February 26, 2013

A New Model for Higher Ed?

A fantastic New York Times piece yesterday shed light on Thomas Edison State College, an accredited state college in New Jersey. The article highlights TESC's model of awarding credits to students based on demonstrating competency, not earning credits in situ, as is the norm at many schools. Many TESC students, earn credits by cobbling together credits from myriad sources such as other schools, military training programs, passage of competency examinations, corporate training certificates, and open source online courses. Many graduates of the school have never set foot on TESC's campus, including a 39-year old mother of 10 who racked up 54 credits in 14 weeks via college equivalency exams, and one man who was accepted to Cornell's M.B.A. Program. "I've never been there, but I did buy a sweatshirt," he said of TESC.

Schools like TESC and Western Governor's University perform a great service to their students. As the value of a college degree gets revised downward and online education reshapes higher ed, more schools should realize that the premium they once had on instruction and credentialing is vanishing. Awarding credits for merely exhibiting competency might diminish a school's "brand" in the short-term, but has terrific potential to lure more students over the long run who cannot or do not want to pay many thousands of dollars more than the $5300 it took for a 39-year old mother of ten to get her degree from TESC. "We don't care how or where the student learned, whether it was from spending three years in a monastery," George A. Pruitt, the college's president, told the Times, "as long as that learning is documented by some reliable assessment technique." Pruitt's words affirm what many employers think, that the prestige associated with a four-year degree from a "name" school is often wildly overstated. Mark Cuban, billionaire entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, got it right in 2012 when he blogged that "As an employer I want the best prepared and qualified employees. I could care less if the source of their education was accredited by a bunch of old men and women who think they know what is best for the world. I want people who can do the job. I want the best and brightest. Not a piece of paper."

Unsurprisingly, universities aren't rushing to embrace this model. A representative from the Institute for Higher Education Policy summarized the flip side of the TESC model: "With these nomad students in higher education, whose students are they? There are questions of ownership and ethical responsibility." We might easily respond: when have universities scrutinized their complicity in allowing students to be encumbered by staggering amounts of debt? 

Lastly, campuses have in our time have declared themselves cultural watchdogs against societal ills like exploitative capitalism, social injustice, and income inequality. But by not embracing credit-for-competency arrangements, schools are unwittingly impeding economic advancement for people like Mercedes Foy, a 31-year old, first-generation TESC grad who earned her degree "without a penny in student debt." Foy applied credits she earned through her employer's evening classes offered at work, classes at Union County College, and 12 credits from the CLEP Spanish exam. By not offering such arrangements, universities undermine their own rhetoric on income inequality and economic "injustice." Would that their actions match their words.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.