If you were told that an educational institution existed that would enable you to earn a year of college credit at zero financial cost and with minimal hassle –from a for-profit private entrepreneurial venture — you would no doubt be suspicious. I receive several pitches a week from individuals trying to promote all sorts of innovations, so I was especially dubious of this proposition – until I talked to Grant Aldrich, the fellow who helped initiate this project, and after reflecting a bit on modern internet-based businesses.
Hundreds of millions daily use at zero cost an immensely popular social media platform, Facebook. It provides much joy to user’s lives. Moreover, Facebook, Inc. has, of this writing, a market capitalization of $539.6 billion and its founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is at age 34, one of the richest people in the world. I suspect Grant Aldrich thinks that the Facebook model can be replicated successfully in higher education. Aldrich’s website (https://onlinedegree.com) will provide users with free, high-quality online college-level courses, financed through advertising, sponsorships, etc., much like Facebook and Google do.
The venture is brand new and modest in scope and is just now ready to launch its project. It may lack the resources, the entrepreneurial talent, and the number of courses needed to make it a go, but the concept sounds good to me. Currently, it has contracted with professors, mostly holding doctorates, to provide 14 online courses in subjects like psychology, history, marketing and computer programming, allowing students to complete up to one year of college free. It has partnered with some established educational institutions to publicize and anoint its offerings and provide a pathway to make credit transfer to accredited institutions relatively easy.
Whether this venture succeeds is far from certain. The costs of entering the higher education market are relatively high, what with course development costs, the hassles of getting already accredited institutions to accept credits, overcoming regulatory obstacles, etc. And previous efforts to offer low-cost instruction have had mixed results. The MOOC (massively open online courses) development early in this decade was overhyped, but some ventures like Coursera and Khan Academy are doing wonderful things.
Two favorites of mine are the Saylor Foundation, which provides a good number of free online courses, and the for-profit StraighterLine, started by Burck Smith in 2009, that provides quality courses for purchase at relatively low prices by those seeking a degree. Then there is the enormous growth of major online providers like the University of Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors University, University of Maryland University College, etc. Yet Grant Aldrich’s model is especially cool. He is competing, with a vengeance, on price, setting it equal to zero. Price competition in higher education, to state it conservatively, is rare. He is a capitalist offering what Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians want to burden the taxpayers with providing, free college. He is bringing market-based capitalism to higher education without the crutch of government-subsidized student loans.
Higher education needs more of what Clayton Christensen calls “disruptive innovation,” a corollary to what generations earlier Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” Yet Aldrich claims that he is not out to destroy traditional higher education, but rather to revitalize and support it. Students ultimately would go from his online courses into traditional schools, saving at least 25% of the cost through credit transfer, making traditional education significantly more affordable and viable.
I have never understood why groups like the Lumina or Gates Foundations have not bankrolled starting ventures like OnlineDegree.com. Instead of 14 courses, offer 100 or even 500. Instead of one year of credit, offer much more, maybe even whole degrees. Partner with someone like the College Board or ACT to provide student testing, not only to assess academic performance but to demonstrate quality and high levels of student competency to the broader world, doing what accreditation should do, but largely does not.
Three cheers for Grant Aldrich and his associates. Whether it is he or someone else, a further wave of disruptive innovation is needed to shake up higher education. I have argued previously that there are too many college students and too many underemployed grads. While I think that is true, I would rather have very low-cost access to higher education that does not burden taxpayers, rather than expensive learning largely based on a model pioneered in the Middle Ages that leaves many crippled with no degrees and large debts.