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Time for colleges to help solve the affordability issue

Instead of waiting for government solutions, let’s offer three-year degrees and lifelong learning.

college graduate
Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

One of my favorite mantras is: Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Employing this method with schools is the way to help higher education’s affordability issue.

Instead of waiting for the federal government to address the student debt crisis or better hold schools accountable for tuition rates, let’s turn to the industry itself to tackle these challenges.

Over the past few years, colleges and universities have received a barrage of negative publicity due to rising tuition rates, student loan debt and poor job placements.

Yet, by and large, schools haven’t deployed innovative programs to address these problems.

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Higher education is often at the forefront when it comes to researching and reforming other industries, but when reimagining its own institutions, things operate at a dawdling pace.

We can move more expeditiously. There are several ways to quickly address the affordability issue at the school level. First, we must reframe the question. Rather than ask, “Why is higher education so expensive, saddling students with debt?” we should  ask, “Is higher education doing enough for students and society to get the best bang for the buck?”

Answering this question will not only lead to increasing the value of a degree for students, but improve the coveted prestige that schools desperately chase in rankings.

Let’s take a look at offering three-year undergraduate degrees instead of four. The United Kingdom widely uses three-year degree programs. There are a few ways to do this in the U.S, based on both accreditation and scheduling.

One of higher education’s leading scholars, Robert Zemsky, has consistently called for schools to cut a quarter of their undergraduate curriculums. This pathway would propel students into the workforce sooner, having saved a year’s worth of tuition and other expenses.

Schools could also reduce time to completion by restructuring summer semesters. Such sessions could be offered online by using technology capabilities acquired during the pandemic.

Indeed, initial research in the health sciences suggests that students who enroll in three-year degree programs have better graduation rates and examination scores.

Furthermore, three-year degrees have broad political appeal, as indicated by their endorsement by both the Progressive Policy Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

Finally, although competition tends not to make much difference in the K-12 space, colleges and universities absolutely react to their peers: If one school adopts three-year degrees, there’s a potential ripple effect.

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Even as I suggest shortening the undergraduate experience, I also believe we should lengthen the time that alumni have access to their schools, so they can take advantage of lifelong learning interventions. Giving alumni a longer opportunity to benefit from their alma maters increases the value of their college degrees and experiences.

The economy of work is ever-changing, and alumni deserve the right to freely return to their alma maters to gain new skills that are needed in the workplace. For courses already offered during the calendar year, schools could add a hybrid option for graduates who are scattered across states and thus limited to taking the courses online.

A lifelong learning intervention would also enrich traditional students’ education by bringing alumni’s world experiences into classrooms, creating additional intellectual diversity in discussions.

Furthermore, strengthening alumni relationships would be rewarded by fundraising; lengthening alumni’s access through these programs could also advance their career trajectories, including promotions, salaries and job satisfaction. Improvement in these indicators ultimately raises schools’ prestige and rankings.

Beyond adding benefits for their own students and alumni and prestige, though, colleges must address what they can do for society: How can they serve the public good?

For example, college faculty publish papers in journals with conclusions that incorporate policy and practical recommendations. Yet most legislators and educators do not have access to these articles.

Why should school principals in low-income neighborhoods need to pay to find out the results of the latest research or intervention?

Why, when public health has recently become so popular among citizens, are articles that publish conclusions and advice locked behind paywalls?

Why, with interest in critical race theory spiking, and research that both complements and critiques it dating back decades, is publicly available information about it so often limited to an incomplete Wikipedia page discovered on a Google search?

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Colleges could push to make such research more accessible to the public by supporting open access. Accordingly, research transparency has improved in recent years with the open science movement, in which researchers preregister projects, share codes and publish detailed appendices.

Avery M.D. Davis
Avery M.D. Davis
The next step is to better publicize articles, so that the public can engage in discussions. Moving beyond the esoteric language in the freely available academic abstracts — in which a few hundred words provide a preview of the research results —  scholarly journals should add executive summaries tailored toward nonexpert, nonacademic audiences.

These are three examples of steps that postsecondary schools can take to serve the public good and enhance their perceived and actual value.

In the meantime, these ideas — along with freezing tuition, improving retention efforts and enacting stronger accountability measures — could help universities better position and serve their students, alumni and society.

We should ask our schools to step up, with societal partnerships, bold decision-making and innovative investments.

Avery M.D. Davis is a Ph.D. student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. His research centers on students’ entry and exit experiences with postsecondary financing.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hechinger Report.

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