The High Cost of Post-Secondary Education

University costs a lot of money. And a growing number of students, graduates and parents are questioning whether it is delivering value for money.

A university education in Canada today costs in the area of $14,500 per year, according to CanLearn. That translates into $58,000 for a four year degree. In the more expensive colleges in the US, this $58,000 translates into $100,000. In many cases in Canada, this is funded by student loans, which puts a heavy burden on our young people just at a stage in life when they are starting out and can least afford it. To make it worse, many of them can’t find jobs, even though they were promised that if they got a university education they “would be able to do anything they wanted to do”.

We’ve led many of our young people down the garden path, enticing them into programs that have little or no chance of yielding jobs, and luring them into a system that is bloated with costs derived from a pre-industrial, even medieval, approach to education. No wonder many of them are disillusioned.

Some students, being of a generation that tends to be plugged intuitively into the meaning of the information age in which we live, feel that we can do better. We saw some of them demonstrating in Quebec earlier this year, in many cases calling for free education and drawing a certain amount of ridicule and admonishment from segments of the public.

But they have a point. The system they are being advised to buy into has not yet graduated into the information age. It is possible to offer free education. And that doesn’t mean by having the taxpayers pay for it all. That, after all, isn’t free.

It is possible by offering the courses online, by constructing those courses so that they are interactive and respond to the needs of each and every individual student. By using advanced educational technology. Adaptive education is what some call it. And it uses technology extensively and comprehensively. We don’t need professors standing in front of a class and dispensing information. Information these days is free. Just google it. We need some interaction between professors and students on individual issues, and that can be done using technology.

The fact is, much of the learning students actually gain is achieved through their collaboration with their peers. And that’s the part of education most of them enjoy the most as well. Most of the learning takes place outside of the classroom, either through their own study time or in group learning situations. To accomplish all this, you don’t need a lot of class time, you don’t need professors lecturing, you don’t need the big expensive plants that we have today. You do need focused research facilities, and students to work on research teams. That’s another area where the real learning takes place.

There is already lots of precedent for online education. Not the old adaption of the mail based correspondence courses of the sixties, but the new version that uses advanced technology. Harvard is into it big time. As is MIT. Numerous universities are investing big money in this area. A whole new industry is being spawned by ventures like Coursera, which offers online courses that can have as many as 100,000 students in a single class. And they get individual attention through the power of technology. And for the average student seeking a BA degree, it can be done for free.

More on how it can be done in next week’s column.