Washington DC – Occupy DC.” Credited: ThisIsBossi

May 1, 2017; Minneapolis StarTribune

“What makes you qualified for this job?”

That question is among the most common ones in job interviews, and the answer often starts with education. It’s increasingly believed that to be successful in the American job market, one must have a higher education degree. NPQ has written about the skyrocketing costs of higher education and how the American student debt market has ballooned almost beyond belief. U.S. student debt reached a record $1.31 trillion this past year, even though only around half of students who start college graduate.

As might be expected in a market with a high-priced commodity and thousands of unsatisfied customers, there are disruptive agents ready to streamline the process and offer a new version of the same product—one that’s cheaper and, if its proponents are to be believed, better. Online education programs like Coursera, edX, MissionU, and Minerva offer alternative paths to students looking for higher ed credentials without the cost. NPQ has discussed whether the lower cost of online education causes students to value it less, or whether employers will see it as an easy option, and found that many students were surprised by the rigor of their courses.

Definitive research comparing online and traditional learning outcomes is lacking, but there is increasing consensus that blended or online learning produces similar outcomes. (Other studies have found that online resources are a poor supplement for in-person teacher engagement; the study of online education is still new.) Some research points out that students spent more time reviewing material when it’s presented online and they can go at their own pace and suggests students’ self-motivation and willingness to spend more time with the material is what drives their success.

As alternative education options proliferate, there are a number of questions worth asking. Is online course material sufficiently accessible to disadvantaged students to really level the playing field? If not, do providers have any responsibility to account for other factors that discourage students from advancing through education, given their stated missions? Is online education really a quality product, and where does it fail in relation to on-campus courses? Are those failings pertinent to the end goal of a higher education? What is that end goal?

The idea that college is for job training is very popular but not by any means universal. For one thing, job training programs only work for jobs we already know exist, and if experts tell us anything about the job market, it’s that many of the jobs we know will be obsolete by the time we’re trained for them. Other experts point out, as Rhett Allain did, “Clearly a workforce training program would kill one of the best aspects of a college experience—the opportunity to explore what makes us human.” Does alternative education teach critical thinking, analysis, curiosity, teamwork, and other skills that prepare students to participate meaningfully in society?

One startup, called the Minerva Project, argues that they can. The Minerva school combines online instruction with internships and travel to help students “develop the diverse knowledge and practical skills that will enable [them] to address the complex issues facing our planet.” The school claims to teach critical thinking skills to high-performing students. The nonprofit Minerva Institute (which is related to the for-profit Minerva Project, but separate) funds scholarships for students to attend Minerva, which already costs much less than most four-year universities.

Some employers are getting behind Minerva, MissionU, and other alternative providers’ idea that a four-year degree isn’t necessary to be a productive worker. Spotify, Lyft, Google, and the British offices of Ernst & Young have all dropped the requirement for a four-year degree from their hiring practices, to some degree or another. So should traditional universities be worried?

There are some factors that prevent alternative programs like Minerva from disrupting the traditional education market beyond the breaking point. For one thing, elite universities aren’t competing on cost. As Michael S. McPherson and Lawrence S. Bacow, both former university presidents, point out, “selective institutions of higher education actually compete to be among the least cost-effective providers of educational services.” Smaller class sizes, a proliferation of majors, attractive athletic and other facilities, and opportunities to interact with highly credentialed teaching faculty are all points that attract students to schools, and they are all extremely costly. In fact, online and alternative education programs mitigate costs by eliminating exactly those things.

For another, the highest levels of student debt are not accumulated at the most costly universities, but at the schools with more modest price points. Elite schools like Harvard and Princeton are wealthy enough to subsidize low-income attendees. Colleges in the middle of the price range, like SUNY Buffalo and Davenport, are starting to get the message and offer completion and employment incentives and assistance to students concerned about a high price tag. Whether spurred by the national outrage over escalating college costs or the threat from alternative programs, it’s a good thing to see higher education becoming accessible to more students.

And that’s the lesson for alternative education programs. They may not be for everyone, and they don’t prepare students for everything, but are they respectful and viable options that would avoid starting a work life with the promise of nearly lifelong debt?—Erin Rubin