Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, a new book that takes a look at the future of higher education. Her first book, Generation Debt, explored the rising burdens of loans for her own generation (Kamenetz is 29). That research led her to take a closer look at the ways higher education isn't working for the students it serves and find out who is working to change that. She'll be speaking at the Carter Library Auditorium on Mon., May 17 at 7 pm.
What's so wrong with higher education as it is today?
It's just like the Woody Allen joke: "This food is lousy, and the portions are too small." Higher education is trapped in an unsustainable cost spiral (tuition has gone up more than any other good or service since 1978), it's facing serious concerns about quality and relevance as dropout rates approach 50% in the US, and at the same time it's struggling to meet unprecedented global demand: worldwide enrollment rose 50% in the last 10 years and is projected to more than double to 250 million by 2025.
You've drawn some comparisons between the rising costs of tuition and the housing bubble. It's conventional wisdom to (at this point) to say that the housing bubble was caused in part by the unchecked greed of creditors and investors. Would you say that greed is motivating universities, as well?
There's been huge greed on the part of the student loan industry, the real analogues to the mortgage lenders who drove up the cost of housing. Around the middle of this decade, Sallie Mae was the second most profitable company in the entire Fortune 500. Happily, student lenders have now been squeezed out of the federal student loan industry by the recent Obama reforms, although they can still make money through private, unsubsidized student loans. For-profit, publicly traded higher education companies like the University of Phoenix have been making similarly eye-popping profits, and while their tuition isn't the highest in the business (private nonprofits like NYU take that honor) their students are among the most indebted.
Earlier this year, video of students rioting in Berkeley was floating all over the internet. Do you think those protests were related to the same problems you're trying to call attention to? Is there a difference between the rising costs at state schools in comparison to private universities?
Absolutely those protests were part of the same crisis I'm writing about, as students reacted to doors closing and 32% tuition increases in what was once the flagship public university system of the entire world.The Chancellor of the University of California informed me that he's never seen a meltdown like this in a 40 year career.
The tuition issues at state schools are different from those at privates and for-profits as Jane Wellman at the Delta Cost Project points out nicely. State support for public higher education has largely been declining per capita for 25 years and state schools have practiced "cost shifting" by increasing tuition to make up the difference.
Who are these "Edupunks" and "Edupreneurs" that you reference in the title? What are they doing change the status quo?
Edupunks like Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington, David Wiley at Brigham Young University, Stephen Downes at the National Research Council of Canada, Neeru Paharia of Peer2Peer University, among many many more, are largely concerned with using the Internet to foster free and open higher education. They are building up databases of Creative Commons-licensed educational materials that are free for all to share and remix and developing practices of open, collaborative, learner-centered teaching and learning using social media like blogs, wikis, and Twitter. It tends to be important to them that these practices and tools be noncommercial and open source.
Edupreneurs like the founders of Grockit, Knewton, Udemy, NaMaYa, 2Tor, and Omniacademy, to name a few, have for-profit startups that also use technology to try to disrupt the cost spiral and deliver better learning experiences to students, either directly or with existing institutions as intermediaries.
What's the single biggest change that the university system needs?
I would say it starts with learners and their families realizing that the four-year degree is not the be-all and end-all, and that quality in higher education does not depend on cost and exclusivity alone. Instead of submitting to institutions to tell you "this is what we have to offer, and this is how much it costs," they should form their own goals and their own budget and be willing to assemble resources from a variety of institutions and providers, if necessary. That is what "DIY U" is all about.
DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz. Chelsea Green Publishing. $14.95. 208 pp.
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