Now That We Are in the Digital Age, We Should Have Full Access To Our Universities

Public universities are owned by the public. Their mission — to deliver high quality education to us, the owners — has been long usurped and is characterized by rationing and gatekeeping.

Now that we have entered the digital age we should examine how our public universities can better distribute education, online. If done right, our education will be: fully accessible, more affordable, of the highest quality, not affect our brick and mortar schools, and not impose any end costs to the tax payer.

What is the right way to do this? It is simple. Take any public university or public university system and put all of its courses into two separate online platforms/divisions: one free and one for credit.

Division I would essentially be a free, public library of all courses.

Division II would be for full credit, have open enrollment, allow students to complete classes at their own pace, and would have tuition.

Tuition should be set to cover all costs of both divisions. An Individual student’s course tuition should not exceed their share of the actual fixed and variable costs to deliver the Division II course and their micro contribution to Division I’s cost. The institutional entity should not be allowed to profit from the student or recoup costs already incurred. At scale, total tuition for many four year degrees could be less than $10,000.

Classroom credit in this new online university would need to be fungible with the original university: while Division II will have open enrollment, the original brick and mortar institution will likely maintain its current restrictive enrollment practice. Accreditation standards, to the extent that they require universities to do this, will need to be adjusted so that the original school does not lose accreditation when it adds the open enrollment, for credit, online division. Senator Mike Lee’s Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act — which would allow individual states to “develop their own systems of accrediting educational institutions” — may be needed to facilitate this fungibility.

The original university need not be affected. Its enrollment practices, academic standards, budgets, and tuition need not change. The in classroom, on campus experience will, likely, always be viewed as a superior learning experience and I expect will always be fully subscribed no matter how well we deliver education online.

How might such a university improve higher education? Lower tuition would reverse the trend of students taking more debt. The very decision to better one’s self with a higher education, would, solely, be the student’s and not education industrial complex gatekeepers: likely more us will take more classes and become better educated. Many of the goals of President Obama’s community college proposal would be achieved without passing the legislation: more students would have access to a high quality, lower cost higher education. Disenfranchised/former or soon to be former students of for profit universities (Corinthian Colleges and the University of Phoenix) would have a high quality, low cost, flexible, higher education option that will accept them. GI/veteran benefits and federal student loan monies will be better utilized: the resulting university degrees would be more valued in the job market and more likely to be earned. Prisoners would have a high quality, low cost/free way to better prepare themselves for a more productive life.

Additionally, book costs could be kept down by creating a single payer book purchasing system.

How can we bring forth such an institution? Of course, Congress or an individual state legislature could easily form such a university, but will they do it at all and if they did it, would they do it right? Personally, I think the best way is at the ballot box by a voter initiative. We would just need one institution in one state to implement these changes to create the highest quality, lowest cost, most accessible, and most flexible university in the world. Here in California, I have formed the Committee to Support a University of California Online Constitutional Amendment so that voters can make this change, themselves.

When Ronald Reagan was running for Governor of California the first time, he said the University of California was created with a “high and noble purpose.” Now that we are in the digital age and because there is a way to pay for it, shouldn’t that “high and noble purpose” include making our publically owned higher education system, fully accessible to the public that owns it? Our society will become better educated and our economy, more productive. What could possibly go wrong?

Boyd Roberts is the founder of the Committee to Support a University of California Online Constitutional Amendment: He is a member of the Riverside County Democratic Central Committee, representing California’s 67th Assembly District. He lives in Menifee and is a Realtor.