Affordability in Higher Ed
There must be an election coming. Like me, you’re probably besieged for donations hourly, each email tagged with an issue personalized just for you, in an effort to pry open our wallets. With wallet firmly shut, I did click through to read about President Obama’s support of a bill to allow borrowers the opportunity to refinance their student loans (co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass).
Although the bill has stalled, and the usual partisan shenanigans are playing out, it’s clear that affordability is top of mind for people thinking about higher education—and there’s nothing more affordable than free.
College (Caffeine Optional)
Starbucks and Arizona State University just announced an intriguing tuition reimbursement plan trumpeted as “free college” for the company’s 135,000 employees, including your favorite barista who may be holding down two jobs. In the same vein, I came across another “free college” story, this one involving the less well-known Tulsa Community College. Tulsa Achieves … “is a gap-funding program that provides up to 100 percent of tuition and fees to Tulsa County high school graduating seniors who enroll at Tulsa Community College the fall after graduation. The program pays for up to 63 college credit hours or three years of college, whichever comes first.”
Barriers Beyond Tuition
The Starbucks program still requires significant investment from participants and doesn’t necessarily address other questions in the completion equation like time to completion or readiness to benefit from open access or affordable opportunities. Arizona State offers an unquestionably robust online program that can increase opportunities, but if it takes more than six years to finish in between foaming cappuccinos, the risk of non-completion increases exponentially. Likewise, if students aren’t prepared to engage in credit bearing, college level work, years of developmental education to catch up also cut the chances of completing dramatically.
While there are no easy answers here, it’s heartening to see demonstrated efforts toward making degree attainment less burdensome—on Capitol Hill, at Starbucks and at Arizona State. We have to start somewhere. Innovation is not for the squeamish or the perfectionists; it’s for those who are willing to get started, listen and observe carefully and keep iterating until we get it right.