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Hendricks: Alternative Forms of Higher Education

by Shelbi Hendricks

Read about higher education in the news today and it is almost guaranteed that the word “crisis “ will be utilized.  Tuition is too high, access is too low, the admissions process is in shambles and a college education just might not be worth it. After emerging on the other side of the problems facing higher education, the interesting pieces begin to emerge: the solutions. Suggestions include transitioning learning online, getting rid of tuition at highly selective institutions and getting rid of the SAT and ACT, among others. What if, however, higher education simply transformed itself and became a more highly evolved institution with very little resemblance to what we have today? What if instead of tweaking the current system, alternative options emerged making traditional institutions of higher education more like Blockbuster Video Stores, completely useless in the age of Netflix? This, according to some, just might be the solution.

According to these critics, the new college should look radically different, with lower costs, less structure and more teaching of transferable “real-world” skills. Examples include a proposed alternative made by Salman Kahn in his book, the Thiel Fellowship set up by the founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, a new university program called the Minerva Schools at KGI, and the French coding school, “42.” These forms of alternative education are supposed to be different than college in a way that benefits the students, such as cost, quality, and diversity. At its core, however, this alternative higher education fails to solve two of the bigger concerns surrounding traditional higher education as they fall short in terms of affordability or access and, in some cases, both. Therefore, these alternate forms of higher education are really no better than what exists currently.

Let’s first look at affordability. Minerva boasts its $10,000 tuition as a beacon for affordability; however, a closer look uncovers additional costs that bring the price of attending the Minerva school closer to $30,000. All of a sudden, Minerva has entered a level of cost similar to some traditional universities, with even more cost increasing caveats such as international travel and the high cost of living in cities such as San Francisco, London, and New York. Therefore, Minerva realistically is not quite the affordable option it appears to be.

Minerva is not the only alternative form of higher education falling short in terms of affordability. Salman Kahn’s vision, although not yet a reality, details a business model that promotes cost, not cost-savings. Kahn’s model involves night seminars, internships, close living quarters, and the services of traditional professors alongside “real-world” professionals as both teachers and mentors. The model sounds great, and the possibility for quality sounds impressive. The catch is that in order to have close student-professor/professional mentorships, small student-professor/professional ratios are required. Just like small class sizes at a traditional university, that involves increasing costs, not reducing them. Further, finding mentors willing to given up their evenings, especially professionals who work during the day, will likely require a great monetary sacrifice on the part of the institution, further increasing the cost. Therefore, the business model of a would-be higher education institution based on Kahn’s vision would likely fail in terms of affordability, once again placing it in a sphere with current institutions of higher education.

Cost aside, alternative institutions of higher education face a critical problem that derails the goal of replacing the traditional college and university. This is the problem of access. Traditional institutions of higher education face access challenges in terms of diversity, as popular opinion believes that everyone should have access to higher education. The access problem proves slightly different for these alternative forms of higher education, however. It stems from the fact that in order to attend and succeed at these institutions, a student must be highly intelligent and highly driven, not to mention self motivated. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the average student. In fact, this student might be considered an outlier in the population. The film “Ivory Tower” details the party habits of many college students, a phenomenon that spans students and universities across the country. There is a reason colleges and universities have grades, requirements and advising systems — because not every student is an outlier. Some students need a push or a deadline in order to complete their coursework. In a self-paced, or self-driven institution, what would happen to those students? The outliers would be fine, excelling as they moved through the necessary steps toward their future. Those who are not outliers, which could be a large portion of the population, would be easily distracted, choosing other activities such as partying, TV or being with friends over educational pursuits. Then the current problem would remain: not enough students prepared for the job market, and even worse, large numbers of students taking longer to finish a degree, if they ever finish it at all. Therefore, despite the brilliant innovation that alternative forms of higher education bring to the market place, they fail to actually address two of the major problems in higher education today. Until they can do so, they will remain outliers, similar to their students, and will never reach the magnitude of impact that traditional institutions of higher education can claim.

Shelbi Hendricks, of the Class of 2016, is from Louisville, Ky.

“Admissions – Tuition and Fees | Minerva Schools.” Admissions – Tuition and Fees | Minerva Schools. Minerva Schools at KGI, n.d. Web. 21 May 2015.
“Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (2015): n. pag. Wired Campus Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College Comments. 29 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 May 2015.
Ivory Tower . (2015).