By Doug Ward

We can glean many lessons from the most recent college admissions scandal.

A system that purports to be merit-based really isn’t. Standardized testing can be gamed. A few elite universities hold enormous sway in the American imagination. Hard work matters less than the ability to write a big check. The wealthy will do anything to preserve the privilege of plutocracy.

We knew all that, though.

What struck me most about the admissions scandal was how blatantly transactional a college degree has become and how vulnerable universities have become to sacrificing their integrity to the promise of a bigger donation.

I’ve written before about how the product of education – a diploma, an overemphasis on sports, bucolic images of campuses, perceptions of privilege from association with a particular institution – have overshadowed the process of learning. The admissions scandal not only reinforces that idea of education as a product but makes it clear that to many, education is only a product.

Those of us who teach see that mentality all too often in our classes. An undergraduate once told me that I was diminishing her prospects because she had to work too hard to earn an A. She knew what she wanted to do, she said, and she would learn nothing from my class or the other classes she was required to take. A degree with a high GPA was the only important thing, she said. Another student quoted his father as saying that the only thing college was good for was to meet people who could help you later.

Those students represent extremes of what higher education has become. College costs loom so large that students choose majors based on how much money they can make rather than on what might fulfill them in career. State governments perpetuate this by channeling money to favored programs rather than to universities as a whole, emphasizing economic development over an informed citizenry. The federal government encourages it by favoring privately issued college loans over grants and highlighting graduates’ income in comparing college programs. And universities themselves perpetuate it by chasing the status of rankings and promoting prestige over the needs of student learners.

Universities must live within this transactional culture but they must not sacrifice their integrity. They must address student concerns about costs and careers and salaries. They must make classes more accessible and convenient to students (see below). They must find fairer ways than standardized tests to gauge student competency.

Above all, they must promote the process rather than the product of education. A college education is certainly about career preparation, and institutions must help guide anxious students toward meaningful careers. They must also remind students that education is about learning and discovery. It’s about challenging ideas and beliefs, about challenging the self. It’s about a wide range of values and intellectual challenges that must be lived and earned, not bought and sold.

If nothing else, the admissions scandal should push universities to take a hard look at themselves and ask what they value, how they are perceived, and how they can maintain their integrity. If they don’t, they risk becoming just a wall decoration in a tarnished gilded frame.

Experimenting with new models of higher education

MOOC-mania has largely subsided, but companies and non-profit organizations continue to experiment with models that allow students to take online courses at little or no cost and transfer the credits to traditional colleges and universities.

EducationNext writes about three of those entities – StraighterLine, Modern States, and Global Freshman Academy – which collectively have enrolled more than 500,000 students but have mostly had the same low completion rates as MOOCs.

For instance, Arizona State created Global Freshman Academy in 2015. That program allows students to take 14 online freshman-level courses for $600 each. Of 373,000 who have enrolled, only 1,750 have completed. Students who have enrolled in classes through StraighterLine and Modern States generally complete only a course or two.

Those are hardly stunning results, but they are nonetheless worth watching. Many students are already acquiring college credit through advanced placement exams and dual-enrollment courses, which are generally taught on college campuses. KU is also expanding the number of classes it offers through Lawrence Public Schools, with courses created by KU instructors but taught by high school teachers. Students will pay a lower rate for those courses.

The Edwards Campus has taken this even further, working with area high schools and community colleges so that students can earn a college degree in three years.

Take a trip on the K-10 bus between Lawrence and Johnson County Community College, and you will see substantial numbers of KU students traveling to classes at JCCC. Many others take online community college classes in the summer, not only because of the convenience but because of the lower cost. Some university classes incorporate MOOCs in their instruction, supplementing the online materials with in-class discussions and problem-solving.

The upshot of all this is that a college education is not always centered on a single institution. Most universities treat it that way, but students are increasingly considering cost and convienience. And as long as the cost of a college education pushes large numbers of students into debt and the demand for flexibility in scheduling and class format grows, there will be opportunities for outside organizations to step in with alternative approaches to higher education.

Perception and reality of university budgets

Those of us in higher education know all too well that states have slashed funding for colleges and universities over the last 10 years.

Yes, “slashed” is the right work. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that states’ spending on higher education is $9 billion lower today than it was in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

That message apparently hasn’t gotten through to the American public, though.

According to a poll conducted by APM Research Lab and the Hechinger Report, 34% of Americans think funding for higher education has stayed the same over the last 10 years, and 27 percent think it has increased. (We wish.) Only 29 percent realize that funding has actually declined.

More people realize that government-financed grants and loans have not kept up with tuition increases. In the APM-Hechinger poll, 44 percent said they knew that. Disturbingly, though, about the same percentage said they thought that government aid had either increased or stayed the same.

The poll showed some interesting disparities among various groups. I won’t go into those other than to say that Easterners seem better informed than Westerners and Democrats better informed than Republicans. The abysmal overall understanding, though, should send a clear message to those of us who work in higher education: We need to do a better job of communicating with the public.

Briefly …

EdSurge asks an intriguing question – Is creativity a skill? – and then seeks answers from the perspective of various professions. … The University of Missouri plans to add five new undergraduate degrees and four new graduate degrees as part of its plan to increase enrollment by 25,000 students by 2023, The Missourian reports. … From the this sounds familiar department, a committee in the Missouri House of Representatives is considering a bill that would allow concealed carry of firearms on public university campuses. … Moody’s has issued a new warning about the finances of universities as enrollment flattens or declines, Education Dive reports. … Speaking of finances, Blackboard has agreed to sell one of its businesses and plans to move its headquarters outside Washington, D.C., as part of an effort to reduce its substantial debt, an analyst writes in e-Literate. …


Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.