The Problems (And Solutions) Of Higher Education

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Earlier this year, I was accepted to the George Washington University Law School. It was a school I had been dying to go to, with the top LLM program in the nation for lawyers looking to specialize in government procurement -- and GW had all of the things that I wanted in a university: a prime location in Washington, D.C., a network of well-connected professionals in the federal government, and, at least for the program I wanted to attend, the best list of thinkers and educators in the field of government procurement.

I couldn't wait to begin. After four years of working in the field as a professional lawyer, I was itching to deepen my knowledge in a subject area that I loved.

But, when it came time to fork over the cash, it dawned on me that I couldn't afford it -- and still enjoy the life that I currently live. Tuition for the program totaled $42,072 over two years, part-time.

More student loans were the last thing I wanted. Maybe if I were younger or jobless I would have had less of a hesitation to take out more loans. If that were the case, I could have justified more school (and student loans) as the safe-harbor to ride out the storm of a bad economy. But, that isn't the case.

Our close friends half-jokingly refer to their student loan payment the "beach house" - because it's about the same size payment as you'd expect a beach house to have. I have a family to support - that means daycare, a mortgage, car payments. Adding a "beach house" of student loans was the last thing I wanted to do.

So I began to look for other solutions to fulfill my desire to learn and grow, but for a fraction of the price.

The more I looked the more I began to notice problems facing higher education - and the more I felt a growing need to do something about it.

Below, I've identified what I believe are three big problems facing higher education today and three possible solutions to fix them:

Problem: Education is not the focus of many universities
When I was an undergrad at Florida State University, I remember seeing a t-shirt that read "We're a drinking school with a football problem."

That t-shirt captures the approach of many colleges and universities today. Universities are in the business of selling a lifestyle, prestige, and status. And they invest in things that increase their competitiveness in these areas.

According to Kevin Carey, the Director of Education Policy at the New America Foundation, major spending at universities includes infrastructure, administration, scholarships and sports teams -- but investing in classrooms and professors, which could actually impact student learning, isn't on this list. It's a sign that education is secondary to other interests.

Solution: Connect teachers directly with students through a digital marketplace
Love the teacher, hate the system. So change it...

Teachers are focused on facilitating quality education - even if the universities that employ them are not.

So how do we connect teachers and students without costly university excesses? The answer is a digital marketplace where students and teachers find each other online.

The digital education marketplace does not require expensive physical infrastructure. There are no sports teams to support, no administration, no scholarships. It's just teachers and students finding each other the 21st century way - over the web.

To some extent, MOOCs have begun this process. But, MOOCs are cozy with, and in many cases part of a university. So there is reason to doubt their ability to avoid the burden of the overhead that universities will eventually lay on them.

And this education marketplace is good for teachers too. A digital marketplace that connects students and teachers directly will:

  • Reward teachers financially for creating great courses
  • Incentivize teachers to create innovate with new learning environments
  • Attract new teachers to the field of teaching who would otherwise go elsewhere

Problem: The 4 year degree is too long and too expensive
College shouldn't begin with a two-year extension of high school... But it does.

Universities refer to this as a general education requirement - a series of courses taken to develop a broad base of general knowledge outside of one's chosen major. These are often defended as a way to broaden students with skills to make them better members of society.

But here is what they really are: a cash cow - and an expensive and time consuming extension of high school. They're a way to extend the revenue stream of the university.

With the average college graduate in the class of 2011 having over $26,000 in student loans, when will we say enough is enough? When will we ditch the 4-year degree?

Solution: A virtual curriculum based on my needs as a student
I believe that we must get rid of general education requirements and make them what they ought to be- optional electives.

Doing so would sharply reduce the credit hours required for a bachelors degree and, as a result, reduce the cost of college and the amount of money borrowed by students.

Once we've cut the fat from the curriculum by removing general education requirements, the remaining classes should be taken virtually through virtual classrooms. I'm talking about real, live virtual classrooms that are in many respects, as capable and dynamic as their physical counterparts. With multi-way video, video study groups, and social media integration, the virtual classroom of today and tomorrow is nothing like the virtual classroom of yesterday.

In fact, these virtual classrooms will better prepare students for the business world, where more and more business is being conducted virtually. In light of the affordability crisis today, virtual classrooms should be the norm, not the exception.

Problem: University learning is linear, one size fits all
Universities have a linear learning model. You must follow a curriculum. Start at point A, end at point B. Check the boxes and get the degree.

A typical university education is linear - teacher focused, not student focused. The process of learning is a controlled by the teacher, just as the process of getting a degree is controlled by the university.

The problem is that linear learning is expensive, both in terms of money and in time. As a student, the path to a degree is set. Student choice is available, but mostly limited to electives. In the classroom, lectures are a "one-size-fits-all" approaches to learning. There is no tailoring to individual learning styles or interests.

This makes higher education more expensive than it needs to be. It's not only the cost of tuition - the cost of housing, food, and transportation for the duration of the college experience add up to compound the problems of the linear model.

Solution: Self-directed learning
Students learn better when they control their experience. We can empower students by giving them choice in the classes they choose and in how they wish to learn.

Marketplaces are the epitome of self-expression. They allow for personal expression without the heavy hand of an entity who thinks it knows better.

And marketplaces are key for self-directed learning to take place. Students choose what they want to learn, when they want to learn it. With teachers competing for students, teachers will innovate and students will choose to take classes from the best teachers.

The low-cost delivery of virtual classrooms means education doesnt have to cost an arm and a leg or 20 years of debt. And teachers can make a great living teaching classes.

This open learning model puts the student at the center of education, not the university.

Together, these three solutions deliver the holy grail of education: they make education more affordable for students and more profitable for teachers.

What do you think?

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that tuition for a two-year part-time program at George Washington University Law School would total almost $85,000. Tuition for this program actually totals $42,072. We regret the error.