Degrees of Angst: Where Massachusetts Institutions Can Grow

This is a follow up post to a recent post I had on OnCampus with regards to state higher education in Massachusetts.

If the previous post seemed a bit dark, this one will provide some guiding lights for success and improvement in the overall quality of Massachusetts higher education.  The following suggestions offer ways of breaking down artificial barriers to improving success and attracting students. 
Image of a broken chain.  Source:

Break the Semester

If a student takes a course in the spring semester and must withdraw by mid-February (e.g. a new job, a family crisis, illness), it is a failure of the traditional semester structure that in some instances, the student will not be able to take that course again for six-months to a year.  How does putting a students’ academic careers on hold for four months to a two years make sense?

Transparent Costs

It can take less than five mouse clicks on Amazon to get the full price including tax and shipping of any purchase.  There is no equivalent for colleges.  Never mind that navigating college websites are endless labyrinths, but no state institute empowers students to know quickly and clearly exactly how much they will pay in anything less than twenty mouse clicks (if not more). 

Stop Pretending Fees Are Different

Higher education should quit playing the used car salesperson when it comes to the costs of education.  Breaking up the cost to students with “tuition” and “fees” is often unnecessary noise to the student.  Typically, “fees” elsewhere are relatively small (e.g. A.T.M. fee, overdraft fee, etc), but when fees exceed tuition several times over, it is not only confusing, but produces skepticism about the practices of higher education.  Students are left wondering what exactly they are paying for and why.  Colleges should provide a single clear calculable cost to education and when possible, a clear itemized explanation of the catch-all “fees.” 

Stop Externalizing Costs

Image of books with "Open Education Resources" on the cover.  Source:
The average community college student will pay $1200 a year for their textbooks.  Therefore, by graduation, they will have paid for nearly a semester’s worth of education on books or resources that they might not even be able to access afterwards (especially as publishers switch from ownership to access models with ebooks).  Because such costs vary widely from semester to semester, it means students are incapable of knowing the full cost of a semester often until they are within weeks or days of the start of the semester.  Unstable and costly additions to students’ education, especially when the Open Educational Resources movement increasingly provides highly comparative material seems like an opportunity to

Transparent Learning

Colleges still cling to the course catalogue, an antiquated resource for course information.  In no other context, would someone willingly fork over hundreds of dollars based upon a five hundred character description of a three-month commitment.  This generic explanation of a course cannot provide students with any real understanding of their commitment in a specific section, when there are at times well over one hundred sections of a course.  The description as it currently stands does little to prepare students for learning nor does it resemble any respectable business practice.  That every college does not allow or require more information about specific sections seems a tremendous waste in the digital age especially when students are registering more online than through mail-in or face-to-face registration. 

Though faculty lament the use of, students use these sites because colleges fail to provide accurate and timely information about their courses.  When faced with one hundred sections of Composition 101, how does the student determine what is the best fit for his or her learning beyond what fits into a schedule?

Flex The Course

Brick and mortar colleges need to think about what they can do that that online colleges or MOOCs cannot.  In particular, colleges need to ponder how students can have more flexibility.  For instance, allowing students to move from an online course into a face-to-face course or from one course section into another could improve completion and student success.  This is something that the MOOCs and the online colleges cannot replicate—flexibility and seamlessness across platforms of learning.   

State institutions provide innumerable services to their students and communities.  They have helped many improve lives and achieve dreams.  The Degrees of Urgency report coupled with the overall trend of declining support for public higher education paint a dark picture for the future of state education in Massachusetts and elsewhere.  Colleges and universities that wish to avoid the ensuing turmoil would do best to incorporate some or all of these practices.  Their students will thank them for it. 

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