Friday, February 16, 2007

The Missing Link

By Richard Vedder

One reason I hired Bryan O'Keefe to help me lead CCAP was that he thinks like I do. So last night, when I read the Wall Street Journal story on the increase in free instructional materials by leading universities via the Internet, I said to myself "I am going to blog about this tomorrow." The ever diligent Bryan beat me to it, saying what I was going to say, and saying it well.

The issue is important enough, however, for me to elaborate a tad on what Bryan said. M.I.T., Stanford, Notre Dame, Yale, etc. can put syllabuses, lecture notes, even video lectures on the Internet, and students get 80-90 percent of what the instructional component of universities are all about. They miss the opportunity to ask questions, to receive career and other advice, to be evaluated on their learning, and, most critically, to be credentialed. They also miss out on the socializaiton or country club dimensions of higher ed, and the networking that sometimes helps get jobs. But pretty much all of the core purpose of higher education is being provided free via the open source movement started by M.I.T., to whom we as a nation owe a hardy "thank you."

Yet I bet the use of the free materials is not yet overwhelming. Why? People realize that the economic value of college comes from the certification, not the knowledge obtained. Say you have a B.S. from M.I.T. and you can easily get a $45,000 job fresh out of school. Say that you have a high school diploma and studied and learned well everything that the B.S. student did via the Internet; you might get $25,000. The employer does not know that you know what you claim, or are as good as you claim. Information costs are high.

The missing link for a true revolution in higher education? Having someone go into the certification business --verifying that students have knowledge equivalent to a bachelor's degree. Possibilities of providers include the College Board, Education Testing Service, ACT, Underwriters Laboratories, a consortium of universities or states, CHEA (the Council on Higher Education Accreditation), the universities themselves, or a combination of all of the above. Maybe a Underwriter Laboratories certified degree would be considered the Harvard of certification of on-line learning, and the ACT certification would be, say, equivalent to a Michigan State or University of Oregon certification.The U.S. Department of Education, no doubt, would want to certify the certifiers (as they do now).

By the way, Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. will not die when the $1000 certification of the $150,000 Ivy League education learned on the Internet comes. College is where you meet your wife, make contacts that help vocationally, and have a heck of a lot of fun --carnal knowledge sometimes trumps book knowledge. People will go to residential colleges for the same reason they join clubs. But as Bryan says, this would be a great revolution in higher education.

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