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It was never about (only) cost.

Lets re-imagine college as a learning/research center that supports itself by solving outside problems and engages students in the process.

Photo of Joel Gingery
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Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it reimagine the cost of college?

Education stakeholders in general:students, parents, teachers, higher education policy makers, administrators and civic leaders. This program fundamentally transforms college from a top-down, unresponsive, information silo, costly social institution to a customer driven, integrated model that fulfills its social purposes of education/research with minimal government monetary support by solving social and/or business problems for a fee while engaging paying students in the solution process.

"Four tough things universities should do to reign in costs," by Steve Purcell recommends universities:

  • Cap administrative costs,
  • Operate year round, 5 days a week,
  • More teaching, less (mediocre) research,
  • Cheaper, better, general education.

Even these relatively bold ideas don't go far enough, fast enough:

"Is college worth it?  Goldman-Sachs says not so much."

“There are indeed examples of advantages that can be sustained, even today. Capitalizing on deep customer relationships, making highly complicated machines such as airplanes, running a mine, and selling daily necessities such as food are all situations in which some companies have been able to exploit an advantage for some time. But in more and more sectors, and for more and more businesses, this is not what the world looks like any more. Music, high technology, travel, communication, consumer electronics, the automobile business, and even education [my italics] are facing situations in which advantages are copied quickly, technology changes, or customers seek other alternatives and things move on. “

--Steve Denning, "Its Official: The End of Competitive Advantage."

To remain relevant and play its role in society, higher education must fundamentally reform itself from a top-down, unresponsive, social institution that is a roadblock to its customers, to a modern, flat, integrated learning/research institution that is responsive to the needs and desires of its customers:  students, professors, administration and society in general.  

Recent attempts at educational reform have tended, in effect, to pursue the lowest cost acceptable education for our population.  In contrast we should be pursuing the highest value education as determined by the consumer.

Value focuses on organizational outcomes rather than inputs (costs).  Value relates to the benefits of the outcomes rather than the outcomes themselves as determined by the consumer.  From this perspective rather than focusing exclusively on cost, we should be interested in fulfilling stakeholders perceived needs and/or desires. Education becomes then demand driven and responsive to value/cost judgements primarily by students and other users of the system.  For instance, rather than offering a relatively constant standard curriculum, colleges need to be able to respond to the variety of demands that students need and want.  Paradoxically, as value improves, costs tend to decrease.

The educational systems that succeed will be the ones that create the environments where students can explore, experiment and create the possibilities they value within desired prices.  Success for education depends on teachers, administrators, etc., seeing themselves as responding to demands for educational services and delivering them profitably, rather than as being reimbursed for the costs of their services.

To facilitate an educational institution's transformation, we will organize and conduct experimental situations for policy makers and administrators to demonstrate the necessity and the results of changes.  These simulations/responses are initially conducted in a small specialization of the college's offerings and gradually expand to include the entire college, then the university.  The point is not to make a specific change, but to build into the organization the capacity to evolve and adapt to changing student/social/business requirements.  A possible approach might be:

Initially reforming the curriculum to be rooted in project/problem solving; students will want to pay more for more relevant opportunities to learn/perform.  Introductory informational courses will be free, but paying for increasing involvement in projects/problem solving will require increasing fees; the problem solving/projects will become a significant revenue stream, but because students, researchers and the university will adopt problem solving, organizational and communication skills and configurations that facilitate them, relative costs will be lower.  

Once established, the institution can begin to experiment with soliciting problems from outside.  Solving or attempting to solve these problems will self-organize the institution, continually gathering experience and improving capabilities while contributing to revenues.   Increases in value and reputation may command increased fees.

Food for thought:

Linda Gorman:  "Education"

"The purpose of college:  Career-making or Soul-making?"by Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser

"What's the purpose of college: a job or an education?"

The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools | Will Richardson | TEDxWestVancouverED

PBS NewsHour Debuts 5-Part Series “Rethinking College: Closing the Graduation Gap” Week of August 17

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Conducting a small simulation in conjunction with a local college.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

OpenIDEO academic members familiar with the system would be helpful.

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

Are you interested in the Path to Pitching track we've developed for this challenge?

  • No

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Learning in Reverse

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Photo of Andrew Ciszczon
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Hey Joel

Your idea is a little more developed than mine, at least the experiment is. Great links too! I will have to check them out.

Definitely worth a go for some of the smaller institutions who at some point are going to have to fight for survival. Change is coming, but we don't know what, when or how. Better to set the bar than have to match it later.