While Instructure had its IPO recently and McGraw-Hill Education has filled for its own IPO, this post is not about that type of investing. Rather, this has to do with efforts such as the recent Million Student March. Students and supporters around the country showed their support of free tuition, forgiveness of student loans, and $15 per hour campus employment. This event, while political, is really not a debate about student debt and high tuition; it is a change in the definition of “value” for many entering higher education. I thought I would share some of my thoughts that arose while following this event:
Free isn’t free. I have to wonder how many of the students demanding free tuition, forgiveness of all student loan debt, and a $15/hour minimum wage have ever held a full time job. At the same time, I wonder if the faculty and administrators supporting these calls are ready to work at average K-12 teachers’ and principals’ salaries in order to pay for such changes. Clearly, free isn’t free. In an era where cries for “small government” resound throughout, simply shouting “Make It Free” doesn’t address the real issue: what is the value of higher education? Are we over-investing in some models while under-investing in others? Is higher education’s definition of “value” the same as its customer? While I believe we all want to figure out how to provide higher education to more students for less money, “making it free” doesn’t set clear expectations about what students can expect from the education that they have (or have not) paid for.
Free vs Valued: There are very few examples of free goods or services retaining significant value and even when we have them (Wikipedia, Twitter), we often see them as “lesser”, especially from the academic side. Few would say our current model of “free K-12 education” is working for many of our students. And yet to deliver learning to all of these free higher education students, the higher education system would need to rely on and take advantage of every kind of OER made available. Could free education rely on free resources? We have started that experiment with MOOCs and while it is certainly a good option for some, it is doubtful that is what the vast majority of Million Student March participants are envisioning. Nonetheless, there are models of free higher education. However, these models, at least in their current iterations, are not yet valued by these same marching students.
It’s about the value, stupid: Debt is not inherently bad. It provides us the opportunity to do something/build something/own something and builds a credit history. The conversation shouldn’t be around debt but rather value. Imagine two high school classmates. One attends a 4-year university, does not work while there, and graduates with a Bachelor’s and $20,000 in debt. The other starts a small business, works 60 hours per week to get it started, and takes out a loan for $20,000 after a few years to fuel expansion, including hiring a couple employees. Is there a good reason why the former’s decision to take on debt should be looked upon more favorably than the latter’s? Only if the former is not getting value from that education. In many cases, to many students, that value is in being able to land that first job and be near the salary level of their counterparts who took the small business route. Perhaps students are measuring value differently from higher education institutions?
The advice I give to parents and high schools students remains the same—Understand your own expectations of the value of an education and ask questions around your definition of value. Think about where (if) you are going to attend college just as you would any other major investment decision. Recognize you are putting a down payment on your future and that the effort you do or do not put into nurturing that investment now will almost certainly have an impact on your future. And like other investments in life, there is never any guarantee.