The New College Solution

A New and Practical Solution to Improving Education

It is my job to convince you, dear reader, of a simple but profoundly beneficial plan to improve education in the US and around the world. This new plan consists is just one thing: the ability for citizens to create new institutions and new methods for higher education —to create wholly new colleges and universities.

At present it is virtually impossible to create a new college or university. I know it is nearly impossible because I did start one, successfully, and against all odds. It was not nearly impossible because it was difficult to convince students to come, or to hire impressive and inspiring professors, or to build a safe, memorable, and highly effective college experience. It was nearly impossible because there is, currently, a maddening Catch-22 that prevents new colleges and universities from getting started.

To attract students to your college, you must offer an accredited bachelors degree.

To convince accreditors to certify your bachelors degree program, you must already have enrolled and run at least 4 years of your school.

Starting a college is as if you had to drive for 1000 hours as a requirement for getting a driver’s license. Without a driver’s license, no one would sell or rent you a car, and if you were pulled over, you would be fined and arrested. It is the same for new colleges. They must operate entirely without offering any sort of degree for four years before they can credibly begin the multi-year process of beginning to offer a bachelors degree.

For this reason, the only new colleges that are created fall into just a few categories:

  1. Religious/Fundamentalist Colleges — colleges that are built around a religious or ideological bent can attract students with the same bent for a few years and then apply for accreditation. E.g. Liberty University, the openly Christian college whose president is Jerry Falwell Jr.
  2. Tech/Silicon Valley Colleges — the technical skills of being a software engineer are so in demand that students will attend a new college that offers no degree. E.g. Make School (that I helped build)
  3. For-Profit/Bad Actor Colleges — because college education is a $400B market, it is attractive to the very wealthy and opportunistic investors to endure the almost decade long process of getting accredited to start new colleges in order to make money. E.g. Trump University and the University of Phoenix.

There are really no other new colleges that start. It is not realistic to try to being a new, secular liberal arts college or any new sort of college or university.

It is undoing this Catch-22 that is the critical element of any plan to improve education.

The Benefits of New Colleges

Why would we want to enable people to start new colleges in the first place?

In brief, new colleges means

  1. More higher education for more people
  2. Adoption of evidence-based improvements in undergraduate education
  3. More affordable, timely, and excellent college educations for more students
  4. Liberating high schools and primary schools to set a diversity of educational goals.

First of all, there is a shortage of higher education. The economy continues to grow ever more sophisticated, technological, and complex. The jobs of this century require more educated students. And yet college enrollment is shrinking and colleges are consolidating and closing. There is not enough higher education happening.

Moreover, current colleges have an abysmal rate of actually training people for their careers after college. Fewer than 2/3rds of people get jobs in their degree and fewer than 1/3 get jobs in their major.

To those who might think training people for a valuable career is too practical a goal for American higher education, I direct you to the illustrious history of the United States providing land grants to universities throughout the last two hundred years who did just this — practical training. The United States’ university system is only as great as it is because of the land grant program that rewarded colleges that built engineering and agricultural programs — entirely practical programs that kept American workers and companies at the cutting edge of new technology. New more career- and technology-focused colleges would be a continuance of this excellent and particularly American tradition.

Another important reason to allow new colleges to start is the dramatic increase of evidence-based educational science. Professors in traditional colleges are given promotions and raises (and even are not fired) because of the publication rate, not the rate of learning and success of their undergraduates. There is no incentive for these professors to actually improve the education of undergradutes, hence the lack of recent adoption of evidence-based educational research. And this evidence-based research is not small potatoes. Much of it doubles and triples the effectiveness of teaching especially for the least advantaged students. The current situation in traditional colleges is as if in medicine doctors were not paid by survival rates but by length of treatment, so cures for cancer just sat on the shelves of the laboratories where they were invented gathering dust. New colleges can adopt these new evidence-based approaches, and they can experiment with setting different incentives for their professors — not just research and “publish or perish”.

New colleges by establishing themselves using new evidence-based educational techniques, new technology, more focused missions, and innovative curricula will be able to offer better educations at less cost of money and time. Current colleges are incentivized to spend money on luxury dorms and chefs for their cafeterias (and do so shamelessly). New colleges on the other hand would have the incentive instead to invest in their students and their teachers.

The most profound reason, however, for the legalization of new colleges is the effect higher or tertiary education has on secondary (high school) and primary schooling.

Imagine you changed the diameter of a basketball in the NBA to be half an inch larger. The next day, all college basketball leagues and teams would adopt the new basketball size. So would all serious high school teams. Perhaps due to hand size, leagues younger than high school would keep the same size as now, but they will always yearn to move up to that pro-size ball.

