Cheap (or 'Free') Is Not the Only Answer for Higher Education

03/27/2014 09:10 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2014

It is increasingly apparent that more students than ever are scrutinizing the value of college degrees. Because of the recent struggles of graduates to find meaningful employment after college, many students, parents, and others are no longer willing to accept that a college degree is the key to some undefined success at some undefined date. What will I do after I have my degree? How much will I owe when I graduate? These are just two of the questions being asked by students as they assess how to achieve their career goals because, among other reasons, tuition has continued to rise as state support for higher education has diminished.

There have been expected reactions to increasing tuition, lack of new money to support higher education, and more interest on the parts of students and parents in the return on their investment in their degrees. Most of those reactions have been focused on creative and proactive ways to decrease the cost for students without increasing revenue for the colleges and universities.

In Oregon we have high-school transition (HST), advanced college placement (ACP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) opportunities for high-school students to obtain a year or more of college credits at greatly reduced cost before entering college. This encourages good students to start college early and either allows them either to complete their post-secondary degrees in less time or allows them the opportunity to explore a wider array of courses/minors/majors offered in university settings.

There also have been discussions and trials underway nationally and regionally focused on decreasing the cost of education, including three-year degrees, reducing the credit hours required for a degree, various dollar caps on degrees (e.g., $10,000 degrees), so-called "free" degrees, even degrees that allow payment at a later date based on income (e.g., "pay-it-forward"). Some or all of these options may work under certain circumstances, but even collectively, they do not provide a panacea for education moving into the future. Why do I believe that the current suite of cost-reduction options do not really address the needs of higher education into the future? Because these mostly politically motivated proposals address price borne by students (as opposed to actual cost) and completely ignore value.

The automobile industry provides an interesting analogy for what is happening in higher education now. When Henry Ford set out to make an automobile that everyone could afford, he revolutionized the way automobiles were manufactured through mass production, which became the industry standard for the next century. The cars were both good and cheap because of a revolutionary change in how they were produced.

Now contrast the Ford example with the Yugo. Hailed as a breakthrough in bringing inexpensive automobiles to U.S. consumers, the Yugo had a lot of fanfare well before sales actually commenced in the States. And why wouldn't there be enormous fanfare? A car for less than $4,000! But what began as a version of great expectations quickly became a remarkable failure by almost any measure. So what happened? To somewhat oversimplify the situation, Zastava (the manufacturer of Yugo) did not revolutionize the manufacturing process of the Yugo; they simply built an inexpensive car, which turned out to be such a poorly made car that most consumers decided it wasn't worth buying even at a low price. And review after review panned the quality of Yugo, irrespective of its amazingly low price.

Now back to higher education and many of the (mostly legislatively driven) short, inexpensive, and/or so-called "free" degrees. I predict that without a revolutionary change in how education is delivered (i.e., how post-secondary graduates are manufactured), we are headed down a line more analogous to the Yugo than to the beginnings of Ford. Shortcuts will be taken, allegedly superfluous parts will be omitted, and general attention to detail will wane. In order to meet political and popular mandates that colleges and universities produce graduates cheaply and quickly, higher education is in danger of being forced to award Yugo degrees.

If students are awarded degrees that are not as high-quality as the degrees that previous graduates obtained, there is the danger that these cheaper and faster degrees will weaken and cheapen the reputation of all the degrees awarded from that college or university. Yes, there will always be a segment of society that wants cheap at any price, but certainly not everyone feels that way. For instance, at Oregon Tech, we have options for students to earn two degrees or an undergraduate and advanced degree or certificate in the time it often takes to obtain a traditional undergraduate degree in a polytechnic university. These value-added degrees will continue to emphasize Oregon Tech's quality, hands-on teaching, and real-world experiences.

So until there is a Ford-like revolution in the manufacturing of higher-education graduates (perhaps rigorous assessment and credit for prior learning with concomitant migration away from seat time and credit hours is such a revolution in the making), I fear that we will be mandated to produce cheap, less-educated graduates, all because, in my opinion, state legislative bodies are unwilling to admit that they bear the primary responsibility for the increased price of post-secondary education through years of disinvestment in public colleges and universities.

Henry Ford found a better way to make low-cost but still high-quality automobiles for a broad segment of the American population, and he became one of the richest people in the world for his efforts. Contrast this with the Yugo, where there was no revolution in manufacturing, just production of a cheaply made car. The laudable efforts to lower the price of education for students may lead to a revolution in education delivery or may just result in cheaper degrees with a lower value. When legislators demand delivery of a cheap education, they risk producing graduates with what amounts to a "Yugo degree": It will be cheap, but it likely will have little lasting value either to the graduates or to society.