One of the most pressing concerns for many potential college students is access to education, particularly as it relates to the affordability of schools with rising tuition and fees that cannot always be offset by having a job. School itself is such a big commitment, often complicated by the competing priorities in a student's life (particularly for adult learners). In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama referenced the college scorecard that rates institutions based on their cost, graduation rate, loan statistics and employment following graduation. The very first item addressed on the scorecard is cost. Clearly, this is a deciding factor that influences the decisions about pursuing higher education.
In addition to rising costs, many students are faced with the challenge of being non-traditional learners. Our nation is seeing increasing numbers of applicants and students who are older than the traditional 18-21-year-old demographic, who have families, jobs and other responsibilities, or who are entering college for the first time after military service. As the number of these types of students increases nationally and cost and time to completion become an ever-more salient factor in decision making about college, many institutions believe they are helping students by providing the "college-lite" experience - simply requiring demonstrations of skills and competency to prove proficiency in certain areas rather than providing an experience that includes a professor and other students for greater learning and a well-rounded educational experience.
College-lite is certainly a better alternative than no education at all, and for some students, it has the potential to work well. In fact, a broad portfolio of choices that includes online education and competency based measurements may be the platform that helps to guide education in the future, but schools focusing much of their energy on competency-based education options inevitably isolate students from a key component of the learning process: relationship building. Just as bookstores had to revise their business model when online companies began to sell the same products, often at reduced prices, faster delivery times and allowing customers to shop without leaving their homes, education is facing the prospect of having to change their business model to remain viable. And just as there are still many thriving bookstores, traditional on-campus institutions will still exist; however, there will be an increased number of options for how a student might choose to attend college.
Though the business model is shifting, we should be wary of the belief that colleges must pull essential components out of the educational process in order to succeed. Scaling down the educational experience is not the solution. The current interpretation of competency-based education eliminates the chance for learning through collaboration, relationship-building, group study, and meaningful interaction with professors.
We cannot underestimate the value of personal connections, as it has been proven that 65 to 85 percent of job opportunities arise from personal relationships. A full educational experience is more than just consuming information from books and course study materials and then regurgitating it back. A large part of a well-rounded education depends on the experience and knowledge gained from interacting in teams and establishing important personal relationships. If we are truly invested in providing a quality higher education experience to all students - traditional and non-traditional - how can we omit this critical component completely from students' college education?
Many institutions are eliminating faculty and courses wherever possible to cut the aforementioned sky-high costs of obtaining a degree. They justify the slashing of classroom and social opportunities by claiming that doing so creates more opportunities for students to enroll in distance learning. While this may be true, by eliminating human interaction and connection, these institutions are simply providing a degree while neglecting a crucial component of a well-rounded education.
While just having a degree puts students far ahead of where they would be without one, it is still awfully difficult to get a job without a network of connections to people who have similar experiences or interests. Those people may be the key link to putting a new graduate in touch with an employer or making the right recommendation on the graduate's behalf.
There is certainly nothing wrong with leveraging online classes or offering greater access to courses to cater to many students' increasing needs for flexibility. These options are ideal for people who cannot uproot their lives to attend school or who have other important responsibilities that require a high level of commitment. To be effective, however, colleges must resist an approach that prioritizes reducing cost over achieving outcomes that place the student in the best position to succeed post graduation. We must provide online platforms with live access to professors who engage students at the same level as they would their traditional, on-campus courses and with easy opportunities for those students to interact with and learn from one another.
A college experience - whether taken in person or online - must include ways for students to connect with one another, offering opportunities to interact and relate through shared experiences. The goal of higher education is ultimately to build relationships that provide a foundation upon which to construct a professional life. To that end, students should be strongly encouraged to build relationships - something that requires an entirely different type of learning than many competency-based programs are able to offer.
I am an advocate for providing flexible options to allow all students to earn their degrees, have a fulfilling college experience and ultimately create a better life for themselves through education. That said, I believe that no student who is seeking to save money should be denied a full educational experience because their chosen institution has decided that social and network-building opportunities are unnecessary or, worse, not possible in the low cost model. As we create greater accessibility, let us not get pulled in to the college-lite mentality. Instead, let us figure out how to provide a complete educational experience for all students in higher education - regardless of what they can afford.
Jayson M. Boyers is the executive director of the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a private institution that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in professionally-focused programs balanced by an interdisciplinary core curriculum.