Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Ray of Sunshine

Student debt is a problem that didn’t exist fifteen years ago. Today something on the order of $1.3 Trillion in student loans is choking the life out of the Millennial generation. These young people are graduating (or not) with significant amounts of debt that can not be discharged--even in bankruptcy.

The presence of near limitless amounts of Government backed loans has allowed institutions of higher education to increase the cost of a degree at 5 times the rate of inflation. Today, the cost of an education no longer has any connection with the value of an education. I received my first degree from Furman University, a small high quality school that mainly offers degrees in liberal arts, social sciences, and the fine arts. Today the cost of a Furman diploma is pushing the $250,000 mark. Most of the degrees granted by that institution simply aren’t worth that kind of money. A degree in English Literature is relatively worthless in today’s economy. If you just insist on getting an English degree, one can be obtained down the road from the University of South Carolina for about $60,000 for an instate commuting student. An additional advantage might be if you are good enough to be accepted at Furman you are probably good enough to get at least a partial scholarship from the University of South Carolina.

Is a Furman degree likely to generate four times more income than a comparable degree from USC? Unfortunately, I learned that outside the southeast nobody has ever heard of Furman. You say, “Furman.”

They ask, “Fordham?”

There is a ray of sunshine piercing the darkness. Recently Georgia Tech made the unprecedented offer of an online Master’s Degree in Computer Science for $7,000! Georgia Tech is one of the finest engineering schools in the country. Their graduates are particularly prized by private industry as the education they received is viewed as more immediately useful than the education offered at elite universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At first I was suspicious that online courses would not offer the quality of a classroom learning environment. However, a young woman I know quite well completed her undergraduate degree through online courses offered by Regent University. The education she received from Regent was as good or better than anything I have seen on campus. I thought some of her senior classes were closer to graduate level work than what I did as a liberal arts undergraduate.

Starbucks has just announced a program that takes it one step further. Basically, they are offering their employees the opportunity to obtain a four year degree in any major at zero cost from Arizona State University’s online program. This is unprecedented! Even good employers only offer tuition reimbursement for courses or degrees that will directly increase your value to the company. I can just imagine what one of my grouchy old school engineering managers might have to say if I requested tuition reimbursement for a course in Buddhist Psychology.

How can they do this? Think about it. Would Starbucks get a better deal buying coffee by the ton from a single supplier or would they get the better deal if each of their stores bought coffee by the pound from local grocers? By combining the power of Kevin Kelly’s law that predicts over time the cost of digital content will asymptotically approach zero with the best bid from a single supplier, they have dropped the cost they will pay for education to the point they can offer their employees this amazing benefit.

I don’t know the numbers, but let’s say Starbucks can get one of their employees a degree in English Literature for $15,000. That is a reasonable guess since Georgia Tech is offering what is usually a two year degree for $7,000. All of a sudden the relationship between cost and value becomes much closer to reality. The cost to the student is nothing but their time.

I am truly excited. If this kind of program takes off, we are looking at a revolution in the cost and availability of higher education, not only in this country but all over the planet. They don’t call it the World Wide Web for nothing. The availability of a low cost, high value alternative to the traditional classroom education will force providers like my beloved alma mater, Furman University, to return the cost of an education from cloud cuckoo land to a price that a middle class family can actually afford, just like when I attended that school over forty years ago.

Here are the links if you want to learn the details.

Georgia Tech offers $7,000 Master’s in Computer Science

Starbucks Shells out $250 Million on Free College for Every Employee

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