Is Higher Education Sustainable?

Dec 17, 2012
  |  by Jennifer Cook

You’re probably familiar with the above question, or at least the debate that surrounds it and other questions that people have about our increasingly costly education system in the US. Since education is such a huge part of our federal and state budgets, this debate is going to remain high-profile for a long time.

What’s Driving Our Doubt in College?

Since 1985, college tuition and fees have seen exponential growth (faster than medical costs), even as government support for higher education has been slashed. This trend, plus the one where more people than ever are flocking to college campuses and online universities for advanced degrees, has led student loan debt to surpass consumer credit as America’s largest form of privately held debt. A lot of people smell a bubble.

The government funding angle definitely seems like lawmakers who benefited from cheap, subsidized tuition rates pulling the ladder up after them. Many of our state legislators came of age in the ‘80s and earlier, meaning they paid a lot less for college and many of them seem intent on gouging aid to higher ed at the same time they’re defending tax cuts for themselves. This leads me to my next point.

The Debate about Higher education is Really about Jobs

Higher education or advanced training of some type is practically required to enter the middle class these days, and demand for college degrees is high. The statistics are clear: With just a high school diploma, you earn way less over your lifetime. And if you don’t even have that, the economic numbers are even more dour. Higher education really does pay.

As it gets more and more expensive to educate our increasingly technical national workforce, we lose competitive ground compared to nations that make it comparably cheap to get a degree and join the middle class.

All of this pressure leads us to ask certain questions about our system. Can educational paradigms that have remained largely unchanged for centuries really deliver the kind of training that graduates need to compete in a global economy?

A Technological Revolution

Personally, I think modern technology is transforming the way higher education is delivered. The model of sprawling campuses that are quasi-research institutions is largely over; it’s just a slow death. Research is becoming primary at many of these schools, with learning taking a back seat, especially in the humanities.

The traditional lecture model of education has also long been criticized for its shortcomings, and people are not able to turn to online resources that help them learn much faster. (The only reason I survived Calculus was because of online videos and examples.)

I really do think we’ll soon hit a watershed moment, where the cost of education simply forces people to search for alternative routes to getting the skills they need. Traditional education institutions are already being forced to offer online courses (something Strayer University has always been on the cutting edge of), but if they can’t truly evolve to provide effective education and training without continually skyrocketing tuition costs, they’ll start to see a decline.

The Digital Learning Generation

The key part of this will be training a new generation of students to digest training and course material online. The technology is there; it exists. Frankly, they’re already doing it; the market just hasn’t responded fully to their demand for more flexible online learning assets.

Maybe, as the tech-savvy generation begins to more fully replace the generation of educators who are still resistant to the idea of truly online-centric universities, colleges—and even high schools and elementary education—the higher education industry in the US will see its true online learning renaissance happen.


Author bio: Jennifer Cook writes for Strayer University on topics ranging from educational technology to student life. When she isn’t envisioning a brave new world of online learning, she’s impatiently waiting for the next episode of Downtown Abbey to get here.

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