Innovation Can Make College Affordable… If You’ll Let It

July 20, 2012

College affordability has been a flashpoint issue for some time now, and a recent article in the Wall Street Journal illustrates why. Tuitions are truly skyrocketing, with many fearing that such annual increases are quickly becoming unsustainable. Regardless of whether or not you believe that institutions have done enough to rein in costs (I don’t), demand for a postsecondary credential is only going to continue to rise. It’s pretty clear that we need to do something differently, and soon.

One such option on the table is to blend online learning with in-person instruction into a hybrid delivery model. While it doesn’t entirely eliminate the human touch of learning, it does shift much of the education to a virtual format that is far less resource-greedy. Studies have shown that educational outcomes are nearly identical to a fully in-person format, and the research suggests that the reduced need for faculty could cut costs nearly in half.

"There's been a convergence of the power of the software with knowledge we've gained from cognitive sciences about how people learn," says William Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland. "And there is the potential for cost savings. We have got to find lower-cost ways of delivering high-quality education." Kirwan—known as one of the more forward-looking institutional leaders—is certainly right. Yet 30 states will find it difficult to truly reap the benefits of these new delivery models. Why?

Not every state or institution needs to develop an entirely new infrastructure to implement this sort of program. It’s something that could easily be replicated once it’s developed, either by another public institution, a non-profit organization, or a private sector firm. Furthermore, there would be vastly uneven systems that are developed, each requiring their own research, their own constant improvement, and their own set of administrators. That would cost billions of dollars nationwide, and we just don’t have that kind of money to waste these days.

However, most current state laws and regulations severely inhibit the ability of outside entities to provide an education to its citizens. Our Leaders & Laggards report card, which graded states on exactly these issues, issued 16 states an “F” and 14 states a “D” for their restrictive policies. That means instead of taking advantage of someone else’s innovation, more than half of our country will waste buckets of money, all just to create a rounder wheel.

No one is recommending that we turn higher education into the Wild West and remove all quality assurances, not by a long shot. But two of the better indicators of educational quality—tracking labor market and learning outcomes for students—are only measured and reported in a handful of states, and are included in almost none of the regulations in question. In other words, these regulatory safeguards do little more than defend the status quo while hindering competition and modernization.

In the end, the choice is clear. We can make college significantly more affordable, save billions in development costs, and take an enormous step towards closing the skills gap in this country, thereby ensuring our nation’s economic prosperity for another generation. Or we can continue to clutch onto needless laws and regulations that don’t actually do much of anything to ensure that a quality education is being delivered to students.

Domenic Giandomenico is Director of Education and Workforce Programs for ICW.