How to Solve All Higher Education Problems in One Easy Step….sorta…

In the March 17 Post-Dispatch, a political cartoon lampooned the notion that lower academic standards would continue to erode SAT scores until the SAT “quality pencil” was nothing but a nub. The cartoon illustrates the continual push/pull between high school graduates and how well, or not-well, they are being prepared to qualify for college. I would make a suggestion to solve the situation once and for all: Eliminate college qualification standards.

The notion behind the entire qualifications charade is to make college exclusive, eliminating the dross students from the golden ones and creating an educated elite with its student body. This, at a time when our country needs precisely the opposite: a total well-educated citizenry that is employable in a post-industrial society. The 19th century concept of a university education being the preserve of the best-and-brightest runs head-long into the 21st century reality of a university education being necessary to earn a livable wage and navigate a sustainable economic future.

The simple solution to this dilemma is to eliminate all requirements to college entrance and make all institutions of higher ed “open” institutions: anyone can register and start classes; if you pass, then all well and good; if you fail, then better luck next time. This ends the circus that is the college entrance industry, the trauma that is the college acceptance game, and brings higher education into the 21st century.

In the United Kingdom, the Open University has helped educate 1.8 million people since 1969. Tuition is rock-bottom low, availability of classes universal, and the academic standards excellent. True, the Open University has no AAA football team masquerading as a scholar-athlete program, and they don’t have food courts like we see in the best shopping malls located in the student union, but it realizes that its mission is to make the best education available to the widest possible range of citizens, not create an academic gated community. It’s about the business of education, not re-creating a “college campus experience” for the creme de la creme of society.

Is it not time to admit that the current situation in higher ed is no longer sustainable? Just when we need higher ed the most in our society, we are pricing it out of reach for most of our citizens and creating an obstacle course of entrance requirements that has zero to do with education and all to do with exclusivity. The Open University in the U.K. is a great example of how we could educate 240,000 students/year, employing 7,000 tutors, 1,100 academic staff, and 3,500 support staff. We could learn a lot about how to respond to the disappearing dream of a higher education in the U.S. with the open university concept.

And then, when we fix that, we need to make higher education free, like elementary school and high school. But that’s another windmill for another joust later.

(Note: this was published in March of this year at StlToday.com Letters page. I thought it appropriate to re-post here, as the Republic of Germany announced last week that they have abolished all higher ed tuition. I wonder if Chancellor Angela Merkle read my letter?)

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