a sparse qualified work force.
This premise not only limits college access to those with the resources, it also assumes that a college education is simply a means to a better paycheck. Speaking as a successful and happy graduate from a liberal arts college myself, I know firsthand that college provides much more than technical knowledge or skills. College helps students learn independence; collaborative, critical thinking, analytical and research skills; provides a forum for self-expression, and an opportunity to make lifelong friends. In short, the value of a college degree and experience to the individual and society is not a simple one to one measure.
Myth 2) Colleges shouldn’t be run as businesses. If the United States wants to remain competitive, we need educational institutions that can attract and maintain top talent. That means we must face the fact that education is a business. So what can our nation do to give engineering and the humanities equal standing, insure an affordable education for all, and yet keep colleges in business?
I propose that instead of increasing tuition for engineering students we lower it. While it’s tough to imagine, I believe it can be accomplished if we charge less for these subjects and serve more students.
Let’s tackle the economics of the situation head on — and not based on theory, but on experience. When my company, lynda.com, opened in 1997, it was a physical school that taught web design. We charged $1,500 per person for a week of instruction. In those days, the world economy was robust and people came from every continent to study with us, enabling our business to grow and thrive. It was a heady time–until 2001, when the dotcom bubble burst and people and companies lost their budgets.
Rather than increasing prices, or limiting our audience so we could stay in business, we went out on a limb and put our lessons online in video format for $25 per month. The model thrived and eventually proved more successful than our physical classroom instruction. Most importantly, students lauded the model for its ability to impart knowledge. The lynda.com model proved that a quality educational institution can be run like a business.
Myth 3) Colleges cannot provide a quality learning experience by combining in-person education and online videos. In fact, colleges can combine online learning with face to face instruction to achieve both a compelling business and educational model. I believe the approach can work like this: lectures and materials from teachers who are experts and thought leaders can be memorialized and shared via videos and other rich media. Teachers can be paid royalties for their materials, giving them incentive to engage a large audience, much as the publishing world does. In-class time could supplement online time, and be dedicated to projects, collaborations, discussions, reviews, and presentations–all activities that are better experienced in person.
Not only are the economics of this model right, but the timing is propitious: recent studies show that millennials are twice as likely to have taken an online course as other age groups, and 9 out of 10 believe online courses should be used in conjunction with other learning methods.
Myth 4) Online learning delivers second rate teachers. If recorded lectures and online materials are used as the basis for in-person discussions, collaborations and projects, students could get more personal attention than ever before from instructors and peers. And, we can create a system of higher education where students could have access to the world’s top lectures created by the best teachers on each topic — regardless of age, grades, or socio-economic standing.
At a time in history when technology can radically democratize information and education, and we are suffering the financial pain of an under-educated workforce, we should not abide by restrictive myths or make higher education more rarified and exclusive. While we need to cut costs, accepting myths as truths and expecting students to absorb the financial burden is not just unsustainable, it’s harmful to our entire workforce and economy.