Disrupting College: A Mother of Five's Search for Answers as Tuition Looms

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

For 60 grand a year at an elite private college, today's students are paying for a lot of things they could get elsewhere for cheap or free. So, is college worth it?

And the residential four-year model of lectures and directed study may not be preparing them for a changing world that demands collaborative work with diverse colleagues and an ability to synthesize information from many different fields in order to have an impact. So, is college serving students well?

These are questions that practically consume me these days. I have five kids. They're growing up faster than I can believe and running headlong into a collision of their dreams for the future, our family's financial realities, and a global economic and social landscape that demands skills of its workforce that are changing every day. Out of prudence (sometimes panic) and curiosity, I am increasingly drawn to the exciting innovations that are forcing a radical re-imagining of higher education.

Dale Stephens, the founder of UnCollege, makes a pretty appealing case, especially to a parent staring down the barrel of about $1.2 million in tuition payments. He's a provocateur who recentlytold The New York Times, "If you want to learn, college is the last place you should go." Stephens is building a movement based on a rejection of our American mantra that college is the only path to success.

He'll be speaking this weekend, along with a group of others making waves in higher ed, at TedxAshokaU, one of two events organized by AshokaU at Arizona State University. TedxAshokaU is designed to inspire radically new ways of educating in the 21st century; the AshokaU Exchange"Disruption in Higher Education" event is for innovators to share practical knowledge about how to make it happen.

Consider some of the resources available to self-motivated, curious learners today: Khan Academyis perhaps the most well-known and robust free learning site, and Salman Khan has very bold plans to build a global online learning community that would provide collaboration, tutoring, and mentorship. The Floating University provides a small but growing number of video lectures by professors at top universities for under $50 a piece.

Straighterline has a slew of first-year intro "101" classes for $99 each, or an entire full year's worth for $1,000, and has scored arrangements with about two dozen colleges to apply credits toward tuition for students who've successfully completed the classes. Open Culture aggregates and curates the free learning that's available all over the web so you can easily find what you need.UdemyAlison, and many others (apologies to the many, many promising start-ups not mentioned here) are jockeying to be the "colleges" of tomorrow.

And yet, the kind of serious innovation that's challenging old models of higher ed -- what people in the field like to call disruptive innovation -- is not only happening outside of ivy-covered walls. A few universities and colleges have recognized they are in a position to make the radical changes from within that are necessary to stay relevant, address student needs, and launch their graduates on to success. Still, most established institutions seem to be digging in their heels or at best reluctantly introducing modest tweaks to their centuries-old model.

"Many universities should be able to lead disruptions. They have the resources, respect and brands," Michael B. Horn, a co-founder of the education practice of Innosight Institute pointed out while moderating a lively AshokaU-led Twitter chat this week on disruptive innovations in higher ed. The most notable realization of this opportunity, perhaps, is MIT's announcement that it will put all of its course offerings online for free (as MITx) and also make its learning platform available for free.

But putting learning opportunities online is not at all the only way to innovate in higher education. Arizona State University, host of this weekend's events, is an institution that's setting the standard for on-campus innovation.

ASU puts local and global impact at the center of its mission. The administration is constantly asking itself how it can change to better meet the needs of its student body and the Phoenix area in which it is the only institution of higher education.

"Our hope is almost to change the DNA of the institution and change the culture of ASU through ideas, pilot projects, through partner projects with organizations such as Ashoka -- in order to create disruptive innovation," said Kimberly de los Santos, assistant vice president and executive director of University Initiatives. That's not something one would ordinarily hear from the mouth of a university administrator. "We are willing to take risks."

ASU is one of about a dozen "Changemaker Campuses," which are colleges and universities working closely with the social innovation pioneer Ashoka, through its AshokaU initiative, to support social entrepreneurship on campus at every level, from the engagement of individual students in solving social problems to institution-wide restructuring that tears down the barriers to innovative thinking and learning and serve as catalysts for broad social change.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are built into everything at ASU. Like every other innovating entity, ASU originated from a need: the territory of Arizona, before it was even a state, had a dearth of teachers and needed a place to train people to fill jobs. That core of ASU's mission -- to serve the needs of the surrounding community -- has greatly expanded, but it still is grounded in the practical realities of Arizona students and the challenges facing the state's economy, environment, and social fabric.

"Our community doesn't need a Harvard or Michigan. What it needs is a place that is doing research that is directly tied to community needs, such as in sustainability, and so we had the nation's first school of sustainability," said de los Santos.

That notion -- that the school's needs, the community's needs and the students' needs all are inextricably linked -- is a revelation to me as I ponder what a traditional college education is truly worth. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved my college experience and it's value in my life and career is unquestionable.

But it's a very different world now. For one thing, graduates are drowning in debt. Textbooks alone cost students as much as $1,000 a year or more.

That's another area where innovation is challenging the old models. Chegg is basically like Netflixfor textbooks -- students select online what they need for each course and the rental books are sent for a fraction of the usual price. The site has homework help as well, and the company has a number of initiatives that enable students to connect and learn from each other, and even monetize their tutoring and mentorship.

Chegg, like many of the disruptors in the field, sees its role as a facilitator of social change. "Our mission is to help students save money, save time, and get smarter, but from the beginning we also wanted to be a contributor to the community overall," said Dan Rosensweig, Chegg's CEO.

Recently, the company's charity arm, Chegg for Good, partnered with the poverty-fighting campaign One to offer an internship in Africa. "Part of Chegg for Good's vision is about inspiring students to be a catalyst for change on their campus in their communities and in the world," said Heather Hatlo Porter, manager of philanthropy and executive projects at Chegg.

With all this disruption, what will "college" look like in four years when our family begins our search? Could my kids take their first year introductory courses for a small fee online?

Could they enroll at an innovative university like ASU on a flexible schedule for a few years and find support to launch a start-up on campus, land an internship, and rent the books for a self-created continuing study syllabus on Chegg, then brush up on Khan Academy to prepare to take some advanced MITx courses for free, and connect with a community of fellow learners in their discipline at some as yet unknown online resource and at live conferences?

Why not?

Perhaps that question, more than "is college worth it?" is the one to ask. After all, "why not?" is the starting point for every innovator that ever succeeded.

For ongoing great reporting on innovation in education, check out TEDxAshokaU speaker Liz Dwyer who's also a judge in the Ashoka Changemakers Activating Empathy! Competition. She's the education editor at Good magazine.

Editor's note: This post was written by Alison Craiglow Hockenberry, contributing editor at Ashoka Changemakers┬«, and originally featured on the Huffington Post