But for decades now — and particularly the past decade, when Udemy, Udacity, edX, Coursera, MasterClass, SkillShare, Praxis, KhanAcademy, Preply, and a wide range of other free and fee-based, online and blended offerings crowd into this space — we accept as a given that this bundle must exist.
Progressives that call for lower costs, debt forgiveness, or outright socialization of tertiary education unwittingly cement this bundled product in place. They aim for equity and access, but frame it according to a rigid product design — SATs, admissions committees and fees, large and growing administrations, time-consuming core curricula, institution-specific degrees — that benefits the incumbent college industry more than the rising student. Looking to northern Europe is a good indication of how the socialization of costs applies further standardization to tertiary learning, deterministic testing, inflexible prerequisites, and set-in-stone curricula.
I think it’s imperative — before the next U.S. presidential election cycle — that young people, industry leaders, public figures, economists, and learning experts come together to voice a demand for something else:
UnbundleUnbrand: The overdue demand to unpack the undergraduate degree.
- We are a group of economists, neuroscientists, high-tech employers, and public figures.
- We are watching with anxiety the volume of American student loans at $1.5 trillion, 11% of which in default, 14% in forbearance, with predictions of 40% in default by 2023.
- American young people are chasing the false promises of knowledge, skills, and career acceleration from institutions that foremost seek to bundle and brand, that hike tuitions absorbing nearly all federal debt subsidy, that entice young people into levels of debt that are costing households more, and lasting more years than any generation has witnessed before.
- American high schools are chasing graduation rates and rates of placement in 4-year universities, also false promises to communities that place statistical improvement-at-any-price ahead of the real interests and needs of young people.
- American employers are slow to refine talent identification systems to acknowledge smart, hard-working, skilled candidates on the basis of their demonstrated learning and results. Undergraduate degrees are too often used as a baseline metric for eligibility when there is almost no correlation of knowledge or skills attained to the obtaining of the degree, nor to the demands of many careers.
- Meantime, the proliferation of online courseware, gameware, tutorials, face-to-face and blended learning models, subscription-based, and pay-per-use content continues, but is underused by our teenagers. The promise of individualized learning is limited not by technology or logistics, but by the social imagination, that still sees teens moving through set schedules and an arbitrary, standard hierarchy of 5 or 6 subjects.
- We believe that if teens will be encouraged to pursue intensive, individualized learning by making use of already abundant tools, combined with mentoring, internships and real work experience in a more flexible learning environment, the arbitrary urgency to apply and commit to 4-year undergraduate degrees would decline.
- Unless and until the simplistic recognition of the so-called undergraduate degree as a measure of education is unbundled, our counterproductive culture of college-readiness is depriving youth of enormous opportunity, while our economy is imperiled by students’ misguided borrowing. The loan crisis may cost America hundreds of billions. The opportunity cost of a decade of young people’s lives spent mechanically going through motions, not exploring their interests, not intrinsically motivated, is unknown.
- Given these concerns, we appeal to America’s universities to:
- Offer unbundled, a-la-carte course enrollment to anyone, anywhere, anytime
- Stop differentiating price or credential value for “full-time”, “for credit”, versus a-la-carte students
- Accept in any course any interested student, irrespective of prior degree attainment, or based on performance in online prerequisite study that is open to anyone
- Enable click-to-buy or free courses, such that enrollment is quick and simple, and prices are transparent
- Dismiss the admissions committee and eliminate the cumbersome admissions process, including fee-based standardized test-taking, essay-submission, and racial and ethnic identification
- Offer courses in a greater variety of durations, frequency and times of year, to break down the rigidity of continuing learning
10. We appeal to America’s leading employers to:
- Eliminate the “highest level of education attained”, simplistic human resources drop-down menu;
- Revise human resource systems to recognize the wide range of relevant, competitive learning and experience that prospective job candidates can attain alternative to an undergraduate degree;
- Stop differentiating salaries for the same work based on a candidate’s having or not having an undergraduate degree.