COMMENTARY | Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) wants to cut college costs, reports the Associated Press, but might clash with old-guard Republicans in his quest. Known for talking about his own hefty student loan debt, Rubio wants Congress to find alternatives to hyperinflated brick-and-mortar college costs and allow more Americans, specifically the working- and middle-class, the chance to pursue middle-class careers. The central tenet of Rubio’s higher ed reform proposal is that free online classes, monitored by an independent accrediting board, be substitutable for traditional college courses. This is innovative but extremely risky and raises the possibility that Rubio may run afoul of old money Republicans.
First of all, Rubio’s plan to allow free online classes to substitute for traditional college courses brings up all the usual criticisms of online education. How will cheating be guarded against? Will students learn as much if not forced to interact with peers and instructors? How will the identity of course-takers be verified?
Additionally, who will create, administer, and assess these free online classes? Will they be run through state-funded colleges and universities? Will they be entirely separate from traditional college education or will there be some cross-over?
Conflicts lurk in the possibility that these free, government-approved online classes will substitute for traditional college classes, crippling higher education revenues. Both liberal-leaning public colleges and conservative, old-money private colleges will be hurt by declining demand as more and more students opt to take government MOOCs rather than head to the dorms. Watch out, therefore, for a massive backlash from the traditional college establishment.
Small-government conservatives, those currently closely allied with Rubio, may chafe at this “big government” solution to higher ed’s ills. Unless the government-approved MOOCs are run by existing public colleges and universities, which may hardly decrease their administrative bloat at all, new government offices and agencies will have to be created to manage them, erasing most cost savings. Though Rubio’s goal may be noble, its implementation will likely be far less idealized than his vision.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, will employers buy in? Though an act of Congress could force public sector employers to honor MOOC credits, a “government-approved” MOOC may mean relatively little to many private-sector employers. An education heavy on government MOOCs may not be respected by civilian firms, essentially wasting the time and money of both students and taxpayers who fund said MOOCs.
Rubio also needs to iron out details regarding MOOC credit transference. How much of a college degree can be earned via government MOOC? Fifty percent? Seventy-five? Existing colleges and universities will be angry if they have to accept unlimited MOOC transfer credits, basically bestowing their degrees on students who only take the final few classes in their degree plans on campus. A University of _________ degree becomes, essentially, only a few classes run by the university…the rest are free government-approved MOOCs. Private colleges may not accept government MOOC transfers at all unless forced by law, creating a heavy-handed government showdown.
Marco Rubio is showing some innovation but needs to keep working at it. It will get tough, and we’ll see if the tough get going.