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More and more we are seeing articles in the media asking: “Is college worth it?”

College affordability crisis
Scott Kinney is President of Capella University in Minneapolis.

The question at one time might have seemed silly; most economists and higher education experts argue that higher education is still worth it. But the affordability crisis facing American colleges and universities may soon change that assessment. The recent article in The Hechinger Report —“Moody’s: college money woes are getting worse”— presents additional evidence why this issue will remain in the headlines. The affordability crisis in higher education is clearly getting worse, not better.

The fact that we’ve seen this crisis coming for a long time increases the frustration that more progress has not been made. All of us in higher education need to take the task of re-thinking our business and academic models seriously. The time for hand-wringing and defending the status quo should have ended years ago. The bold innovation needed now must not only help make degree attainment more affordable, but do so in a way that helps adult students earn their degrees as efficiently as possible with the assurance that the skills they acquire are what today’s employers require.

Why the urgency? First, a robust, highly-educated workforce that has mastery of the skills needed in tomorrow’s labor market is essential for the U.S. to remain competitive in the global economy. President Obama has set a goal that by 2020 the U.S. will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. But we simply cannot get there with only the current, dominant models for degree programs and the target student populations for those programs. In fact, unless we rethink the fundamentals, the percentage of Americans with college degrees could actually decline.

Bottom line: With the volume of student loan debt at over $1 trillion and counting, degrees must become significantly more affordable, very soon, or too many Americans will lack the means or the motivation to pursue a degree at all.

Thankfully, there are bright spots on the horizon.

The institutions that can most fundamentally influence how higher education is offered, such as the U.S. Department of Education and regional accrediting bodies, are increasing their visible support for the types of innovations that can be game-changers when it comes to degree affordability. For example, the Department of Education has recently granted approval for the delivery of degree programs using the “direct assessment” model of learning. Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University are the first two schools to receive this approval, with SNHU offering programs at the associate’s degree level and Capella offering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

So what is direct assessment and how can it help solve the college affordability crisis? It’s all about re-thinking how learning is measured. Instead of awarding credit based on “seat time,” or the amount of time spent in a classroom, the direct assessment model enables students to move through their program at a pace determined by their capacity to learn and to demonstrate academic competencies with real-world applications. As an example, in Capella University’s undergraduate “Global Business Relationships” course, students must demonstrate mastery of competencies that include the need to “analyze cultural communications that affect international business,” “evaluate patterns of global organizational structure and hierarchies,” and “analyze the role of international business culture in the negotiation process.”

The direct assessment model has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of a degree while maintaining academic rigor, quality and integrity.

And for working adult learners, who at mid-career have years of experience in their chosen fields yet require a degree to advance in their careers, a direct assessment model makes all the sense in the world.

Competency-based learning and direct assessment are not new concepts, but the real innovation here is delivering high-quality learning outcomes, backed by quantifiable measurement, through self-paced degree programs that are fully credentialed and eligible for federal financial aid.  Doing this right is not an easy task, but it is vitally important to college students, to their current and prospective employers, and for the future of our nation as a whole.

Scott Kinney is President of Capella University in Minneapolis.

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  1. Scott, while you mention the question “Is college worth it,” I think you are missing the problem as well as the answer. Perhaps we should be asking, “How do we make the degrees that many people spent thousands and thousands of dollars achieving (hence a trillion dollar debt) worth the money?” When you mention that degrees must become more affordable, should we not be thinking how to make the college degree and experience become more valuable? Can we think retrospectively here and actually do anything to aid those who have amassed such debt, or is the order of things to be is that those that have amassed such debt remain proof that college education is NOT worth it? If there is a solution to making value out of the college experience, perhaps retrospectively those caught in the past can have some hope paying these expensive bills.

    If a path of value cannot be generated, what then is the solution? Do colleges and universities ever hold a hand of responsibility? Azusa Pacific Online University’s president (APOU), at a local conference of online educators, recently remarked that APOU is considering refunding the money students paid for an “education” if after three years the student remains unemployed, or unemployed in the field of the study, or APOU will fund the re-education of that student in another field of study at the university. The student must also exhaust assistance from the university’s career services. His remark was, and I paraphrase here…obviously the degree the student paid for has no real value so why should we have profited from that?

    As you mention, the competency-based learning and direct assessment model has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of a degree, but at the same time there is no evidence presented of this presumption. Coupled with your declaration that these are not new concepts and the real innovation is delivering high-quality learning outcomes, I must question whether or not my experience and costs was not only of a wise choice on my part, but an expensive education assembled with incompetency by the university. After all, why was this not part of my program then and how is it suddenly innovative now?

    After nearly three years of an expensive degree, I have yet to reap any gainful employment increase or gainful employment in the field this degree was supposed to open doors with. Could the university refund my money or re-educate me in another field, or is progressive thinking such as this out of the question in higher education? I would be more than willing to do my part with re-education in one of these new competency-based and direct assessment learning programs in order to find gainful employment that allows me the ability to repay student debt.

    If higher education would work on making the degrees and the experience more valuable, rather than focus just on future costs, perhaps a dent in this trillion-dollar debt could be made. Let’s work on making these degrees more valuable, finding students gainful employment, and perhaps this trillion-dollar debt can be eliminated at the same time as your numbers of potential students increase.

  2. We need an array of approaches to keep college degrees within financial reach all families. The assessment of competencies is one approach. It’s not easy to do and current applications are limited. No “one size fits all” approach makes sense when we have students who range in age from 18-65+ and whose goals differ dramatically. There’s room in the USA for many different models. University of California economists still see the investment in college as a good one for financial, social, health, and civic reasons. The point is to work on accessibility and excellence simultaneously. This is a big challenge.

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