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The Education Bubble and the its’ Aftrmath

October 20, 2012

Student loan debt tops a trillion dollars – more than Americans owe for credit card charges.  The scarcity of jobs, even more so good, stable jobs of the kind earlier generations of Americans expected as a matter of fact, coupled with the abundance of degreed job-seekers, leads the unbiased observer to conclude that a college degree (as distinct from an education) is not worth what it was, and perhaps is not worth what it costs.

When something can’t go on, it stops.  When enough students decide that the current system, for them, at least, can’t go on, they will stop matriculating.  The University of Phoenix recently announced the closure of over 100 campuses; they will not be alone as those who profited from the edu-bubble meet the fate meted out to the likes of pets.com a decade ago when another bubble (in technology) burst.  Many schools with satellite campus programs targeted at adults returning to school may also find their expansion plans swept away by the gale of creative destruction heralded by the likes of ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs) and other low- or no-cost educational alternatives.

This blog has commented previously on the dangers of a debtor class.  Having such a class, composed as it is, of a disproportionate number of Americans under age 30, much of whose debt load consists of student loans, portends fewer families forming, lower levels of household formation (and home-buying) and a declining birth rate.  These all tend to disfavor continued accumulation of college debt, as each B.A. barista will be a cautionary tale to younger brothers and sisters approaching college age.  The specter of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and which can make the borrower subject to lawsuits by Federal debt-farmers, ought to give potential buyers (on credit) of educational products caution.

Much of the damage has its’ origins in well-intentioned but short-sighted governmental policy.  Student loans are readily available, require no test of creditworthiness, no evaluation of the marketability of the degree to be earned, and may be used to pay for courses at schools of questionable academic quality.  When one considers Pell Grants and other federal programs that support post-secondary education, the amount of money available for would-be students is near-limitless.  The result of this over-supply of ‘easy money’ is that many attend college who do not need it, do not benefit in proportion to the time and expense involved or who major in subjects not in demand proportionate to the number of graduates matriculating from the ever-expanding number of schools and programs available to train them.  In summary, more money = more potential students=more schools and programs=market saturation in many non-technical majors.  Easy money also means tuition increases, as schools know that financial aid is available, and as this increases potential students’ ability to pay, they raise their prices to take advantage of it.

The need for change extends beyond college tuition inflation to textbook price-gouging.  $200 texts are now common; editions become virtually worthless over the course of a few years through a planned obsolescence as the 11th edition gives way to the 12th, each crammed with as much filler as necessary and useful information.  Prices have spiraled to the point where texts are now offered for rent.  Even downloadable textbooks come with a hefty price.  Publishers jealously guard their turf; a pending Supreme Court case on copyright and the ‘right of first sale‘ may limit whether texts published abroad (as many are, thanks to the off-shoring of production) may be -resold.  (This case also has implications for any of us who re-sell anything with a copyright:  used music CDs, computers, software – the list is virtually endless and imperils the marketplace for such things, from the local second-hand store all the way to eBay.  The case itself originates in an enterprising student re-selling textbooks he bought overseas, where they are cheaper, and from the resulting publisher-driven legal action against him.)
What will change all this?  Perhaps the mostly-disconnected array of alternative ways of learning and earning credit will eventually combine, under the hand of inspired minds, into something that can challenge, successfully, the stifling orthodoxy of the Education Establishment.  Some schools are already pioneering alternative degrees, including, for example, my alma mater, Excelsior CollegeWestern Governors University and the tuition-free University of the People.  Others will follow, either on the free/non-credit model of MIT’s Open Courseware or the Kahn Academy, while some will find ways to deliver alternatives via a for-profit model, as an alternate form of public education, or as decentralized, per-sharing arrangements along the lines of what Ivan Illich proposed in ‘Deschooling Society.’
Technology will be the Revolution’s handmaiden.  From early projects intending to put the benefits of networked computing into the hands of the poorer masses globally, such as One Laptop Per Child, Edubuntu and the venerable Newton eMate (to name only a few) to the age of low-cost tablets, such as Entourage Systems‘ now-defunct Pocket eDGe (pictured below), a steady stream of products have come forth that can facilitate remote learning with enough feature robustness (stylus input for note-taking, e-reader, Android tablet, e-mail, educational apps, some free, video, etc., in the case of the out-of-production Pocket eDGe) to support a fairly high-quality distance learning experience for the would-be autodidact.

The winds of change are blowing through the the campus bookstore, too:  Open-source texts are beginning to appear.  One, reviewed by this writer, “Introduction to Economic Analysis” by R. Preston McAfee, is available for download – free and open-source – as a .pdf and may be purchased hard-copy from www.lulu.com for the cost of printing and shipping ($22.00 when this writer bought his copy ca. 2009). Dr. McAfee’s book is free of filler; as he put it, the book is about teaching economics, and that does not require including pictures of dead economists, et cetera.  He is not alone; enough writers are offering their texts open-source to make one consider whether we are on the verge of an end-run around the textbook cartel and the dawn of a new era of freely-available texts distributed electronically.

What remains is for someone to combine enough of these emerging technologies with the best practices already manifest in the field of distance learning to create an educational experience that will compeer that of the average State U. or for-profit school that can be delivered widely at a price far below the cost of today’s typical college.  Once that model gains widespread acceptance from employers and other institutions, the Ivy Curtain will wither away and we will enter a new era in the history of education.

(The above is an Entourage Pocket eDGe dual-book, a forerunner of the type of device that may empower the learner of the future.  A combination Android tablet and Wacom tablet/e-book reader, the out-of-production Pocket eDGe accepts stylus-driven ink text input.  The left-hand display shows a page from McAfee’s ‘Introduction to Economic Analysis,’ mentioned above.  The picture on the right side display is from Pompeii and depicts a Roman schoolgirl holding a wax tablet and stylus.  The timelessness appeal of such a learning tool speak for themselves.)

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One Comment
  1. In addition, many students are accessing free texts from E-book sharing sites such as scribd.com or bitme.org . But publishers charge that many of the sites are too much like the original Napster—allowing illegal sharing of copyrighted material. Such allegations led to the mid-July shutdown of textbooktorrents.com. Those who want legal access to up-to-date E-textbooks can check out coursesmart.com, the new E-book site created by a half dozen of the nation’s biggest textbook publishers. By the start of school this fall, Coursesmart expects to have 5,000 of the nation’s bestselling textbooks available for Internet subscription or downloading, typically for 30 to 50 percent less than the sticker price of the print version. A year’s access to the online version of the single most popular introductory psychology textbook, David G. Myers’s Psychology, sells for $55 on Coursesmart. It retails new on Amazon for $83. (Used print versions were available on Amazon for less than $60.) Coursesmart students can highlight and type notes on electronic copies of a book, copy small sections, and print out a few pages at a time, but they won’t get access to CD-ROMs or other extras, and don’t get to keep a book permanently because the files have digital expiration codes.

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