The President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable

President Obama announced an plan yesterday to improve college affordability.  While much of the media focus has been on a new college ratings system, the plan also included a significant digital learning component.  From the White House fact sheet:

Promote Innovation and Competition

A rising tide of innovation has the potential to shake up the higher education landscape.  Promising approaches include three-year accelerated degrees, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and “flipped” or “hybrid” classrooms where students watch lectures at home and online and faculty challenge them to solve problems and deepen their knowledge in class. Some of these approaches are still being developed, and too few students are seeing their benefits. The federal government can act as a catalyst for innovation, spurring innovation in a way that drives down costs while preserving quality.

To promote innovation and competition in the higher education marketplace, the President’s plan will publish better information on how colleges are performing, help demonstrate that new approaches can improve learning and reduce costs, and offer colleges regulatory flexibility to innovate.  And the President is challenging colleges and other higher education leaders to adopt one or more of these promising practices that we know offer breakthroughs on cost, quality, or both – or create something better themselves:

  • Award Credits Based on Learning, not Seat Time. Western Governors University is a competency-based online university serving more than 40,000 students with relatively low costs— about $6,000 per year for most degrees with an average time to a bachelor’s degree of only 30 months. A number of other institutions have also established competency-based programs, including Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Wisconsin system.
  • Use Technology to Redesign Courses. Redesigned courses that integrate online platforms (like MOOCs) or blend in-person and online experiences can accelerate the pace of student learning. The National Center for Academic Transformation has shown the effectiveness of the thoughtful use of technology across a wide range of academic disciplines, improving learning outcomes for students while reducing costs by nearly 40 percent on average. Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative has developed a hybrid statistics course used at six public universities, and its students performed as well as their peers in a traditional course in only 75 percent of the time. Arizona State University’s interactive algebra lessons helped students perform 10 percent better, despite meeting half as often, and at a lower cost.  The University of Maryland redesigned an introductory psychology course, reducing costs by 70 percent while raising pass rates.  New York’s Open SUNY initiative brings together every online program offered system-wide, helping students complete more quickly.
  • Use Technology for Student Services.  Online learning communities and e-advising tools encourage persistence and alert instructors when additional help is needed. Technology is enabling students from across campuses and across the world to collaborate through online study groups and in-person meet-ups.  MOOC-provider Coursera has online forums in which the median response time for questions posed by students is 22 minutes. To help students choose the courses that will allow them to earn a degree as quickly as possible, Austin Peay State University has developed the “Degree Compass” system that draws on the past performance of students in thousands of classes to guide a student through a course, in a similar manner to the way Netflix or Pandora draw on users’ past experience to guide movie or music choices.
  • Recognize Prior Learning and Promote Dual Enrollment. Colleges can also award credit for prior learning experiences, similar to current Administration efforts to recognize the skills of returning veterans.  Dual-enrollment opportunities let high school students earn credits before arriving at college, which can save them money by accelerating their time to degree.

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