Among the voices raised in panic at growing college tuition that threatens to price half the country out of a college education, there remains at least one that's calm and optimistic. Vance H. Fried, who wrote a paper outlining how by the year 2020 colleges could run entire residential programs all without charging more than $8,000 in tuition, sees hope.
Fried is far from a crank. He's a professor of entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University and his newest paper – College 2020 – is only the latest salvo in a fight to convince people that matter that attending college need not be ruinously expense.
He feels that the higher education system in this country is ossified due the fact that it has not had to deal with any kind of competitive pressure in decades. Such competitive pressure has now come, he believes, in the form of online education.
Some commentators worry that tuition-dependent colleges will have to go out of business because they can't control their costs and low-priced suppliers are going to take away their students. But Fried thinks that colleges and universities can survive, if they act soon.
Education will become "radically cheaper in stages," says Fried, with the result that "existing colleges and universities will have to change or risk losing large numbers of students."
Those colleges and universities can survive because many people want "the college experience"—that is, living on campus, making friends, interacting personally with professors, and enjoying campus activities such as football games.
The real kick in the pants to colleges won't be the stupendously popular massive online open courses. Instead, it is the excitement over MOOCs that's obscuring the real agents of change – the adoption of online education that works in tandem with the traditional means of delivering knowledge. He calls this Online version 1.3.
Technology now is improving on these features, beginning to create what Fried calls Online 2.0. Not only are these courses full of varied content, they are adaptive—that is, they can test the student while he or she is working and, depending on the student's responses, provide customized material to enhance learning. This enables the student to master the fundamentals before moving to higher-level work.
This adaptive technology opens up vast possibilities, including a curriculum based on a "coordinated set of competencies" rather than a "hodge-podge of courses," says Fried.
This approach is best seen in College for America, a program that's part of the University Southern New Hampshire. In a move that has just received the approval of the USDOE, it plans to eliminate credits for courses and replace them with competencies that each student must master before they are awarded an associates and eventually a bachelor's degree.