Thinking about college for free

When I was in high school, I wrote an extremely lengthy letter the editor of our local weekly newspaper responding to my English teacher who had written an op-ed column complaining that students in my high school were given a free pass (we couldn’t be counted absent) to attend school-related events like debate tournaments and athletic competitions. I’m extremely grateful that I was in high school in the pre-Internet age because it means my fifteen-year-old righteously indignant prose has been lost to history, but I remember feeling that he just didn’t get it if he thought that what was going on in the classroom was the only learning I needed to do in high school.

I went to a largish high school in a small town and while academic success was valued, academic ambition was more unusual. I was definitely considered weird for wanting to go away to college, or really even for thinking that it made a difference which school I went to.  Not necessarily bad-weird, but weird nonetheless.   It was more common to think that college was college and price and convenience were as important as anything else in the where-should-I-go decision.

While I learned a lot doing things like debate, sometimes I think the most important academic impact those activities had on me was that they opened up my academic world view – bringing me in contact with people who thought differently about where they were going to go to college and what they might get out of college than the people I was used to.

I was thinking about that this morning when I read these musings on the possibility of a “Distributed University” at Weblogg-ed.  To paraphrase roughly, the question here is what does all of this disruption in information, communication and knowledge mean for the university — aren’t the alternatives to college as we know it becoming increasingly visible and viable?  Because I find a lot to resonate with in the idea that the alternatives are becoming more visible and viable.  And in the connections drawn here between the ability to pull together disaggregated academic content and lifelong learning.   But I found that I wanted to think some more about the value of college beyond the content – Richardson’s not claiming that because the content is free the college is free, but he doesn’t spend his time on this question and I wanted to.

Enter Alex Reid, coming at some of the same ideas from a different direction in his post on what it would take for a university to be free.  He goes immediately past the idea that free content = free college and looks at what he calls cross-subsidies (an idea pulled from Chris Anderson’s blog).

I like this  idea of cross-subsidies as a way of thinking about the more of “college is more than the classroom” or more than the content.  And really, more than the credential.  Both Richardson and Reid acknowledge that the credential is important but don’t linger on that topic – because it’s not really the compelling thing about this question.  The diploma’s not the value of the college experience to those who think there’s something inherently valuable about it and diploma doesn’t add value to those who believe it can be replicated by other experiences.  Isn’t that why so many of us get frustrated by conversations that seem to focus on the credential over the learning?

But I’m still curious to hear what people think is that added value.  Given that almost everyone who reads this did a lot of extra college, at least somewhat voluntarily, I think most found something they valued in the experience.  And I’d be surprised if it’s remotely the same thing for everyone.
Reid talks about the mentoring-coaching-advising role of faculty in his post, and how to recreate that in a free environment, which is fascinating.  For me, you’d also have to figure out a way to recreate the experience of having classmates.  As he describes, my relationships with faculty varied a lot from class to class.  But the experience of going away to school, with a bunch of strangers who had come from different backgrounds than I had and who brought different experiences with them to college – that was transformative.

The How College Affects Students guy pulls out expanding our understanding of diversity as his #3 goal in an article outlining his opinions on what kind of research we should be doing on what college means.

interactions with a diverse spectrum of people, ideas, values, and perspectives that are different from one’s own and challenge one’s assumed views of the world have the potential for important developmental impacts during college.

And the interesting thing is – this sounds like what I’m talking about when I talk about the importance of going away to college and meeting people not like me.  But it’s really only part of the picture.  Because it wasn’t just about meeting people who challenged my world view.  For me, the experience of meeting people who were different than I was used to sometimes meant meeting people who were more like me than the people I had known before.

Just being from Oregon made me kind of unusual in college, which was cool.  But wanting to be in that kind of academic environment, having aspirations for graduate school, wanting to do academic-y things — that didn’t make me stand out at all.   And that was cool as well.

Where this isn’t as smart as what you’ll find on Digital Digs, though, is that I don’t really have any good ideas for how to replicate this experience in a free university.  I’ve been thinking and writing for a while now on the importance of finding learning communities both in school and as part of a lifelong learning agenda – and I think part of of the disruption and opportunity mentioned in both of these posts relates to that idea.

But perhaps more to the point is something else Reid says — that the point isn’t trying to create a perfect college experience.  I’ve told prospective students before that it’s possible to get a good education or a bad education almost anywhere – but some places make it harder than others.  How to make a free university where it’s hard to get by without at some point running across potentially transformative people and experiences — that’s the question.  And as usual, I’m more interested in thinking about the questions than answering them.

One thought on “Thinking about college for free

  1. Very few of the undergrads I’ve come across as a professor could simply jump into constructing their own programs of study out of whole cloth from high school. Quite frankly, as ready as I was for college, it wasn’t until I pretty well reached the end where I would say with confidence that I could have constructed a meaningful major for myself. This would seem to be a necessity for a “distributed” university to work.

    Like you, I would stress the importance of peer relationships, which I find difficult to envision a virtual university replicating. Co-curricular activities like forensics would be an extension of this. And those “deep” late night conversations in the dorms or shared house do happen, and I think that being in the same environment for at least broadly similar reasons and with a common structure is the foundation for those experiences.

    As is often the case with these kinds of conversations, the real trick is not how to replace one model with another, but finding ways for different models to co-exist.

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