DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

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DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education
Anya Kamenetz
Chelsea Green Publishing
208 pages

American higher education operates with what author Anya Kamenetz describes as “the only acceptable form of prejudice left” in the United States.

The nation’s top colleges and universities all compete for the smartest and richest students while doing very little to meet the education needs of low-income, disadvantaged youth. And because employers look to these well-known academic institutions to provide qualified workers, the schools also strongly influence the choice of who gets the best jobs after graduation.

“College is nothing more than an elaborate and expensive mechanism for employers to identify the people who were smarter and harder workers and had all the social advantages in the first place,” Kamenetz writes in her influential 2010 book.  “… Much of the higher learning is not a return on education but a monopoly rent on (1) the scarcity of parents who can afford to educate their children well and (2) the restrictions to members permitted into a profession which existing members have a financial interest in maintaining scarcity.”

Kamenetz’s analysis calls into question the democratic notion that members of the economic underclass have the opportunity to improve their lot in life simply by aspiring to get a traditional college degree. It also has become part of a burgeoning revolt among middle-class students who are looking for ways to save money by getting a cut-rate college education using online sources and free curricula.

Historically, colleges and universities have succeeded in improving their reputations simply by raising tuition and, at the same time, becoming more selective. Kamenetz and others believe those days are over. Her book argues that the American higher education system is being forced to radically change the way it operates in order to educate more students and produce a sufficient number of college graduates needed for the workforce in the future.

A new model for college education, says Kamenetz, will be founded on cost-cutting measures,  such as the use of technology to replace some high-priced tenured professors and other changes that make good education available to a broader array of young people. “Universities may be on the brink of a phase change from something monolithic to something more fluid,” she says, “a sea of smaller, more specialized and diverse institutions offering a greater variety of learning opportunities, a cloud of ideas, texts and conversations.”

Kamenetz catalogs new forms of educational approaches already available to low-income youth who have no opportunity to be admitted to a leading university. These include job-oriented certificate programs, online courses and materials available to people who cannot attend daytime classes, new forms of accreditation, and websites that enable students to create their own “personal learning networks.”

All of the innovations she describes are expected to challenge the academic elitism that helps to sustain a large applicant pool at top private and public colleges and universities. Kevin Carey, a scholar at the Education Sector, told Kamenetz the coming increase in the number of low-income youth seeking a college degree will make it necessary for many low- or average-ranking postsecondary schools to stop trying to emulate Harvard and Yale by raising prices and limiting admissions. He noted that for-profit universities have already proven their worth to the economy by providing options for low-income students who do not have stellar high school academic records.

No one knows whether the American higher education system can expand fast enough to serve all of the graduates who will be needed for available jobs in the next few decades. Only about 30 percent of the nation’s young people are getting college degrees. The Lumina Foundation estimates that the number needs to climb to 60 percent by 2025 to fulfill the nation’s workforce needs.

The government can help by adopting new policies that do not favor selective colleges, Kamenetz argues. In the early 1970s, the newly created Pell Grants financed about 80 percent of the average cost of tuition at a public university. Today, Pell pays for less than one-third of the cost.  As a result, graduates who finished school during the 2007-08 term owed an average of $23,300 in student debt.

 Bob Shireman at the Project for Student Debt says the government must adopt policies that favor low-income youth. “The only way to reach the numbers we need in order to be internationally competitive is to improve equity,” he told Kamenetz. “Increasing access means reaching kids who are hard to reach – the low-income and underrepresented minorities who are not completing college at the same rates.”

Instead of providing scholarship aid to students in highly selective institutions, he said, the government should tell these colleges and universities they can “get more loan money if your tuition is below average for the sector and if you have higher completion rates for Pell grant recipients.” The book also recommends that Congress revise the bankruptcy law to allow people who declare bankruptcy to be relieved of their student debt, as they are of most other debts.

Not only are online courses cheaper for colleges to sponsor, says Kamenetz, they also improve the learning process, when combined with some classroom work. “What edupunk – DIY education, if you will – promises is an evolution from expensive institutions to expansive networks; it aims to fulfill the promise of universal education, but only by leaving the university behind. … Ideas travel faster over informal, digitally connected networks than when they are siloed inside academic departments. Such networks are especially useful in emerging cross-disciplinary frontiers of research, where there are no established departments.”

Much of the thinking behind this newly developing strategy is derived from the work of Ivan Illich, who wrote Deschooling Society in 1971. Illich argued that schools alienate students from their own curiosity and ability by “teaching the need to be taught.” John Meyer of Stanford University, an expert on the sociology of higher education, says the “hidden curriculum” of most colleges and universities “has always been teaching its own importance.” One online source of learning for post-secondary students, The School of Everything, was inspired by Illich’s writing.

Kamenetz opens her book by noting that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has posted all of its course materials online. To get credit for using these materials, a student must be enrolled at MIT. But the information is available to other schools around the world, as well as to students who do not care about getting college credit. Carnegie Mellon University has a similar project.

Among the many websites that offer academic papers, lectures or courses are AcaWiki; TED Talk; Open Course Ware Consortium; Connexions; Community College Consortium for Open Education Resources; Wiki-University; Open University in the United Kingdom; Open Yale Courses; SpaceEd; Academic Earth; YouTubeEd, and  ITunes U.

Peer2peer University is an online social network for learners; University of the People is promoted by the United Nations; College Unbound is a three-year experimental learning community that offers a degree from Roger Williams College; Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., offers degrees to those with work experience;  California Institute for Integral Studies helps adults complete their bachelor’s degrees; Free School offers education for social change; and Southern New Hampshire University provides an online program for $10,000 a year. Teachstreet and School of Everything offer both free and paid courses online; Edufire and Knewton offer video tutoring, and Grockit offers test preparation. Other sources of information about independent learning are the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator; Bon Educatatuib; College Choices for Adults, National Center for Academic Transformation, and Education Degree Source Web. Those specializing in internships or part-time jobs for students include Public Allies and CB Campus.com.