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May 30, 2013 3:13 PM Are We On the Road Back to a Two-Tiered Higher Education System?

By Ed Kilgore

Regular readers of our College Guide blog are familiar with Daniel Luzer’s frequent reports and meditations on two big interconnected trends in American higher education: the tuition cost spiral (bringing with it unsustainable student loan debts and stubbornly low and slow college completion rates), caused largely by big cuts in state government support for colleges, and the frantic search of educators (and unfortunately, some hucksters) for alternatives to traditional college that can keep postsecondary education within the reach of poor and middle class families.

Luzer succinctly pulls together his perspectives in the May/June issue of the Monthly, via a review of Jeffrey Selingo’s College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, a book focused on higher education alternatives, especially those provided by online classes.

Here’s a sample:

A dichotomy already exists between America’s well-funded and prestigious colleges and the rest of them. The experience the average student has at Morrisville State College, for instance, is vastly different from the experience of a student at Columbia or Swarthmore. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Prior to World War II, learning beyond high school was unbound too. Education and training for most people didn’t take place on a traditional college campus: for most of the nineteenth century, a university education was essentially restricted to the American rich; the rest of the country received post-secondary training in the form of trade schools and apprenticeships. Under the new system it appears we would be returning to this two-tiered system: traditional college for the moneyed, and alternative training for everyone else.
This shift may be inevitable given the relentless cost pressures facing traditional colleges and universities, but whether it proves to be a healthy change for American society remains to be seen. Under the rosy scenario described by education futurists like Selingo, entrepreneurs will develop high-quality technology that engages and challenges students and allows more of them to obtain work-ready degrees and credentials quickly and cheaply. But there is a darker scenario in which the less prestigious schools that make up half to three-quarters of four-year colleges either disappear altogether or are transformed into something very different.

Read it all, and then make a habit of reading College Guide.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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