So it is in education. Since primary school prepares you for high school and high school prepares you for college, each lower level emulates what is done at the college level. College calls the tune, high schools play it. College admission, universally, ask for a GPA and a standardized test score. High schools give out A-F grades, despite strong evidence-based research against this method of grading, to generate GPAs. High Schools are deeply incentivized to “teach to the test” of standardized tests to enable their students to get into college.

Starting new colleges would improve high school and primary schooling because it would free them from the one-size-fits-none system of grading, measurement, and admissions. New colleges would set new standards and goals for education which would enable high schools to allow multiple ways for their students to succeed.

In summary, enabling new colleges to start means

  1. More higher education for more people
  2. Adoption of evidence-based improvements in undergraduate education
  3. More affordable, timely, and excellent college educations for more students
  4. Liberating high schools and primary schools to set a diversity of educational goals.

Objections

There are some common and worthy objections to the idea of starting new colleges. Each of these objections is valid and important to building a system of new colleges that works for the students and for society as a whole. Let’s look at each one and see what we can learn from it.

Unfortunately there are always grifters out to scam and defraud people. It is important to say that this plan, the “New College Solution” is not some libertarian call for complete deregulation of higher education. Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Not. It is a call for regulation that eliminates the Catch-22 of starting a new college. There ought to be watchdog organizations (government or private) that require colleges to submit key metrics such as application, admission, graduation, and job placement/salary rates. With just these simple numbers, anyone can spot a scam college — they have low timely graduation and job placement rates.

In fact, by these metrics most existing universities and colleges, even “good” ones, of today will be revealed to be a lot less valuable and accountable as they seem. Certainly law schools will flounder if they had to publish their graduation and job placement rates since there are so few jobs for young lawyers now.

No doubt there will be a widening of the gates of higher education. If today you cannot enter college without some knowledge of algebra, there might tomorrow be a college that will accept you and teach you algebra. Isn’t that the point of college? To educate? To teach people? Why is it bad to have “low” admission standards? The only real thing that matters is what comes out the other end after graduation isn’t it? If we only let clean cars in to car washes, how would we know if the car wash does anything at all?

But what about attainment? Will the average height of educational attainment fall? Will the graduate of one school be equivalently educated to the graduate of another?

To this I would suggest the counter question: if student happiness is high and timely graduation rates and job placement rates are high, then who is to say what it means to be equivalently educated?

The meaning of being educated is diverse and grows more diverse the more diverse our society becomes. One of the key failings of our current system of education is it does not admit for such diversity. A system where it is possible for people to start new colleges will bring more intellectual and educational diversity and richness to our society.

Again, No. Absolutely not. This is a call to reform accreditation to create a path to starting new colleges. Such a new path would actually reduce inequality and improve the democratic distribution of power. Let me explain.

By my estimates it costs roughly $20M to start a new college today, since any new college has to operate for roughly 4 years and pay consultants and PhD’s to jump through Byzantine bureaucratic hoops to achieve accreditation. However, generally no one with that much money believes that a new college is a good investment for $20M, so they invest in technology, China, hedge funds, etc. And we see no new colleges.

However if it only cost $250,000 to start a new college — rent for the buildings and the salary for 3–4 people— we would see everyday citizens, passionate college professors, inspiring thought leaders, and creatives of all types enabled to begin their own small colleges — the best of which, in a few years would grow into the leading colleges of our society. By creating a bubbling, rich tapestry of small and growing colleges throughout our cities and states, we would see the great democratization of knowledge, ownership, and power.

Inevitably some institutions fail either from poor management, financial problems, or external crises.

Let’s imagine that this path to new colleges exists, and 8 new colleges start in your city. You are 19 years old and decide to leave your traditional college to attend one of these new innovative colleges because it is cheaper and looks better than your current school. After a year and a half, the college president sends a somber email around Thanksgiving saying that due to unforeseen circumstances, the school will close and no reopen after winter holidays.

What happens?

The most likely case, from my experience, is that at least 3 of the other 8 new colleges would offer you acceptance and transfer credit to their college. So you might transfer to those colleges.

The next most likely case is you could return to the traditional college you were attending and because the new college you attended was accredited from day one, your credits transfer back to your traditional college.

The worst and least likely scenario is your new college was so bad at teaching or so out there in the creativity of its curriculum that other colleges won’t provide you any transfer credit for the time you spent there. In that worst and least likely of cases you may have to just accept that you “lost” 1.5 years of credit. Is this case unnacceptable? If it is then we must look at our current colleges which ever year fails tens of thousands of students at the undergraduate and graduate levels, withholds their degrees, and keeps their tuition payments. Colleges today leave countless students just as snookered as the failure of a few small colleges. However, if we believe in the above benefits to new colleges, these new colleges would be better prepared both financially and educationally to improve graduation rates. Moreover, because they would be judged on their graduation rates (at the risk of being put out of business) they would do a hell of a lot more than current colleges do to keep people in school.

