Online higher education may be where credit is due

“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

While the original author of this quote isn’t known, it has been attributed to all sorts of prominent people: a 19th century Jesuit priest, a longtime CEO of Coca Cola, U.S. Presidents Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and many others. They all liked it and used it, and it is worth remembering.

Despite the quote, though, getting credit has been the economic fulcrum of modern higher education. The cost of education is measured in credit hours as are graduation and degree requirements. And for both the academic supply side and the demand side — employers and society in general — it appears that what a student actually learns matters less than the credit, in the form of a diploma or degree, that they obtained.

It doesn’t take the nose of a blue tick hound to detect a change in the economics, though. The demand for higher education in our economy is growing, but the costs of higher education have risen relentlessly over the past three decades. The overall economy might go up or down, but the pace of ever-higher costs never wavered. At the same time, much of higher education was undergoing what economists call commoditization, where the products look more and more alike.

The process is far from complete, but it is dividing higher education into two sets:

•The highly selective, elite schools;

And a much larger number of schools struggling to establish and imprint identities that would justify their product costs.

The economics of higher education bear some similarities to the economics of health care. We have to have it, but it is increasingly unaffordable. In both cases it is very easy to feel like the victims of some cruel joke; an economics exam with no right answer.

Economics, though, besides presenting us with a vexing problem, is working on a solution. As the late Etta James sang it, “At Last.”

In California, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg has introduced a bill in the Legislature that would allow students in the state’s crowded higher education system obtain credit for online courses. Initially, at least, there are only 50 courses involved, the ones that are the most oversubscribed and are blocking students from proceeding with or completing their graduation requirements.

The goal of this legislation is not cost reduction but access. Bottlenecks in California’s higher education system have meant that only 1 in 6 students is able to graduate on time in the Cal State system and wait-list delays are also a significant if less intense problem in the University of California system.

It remains to be seen what this idea will look like once the academic bureaucracies are finished with it. The past record of higher education when dealing with new technology and “not made here” ideas would not rate an “A.” It is quite possible, in fact, that the online courses will end up more expensive for students than the stand-up lecture system. Still, students could regain control of their lives in the sense of allowing scheduled takeoffs and landings at educational institutions and eliminating academic delays and holding patterns.

It’s a start, and a welcome one.

Another welcome start was the U.S. Department of Education’s recent edict on direct assessment, competency-based programs, which opens a door for these courses to become eligible for federally funded student financial aid under Title IV.

Competency-based programs are not measured by credit hours but by successfully demonstrating mastery of the subject by passing examinations (direct assessments). In most cases, these courses are self-paced, and do not require regularly scheduled attendance at classes or lectures. In today’s world they are usually Internet-based, although they are clearly the direct descendants of yesteryear’s correspondence courses and on-campus, tutor-guided programs.

The door that the feds opened is a narrow one, crowded with red tape, bureaucratic language and other obstacles. But it’s a start, and welcome.

Internet courses aren’t for everyone. “Pajama school” courses sound easy, but they are actually very demanding of a student’s motivation, dedication and self-discipline. Most students starting these courses don’t complete them, something that, unsurprisingly, was also true of correspondence courses years ago.

Still, Internet-based learning is a way out of the higher education dilemma that we are facing, and we can figure out a way to deal with the obstacles it presents. Neither the California legislation nor the U.S. Department of Education will make our higher education economic problem disappear. But, as Winston Churchill once said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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