In response to debates currently raging about the future of education, The Washington Post recently featured an editorial that presents possible solutions to the quandary in which higher education currently finds itself.
Entitled "How to Fix Higher Education," the editorial informs readers that its author, Daniel de Vise, consulted "several great leaders and thinker," including "college presidents, think-tank scholars, foundation heads, professors and students," in order to discover remedies for the troubled higher education sector in the United States.
Among the many suggestions offered by these thought leaders, perhaps the most pertinent involve closing the expense gap dividing the country poorest students from college education. Vise's findings reveal that "access to higher education is sharply stratified (and has been for decades) by family income" and that "support for higher education has been declining since the late 1970s."
The United States must make it a priority to invest more public money in providing access to higher education. One of Vise's more surprising recommendations is that there be "create[d] strong incentives against merit aid," because "every dollar of merit aid is a wasted dollar with regard to the national problem of access."
In line with his suggestions for a financial overhaul of higher education is his recommendation to
allow the development of financial instruments that would have the student's share of paying for college be treated as a long term investment. We would probably want to have colleges that enroll students with loans have some skin in the game to put some portion of the burden for students successfully completing programs on the colleges themselves.
In addition to incentivizing finance to support higher-education aspirants, Vise provocatively suggests that institutions "build a national open access digital library system," so as to "create a national (and de facto international) information commons in which all of the world's knowledge and information resources would be available to anyone at any college or university."
Such an innovation would do much to allow students' access to whatever information they required. It would also prove a boon to distance-learning students, who frequently find themselves at a disadvantage in terms of adequate library resources.
Utopian though Vise's suggestions may seem, they have a ring of sound practicality to them as well. The ongoing digitization of everyday life means that the fixed and variable costs attending such initiatives as those Vise envisions have never been lower -- and promise only to go lower still.
If universities truly mean to act in the public interest they really ought to consider moving away from their current academic and financial models, which are predicated on notions of scarcity and gatekeeping, and toward innovative new ones predicated on notions of abundance and free access. Champions of the digital commons have a slogan: "Information wants to be free." To make education accessible to all who want to learn and advance their careers would go a great way toward just such emancipation.