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Spotlight on the Affordability Crisis -What to Do About It? Blog I of II

American higher education faces a monumental affordability crisis that has been building for some time. It has been fueled by five intertwined factors:

  • tuition growth that has exceeded increases in the CPI by a considerable margin, in part because state and federal governments have offloaded the costs of higher education on to students and their families and in part because operating costs have increased exponentially;

  • the cumulative, 40-year-long decline in the economic fortunes of working- and middle-class families, diminishing the capacity of learners and families to invest in learning;

  • the rise of easy access, non-forgivable student loans on terms much too favorable to lenders,

  • the entry (and quick exit) of for-profit learning providers who have taken advantage of disadvantaged learners and their families, and

  • the failure of higher education leadership to take affordability seriously and the steps necessary to fix it.

In the sections that follow, we discuss the disruptive conditions that have spotlighted this crisis and demonstrated the need for decisive, corrective actions in financial aid, educational programs, and accountability.

Learning From Workers During the Pandemic

Covid brought into sharp relief the plight of working students, struggling to juggle work and learning responsibilities and to support themselves and their families. Community college enrollments declined significantly during this period, highlighting the particular fragility of this huge group of learners and their connection to learning and work.

During Covid many Americans began to appreciate more fully the sacrifices of front-line workers in health, retail, distribution, hospitality, and other services. We came to understand their critical contributions to society and the economy that are often taken for granted. A recent article by Noam Scheiber in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Revolt of the College-Educated Working Class (April 28, 2022),” reported that since the Great Recession, many college graduates have had to settle for jobs with front-line employers like Amazon and Starbucks. Now these workers are leading unionization efforts to increase compensation and benefits in order to regain economic lost ground.

In addition, workers in a wide range of sectors, sensing that they have greater leverage because of the shortage of labor, are voting with their feet in a phenomenon called “The Great Resignation.” Price Waterhouse Coopers estimates that one in five workers expects to change jobs over the next year due to dissatisfaction with their jobs, earnings, and the lifestyle associated with their current positions.

Student Debt Hangover - and the Debate on What to Do About It

The nearly 2 trillion dollars in student loan debt has been in the news recently as the Biden Administration has debated various forgiveness options. A series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education captures the spirit of the debate. Tressie McMillan Cottom posits “America Turned the Greatest Vehicle of Social Mobility Into a Debt Machine” (May 21, 2022). Charlie Eaton, Amber Villalobos, and Frederick Wherry contend “The Government Gave Out Bad Loans. Students Deserve a Bailout.” (May 17, 2022). Even conservatives decry the average of $30,000 in debt for new graduates, but most blame a combination of bad personal choices and feckless government administration of the programs. Needless to say, the nature of possible loan forgiveness and changes in the future structure of financial aid is a subject of boisterous debate and disagreement in Congress and the Executive Branch.

Today’s learners are painfully aware of the student debt hangover. Since the Great Recession, learners have been increasingly factoring affordability and employability into their learning pathway planning. This has been reflected in increasing participation in early college high school programs, bridge programs, beginning at community colleges and transferring to four-year institutions, more careful selection of majors with shortened pathways to employment, and other strategies. In recent years, many graduates have passed up opportunities to pursue expensive masters degrees and postgraduate certificates that do not produce assured marketplace opportunities. Microcredentials, certificates, badges, and boot camp experiences are growing in visibility and popularity – many traditional institutions are experimenting with them. Online providers with good track records have gained market share over for-profit institutions with poor performance and mediocre outcomes.

Reducing the Student Debt Hangover will require changes in the nature of financial aid, leadership commitment to dramatically increasing choices that enhance productivity and affordability, and creativity in the programs and experiences offered by learning providers and linked to demonstrable competences and skills. But the greatest contribution to increasing affordability will come from responding effectively to the emerging transformation of the global Knowledge, Work, and Learning Ecosystem that is reshaping the ways all of us work, learn, and live.

Coming Changes in the Knowledge, Work, and Learning Ecosystem

Many authors and visionaries have described aspects of this ecosystem. In the Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Future (2022), Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt predict the dominance of degrees and “just in case” education will diminish, while “non-degree certifications and “just-in-time” education will increase in status and value. They also predict a knowledge economy focused on the achievement of measurable outcomes and the entry of many new competitors. In The 60-Year Curriculum: New models for lifelong learning in the digital economy (2020) Chris Dede and John Richards describe the need to fuse work and learning over careers spanning 60 years or more – and how higher education must adapt to meet this challenge.

In Transforming for Turbulent Times Tim Gilmour, Linda Baer and I bring these ideas together and map the changes in what we called the emerging Knowledge, Work and Learning Ecosystem that will emerge by 2030. While many 18-22 year-old learners will pursue a transformed, much improved K-12 learning experience, they will follow it with an intense baccalaureate experience or micro-credentials and training experiences on shortened pathways to employment. From that point forward, for periods spanning 60 years or more, individuals will be fusing work and learning in a rich portfolio of choices offered by a mixture of learning providers and certifiers, employers, workforce knowledge facilitators, and other learning enterprises.

Much of this learning will be free and team-based unless the learner needs certification. Advanced degrees and certification will remain, but they will be reshaped. Some will be pricey, but only if they have strong links to marketplace success. Much of the perpetual learning in professional practice fields will focus on embedded augmented intelligence that will transform personal productivity. The net impact will be greater productivity, affordability, and a much stronger orientation to results, spread over 60 year spans. These changes will create growth opportunities for learning providers shrewd enough to realize that they are not playing a zero sum game.

The Next Blog – Achieving Affordability and Results in the 2030 Ecosystem

This blog spotlights the dimensions of the affordability crisis and the need to achieve serious improvement and relief by 2030. Our next blog will recommend a set of actions that could improve affordability in the 2030 Ecosystem by:

  • Making affordability and student success the top priorities for institutional leadership;

  • Transforming institutions to increase their capacity to serve as providers, curators, and concierges of learning, partnering with workforce knowledge facilitators, to rapidly and affordably meet the needs of learners over 60-year work/learning careers;

  • Deploying proven best practices in work/competence mapping and personal productivity and extending systems of artificial intelligence-enabled marketplace information and accountability. We will draw from in-depth case studies of Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Austin Community College;

  • Encouraging employers to accept certifications of competence from non-traditional sources; and

  • Reforming federal and state student financial aid practices and lender offerings to greatly reduce the burdens of financial aid. This will include variations on income-based repayment programs (Australia, Canada, Germany) and innovative pricing approaches suggested by institutions like Western Governors University.


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