New colleges, as they grow and improve, will draw students away traditional colleges. Remember that the point of colleges is not to exist, but to provide excellent, timely, and affordable educations to their students. So if students are leaving older, poorer colleges for newer, better ones that is a net gain for society.

It is clear from this question to see that old traditional colleges would have to innovate and improve rapidly to survive in a world where people could start new colleges. What a wonderful world full of schools and learning!

The New College Proposal

There are a number of ways that we can remove the Catch-22 of starting new colleges. Some are more governmental at the federal or state level. Others are more non-governmental resembling a free market. I believe the best option is a relatively free market but with government required reporting of application, admission, graduation/withdrawal, and job placement/salary rates.

So to start a college would be much like starting a non-profit today.

  1. File the new college with the Secretary of State.
  2. Each year, colleges must publicly file a standardized form with that year’s application, admission, graduation/withdrawal, and job placement/salary rates. It could also include tuition, and other objective data to create transparency of the college’s functioning.
  3. Certain thresholds of these metrics would qualify the college for public funding, e.g. acceptably high graduation and job placement/salary rates.

From those numbers, watchdogs and rating agencies can report objectively to the public on colleges’ standings. There would be no need for government inspections or oversight because we are lucky in this country to have a strong tradition of lawyers who are happy to represent aggrieved students and teachers to sue colleges that lie, defraud, or otherwise break the law.

All accrediting bodies that exist today can return to their original function as voluntary associations of colleges. New and old colleges can all start any sorts of new associations or partnerships between colleges if they so choose.

Some might say this is too loose of a system of enabling new colleges. Instead the Dept of Education ought to regulate colleges more tightly, perhaps the way the SEC regulates insurance companies?

To this I would say that primary and secondary schooling deserves much tighter oversight and government control since children must go to the school nearest to their home, and a bad primary or secondary school can put a child’s whole life off track. Higher education however, is more akin to a consumer market.

  1. The students are adults (>18).
  2. The students are able to research and compare and contrast colleges and pick the one they believe will best serve them. Especially since they will have the government required metrics to compare and contrast. In addition there will spring up rating agencies and even agents who can recommend colleges for you based on your goals.
  3. Students often are willing (and happy) to move even across state lines to attend school. That means many students are picking from a large list of colleges, not just the ones near their home.

For all these reasons, we can trust that colleges would operate more like the market of clothing or televisions, which need very little regulation because the customers are able to objectively researching, rate, and pick from a wide range of options.

Moreover, if we regulated colleges the way the SEC regulates insurance companies or mutual funds, every new college, despite its newness, would be required by regulators to operate in the exact same ways as existing colleges and we would lose much of the benefits of starting new colleges at all.

What Does It Mean to Be Educated?

The fundamental reason to make a reasonable path for new colleges to start is to enable a group of people to all make experiments to answer one fundamental and protean question:

What does it mean to be educated?

This question, perhaps, has no one and timeless answer. Instead, as a society, we must make a system that allows people to explore this question and make attempts at answering it. These attempts can be books and scientific experiments, but primarily this question is answered through the creation and development of institutions of higher learning: of new colleges.

Without a reasonable and accessible way for people to establish new colleges, we are stuck, historically, with old answers to this critical question. New colleges will unstick us historically, and enable us to have fresh, exciting answers to this fascinating and impossible question.

An Alternative Proposal: Charter Colleges

If the above proposal seems too loose and a SEC-like regulation seems too strong, a middle way might be the creation of Charter Colleges. Charter Colleges just means applying the same sorts of rules for the charter of new primary and secondary schools to the chartering of new colleges and universities. The process might go something like this:

  1. A new college founder applies to a federal or state board of charter colleges. Their application includes a mission and plan for how the college will meet higher educational goals and serve their students and the public.
  2. The charter board approves or denies new charter colleges within some reasonable amount of time (<6 months).
  3. When a college’s charter is approved, they can open their doors and their students then qualify for all public funding for higher education.
  4. New colleges whose charters are approved must report to the charter board with their success metrics as well as publish public metrics. The charter board can review and revoke charters of colleges that fail to serve their students or the public.

This may seem like an excellent system, however, I would warn the reader away from this path. It creates a far too powerful and potentially biased or compromised charter board. The members of this board can sit like mandarins, powerful gatekeepers, and decide what is a college and what is not. It is only they, not the creative tumult of society as a whole, who will be empowered to decide what it means to be educated.

I believe the proposal above, where anyone can simply register a college and publish their success metrics, is superior.

Educator, Founder, Engineer. Interested in Evidence Based Education and Solving BIG Problems.