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Presidential Politics & College Affordability in the Uber Age


OK, so college affordability is going to be a hot button issue in the presidential race. Good. Game on.


Love the idea that college should be an entitlement — that brainchild applied to the GI Bill totally jumpstarted the American Dream era. But I’m not the first one to say that gap funding the traditional college system is unaffordable at today’s prices. Taxing the rich to cover all students’ costs for community college is not realistic. New federal subsidies or not, states like Arizona are leaving the playing field and community colleges everywhere struggle to support the noble mandate. Look at the UK. After hundreds of years, the free college for everyone policy was officially abandoned three years ago and the government money set aside for income contingent loan forgiveness is already deemed woefully inadequate. Some of my college-ready British nieces and nephews are turning to trades, like bricklaying and woodworking.


I want to raise my hand with the group that believes true affordability for large swaths of non-elite students only seems possible in a world where power is shifting from the institutions to the learners. As in: students crowd source courses and experiences to customize an affordable degree by shopping for multiple providers. (See The Learner Revolution). Think of the Uber driver as a free agent college curator for each consumer. Pulling up (virtually) in a black car to recommend a free calculus course, an outlet-priced ExEd engineering seminar, a three-month apprenticeship for credit. Well, if higher ed is getting “Uber-ized”, and the traditional colleges/universities are the Taxi Commission, we need to think hard about government’s role in the new ecosystem. Maybe the voting public won’t be ready to digest this reality until the 2020 election.


Apparently, the VC world is one step ahead of us. In the first half of 2015, as ed-tech investment hits a record high, analysts are seeing a trend toward investment in direct-to-consumer companies, whereas previously the hot market was companies that provide services to colleges., Pluralsight, General Assembly, CodeAcademy — you’ve probably heard about these direct-to-student targeted companies. And now, even the White House is asking whether Title IV funds should be available to students who want to order off a broader menu of learning options than any one institution has to offer. That’s the learner revolution. And the “old” schools are feeling the churn, which is one reason there is a sudden swell of interest in data analytics at universities.



I don’t know how to feel about the beloved tenured professor in higher ed that is perhaps the analogy to the taxi driver losing business to the on-demand Uber system, who now needs to moonlight as an Uber driver himself. I was profoundly saddened when I saw this activist poster in a college town grocery store last week, summing up the difference in pay and opportunity between traditional and adjunct professors.


But, let me close on a positive note. As one participant at the White House meeting, George Siemens, opined in a blog post, most of the innovation in higher ed is happening at existing institutions. Teaching innovation to college administrators at ASU and Georgetown, I have learned the same. The main thing holding old schools back from being new schools is funding. So the candidates are right to look for federal funding as the states retreat from higher ed commitments. But can we use that money to design for the future state?


– Kathleen deLaski