February 2, 2013

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Arthur Brooks: My Valuable, Cheap College Degree.

I possess a 10K-B.A., which I got way back in 1994. And it was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made.

After high school, I spent an unedifying year in college. The year culminated in money problems, considerably less than a year of credits, and a joint decision with the school that I should pursue my happiness elsewhere. Next came what my parents affectionately called my “gap decade,” during which time I made my living as a musician. By my late 20s I was ready to return to school. But I was living in Spain, had a thin bank account, and no desire to start my family with a mountain of student loans.

Fortunately, there was a solution — an institution called Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. This is a virtual college with no residence requirements. It banks credits acquired through inexpensive correspondence courses from any accredited college or university in America.

I took classes by mail from the University of Washington, the University of Wyoming, and other schools with the lowest-priced correspondence courses I could find. My degree required the same number of credits and type of classes that any student at a traditional university would take. I took the same exams (proctored at local libraries and graded by graduate students) as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater.

And the whole degree, including the third-hand books and a sticker for the car, cost me about $10,000 in today’s dollars.

Now living back in the United States, I followed the 10K-B.A. with a 5K-M.A. at a local university while working full time, and then endured the standard penury of being a full-time doctoral fellow in a residential Ph.D. program. The final tally for a guy in his 30s supporting a family: three degrees, zero debt.

Did I earn a worthless degree? Hardly. My undergraduate years may have been bereft of frissons, but I wound up with a career as a tenured professor at Syracuse University, a traditional university. I am now the president of a Washington research organization.

We need more diversity in our approaches to education. Here’s another model.