Skipping School: A Look at Free Higher-Education Alternatives

An increasing number of free and cheap higher-education alternatives are changing post-secondary education.

When I was growing up there was never a question that I would attend college one day. My parents, both of whom have graduate degrees, would talk about higher education as if it were a foregone conclusion. "What do you want to study in college?" they'd ask pointedly, or "Where do you want to live after college?" Both my mother and father are relatively progressive and from working-class backgrounds, yet they'd never mention trade schools or, God forbid, skipping college altogether. College was just something people did, a rite of passage into a better life.

Today, many Americans are losing faith that a post-secondary education is a wise investment. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 57 percent of respondents said they believed that college "fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend." But 94 percent of parents surveyed said they still want their kids to attend college. An increasing number of Americans are forced to make a sad choice: Buy into an expensive higher education system you believe to be hugely problematic, or suffer the consequences of trying to earn a living without a college degree, which studies consistently show increase a person's earning power?

It wasn't always like this. In 1973, less than a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college. But once the jobs in manufacturing and agriculture disappeared almost at once, with them went the belief that you could make it in America without a college education. In the years since, college matriculation in the United States has skyrocketed. In 2009, 70 percent of graduating seniors immediately enrolled in four-year or community college. Naturally, college prices increased exponentially. From 1982 to 2007, though median family income rose only 147 percent, college tuition and fees grew a whopping 439 percent. And for 67 percent of students, getting a four-year college degree means acquiring debt along with it.

Most people know there's got to be a better way. What many don't know, however, is that there is a better way—or at least a few promising options.

"We are in the very nascent stages of a real change," says Peter Smith, author of the 2010 book, Harnessing America's Wasted Talent, "and that's being made possible by the notion that there are so many rich ways for people to learn now." He says that technology and innovation are creating "a new ecology of learning," which is the subtitle of his book.

Smith is a major proponent of Knext (pronounced "next") college credit advisors. Knext is a service that helps people interested in higher education get valuable course credits for skills they've obtained through life experience or on the job—some can even get credit for volunteer work. Knext then creates a portfolio for students to shop around their college-level learning to schools in order to see which will allow them to enter with the most credits. In theory, students could skip entire semesters if their life experience merits it.

"People are finding more and more that students are gaining a wealth of information from their daily lives, from their experiences, from jobs," says Smith. "There's tremendous coursework that doesn't happen in traditional classrooms anymore."

Smith also points to free online learning developments like iTunes University, where people can download lab videos and language lessons, as an example of emerging alternatives to college. For instance, anyone with an internet connection now has access to an entire MIT introduction to psychology course for free. You can also skip the middleman and go to MIT's free OpenCourseWare site, a databank of thousands of lectures, exams, and notes.

Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU) is a program after Smith's own heart. In partnership with Mozilla, P2PU is a burgeoning social learning project that "organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements," according to its website. Like its social learning cousins, P2PU uses information readily available on the internet for "classes" in which students can meet, study, share, and evaluate each other's work. What sets P2PU apart from things like iTunes U, however, is accreditation. Because unless alternative-education users have an official way to present their merit to potential employers, people with traditional degrees are going to continue dominating the labor force.

The Mozilla Foundation and P2PU are developing "badges," notifiers to potential employers that a person has completed coursework and is capable of doing what they say they can. "Imagine people could earn badges for their learning, skills and achievements regardless of where those occur or how they are achieved," Erin Knight, a badge and assessment specialist for P2PU, writes me in an email. "And the collection of badges could serve as a living transcript for each learner, telling a much more complete story about that person than traditional degrees or transcripts." She later adds, "I think this is the future."

Pippa Buchanan sure thinks it is. Buchanan is an Australian living in Austria as well as a dedicated P2PU community member. "As P2PU has technology and open collaborative processes at the heart of its platform, the skills that you develop as a learner differ from those learned in a normal college or university," she says. "Self-reliance, online research, a global mindset, and collaboration are all keys to success in P2PU and, increasingly, the modern world. Alternative learning better reflects how we need to interact in the future."

photo (cc) via Flickr user cdsessums

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