The following is cross-posted from the Academe blog:

Paul Solman of PBS, says “Student loan debt is actually a crushing burden for many, especially in the current jobless maybe-it-is/maybe-it-isn’t recovery.” Students now starting college–or a year or two away–are absolutely aware of that burden. Their choices are going to be determined by how much of it they are willing to take on. Their decisions are going to affect colleges and universities across the nation–they already are. City University of New York (CUNY) enrollment has grown over 10% since 2008. Even with tuition increases and new restrictions on financial aid, it is still a better bargain than any other higher-education institution in the New York City area.

Though tuition at public universities rose at an average of 15% from 2008-2010, costs at private schools are not far behind,  going up at an average of 4.6% for 2011 alone. Last year, tuition alone cost half of American students more than $10,000. For public four-year schools, the median was about $1700 less than that. For four-year private schools, it was nearly three times as much (closing in on $30,000).

Yes, there are advantages to the (usually) more elite private schools, but are they worth the burden? American graduates, some 37 million of them, owe a combined trillion dollars, an average of something like $30,000. Some owe simply a few thousand; others upwards of even $200,000. Which, given the weak job market, are incoming students going to aim toward?

The students are answering that already, as can be seen in the burgeoning enrollment at cheaper public universities. As can be seen in the for-profits jumping at the chance to offer and “education” at what seem to be cut-rate pricing. As can be seen in all the hoopla about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Cost is becoming more of a driving force in education choice than ever before.

What is this going to mean?

In some corners, it means panic. It means jumping on whatever bandwagon passes by quickest and loudest–as seems to have happened at the University of Virginia with its temporary firing of its president.

What it should mean is leadership, a forward-looking re-examination of just what is being offered students from the most financially stable of the private institutions as well as from the public institutions who are already benefiting from the changes. It should mean a look away from the concept of education-as-investment (it is not always a good one for every potential student at every possible school) to education-as-preparation, with a resulting paring away the bells-and-whistles we have added over the past generation to attract what have come to be seen, to often, as “customers,” not students. It should mean, therefore, abandonment of the business model for education in favor of a service model attempting to place graduates in the strongest possible financial and educational position that can be created.

It should mean a re-evaluation of what is studied, and why. With the Bachelor’s degree becoming a commonplace, it is also devalued–even as it costs more. What should colleges and universities be doing to make it an important and significant (and not simply traditional) certification for today and for tomorrow? A college degree was never meant as simply skills training, though that is certainly a part of it. How does the rest fit into the needs of employers, communities, and the nation? What do people need to know for life in the 21st century–and how can colleges and universities best supply it?

We are stuck in a vision of the college education that was created well over a century ago, but one that we have souped up without any real restructuring, making it more expensive and more glitzy but no better.

It’s time we started concentrating on making our colleges and universities better. Not by increasing “standards” or by tougher “assessment” (these are both backward-looking by their very natures) but by finding new ways of helping students engage with the world and learn its ways. Because we can no longer pretend to do this simply by throwing more money into it–providing fancier labs, more technology, spiffier dormitories–we’re going to have to find ways of better using the real resources of our institutions of higher education, our faculties.

For the past generation, we’ve seen a movement toward considering faculty members simply as employees instead of integral partners in all educational endeavors. Some years ago, to make a few extra bucks, I taught for a time for an online for-profit where I found that teachers could even be replaced in the middle of the semester without the losing of a beat. There was nothing for the teachers to do but what they were told. This is where our business model of education has been taking us.

With the big money leaving the equation, maybe we can get back to the education we were trying to develop in the first place, education that, in many cases, is still quite the best in the world. It is best because the residue of the truth–that education depends on people and their interaction and not on machines or money–still remains.

It is time we start reinforcing that.

With money going away, maybe we can–as long as the people remain.

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