For many people, going to college represents a significant financial risk. Collective student loan debt is at an all-time high of $1.73 trillion in the US, with the national average for student debt for the class of 2019 sitting at $28,950.
It’s easy to understand why many individuals from low-income households decide that pursuing a college degree is just not worth the cost burden. High levels of student debt are forcing many graduates to delay achieving major milestones like starting a family, purchasing a home, or saving for retirement. And when graduates fall behind on their loan repayments, the debt piles up even higher.
At the same time, there is still much to be gained from higher education: College graduates earn about $30,000 more per year than individuals who only have high school diplomas.
Indeed, the student debt crisis is a complex problem that needs to be approached from all angles. Government leaders will likely be debating the merits of free tuition and new loan repayment schemes for years. But there are also steps higher learning leaders can take now to make higher education more affordable.
Digital learning enablement, for example, can help institutions get degrees into the hands of a more diverse population of students from all income levels — and the urgency has never been greater.
Now is the Time to Act
In some respects, the cost of going to college is going up dramatically. The pandemic sent food prices soaring, with costs going up by 3.3% in 2020. Housing costs have also recently skyrocketed: according to a report released by Apartment List, the national median rent increased by 16.4% from January to September of 2021. In contrast, rent growth for January to September averaged at 3.3% for 2017, 2018, and 2019.
The rise in rent is having a significant impact on students in particular. More “than a third of college students say they can’t afford to rent an apartment near their school,” reveals a survey conducted by Realtor.com.
On a more positive note, textbook and tuition costs aren’t rising as in the past. This trend, however, follows decades of exponential growth in costs: Between January 2006 to July 2016, the price of textbooks increased by 88%. Tuition has also significantly increased over the past several decades.
While some costs are plateauing, the question remains: Is the higher education system serving everyone? As Dr. Zakiya Smith, former Senior Adviser for Education in the Obama White House points out: “even our nation’s brightest low-income students, who have done very well in high school and score highly on standardized tests, are less likely to obtain a college degree than their higher-income peers.”
With economic inequalities laid bare by the pandemic, more higher learning leaders and instructors than ever are conscious of the gap between the haves and have-nots in college education. By embracing OERs, digital textbooks, and hybrid learning models, higher education institutions can make learning more affordable and accessible for a diverse student population. Here are three tips for alleviating students’ financial burden–the digital way.
Many cash-strapped students decide to skip buying textbooks entirely, and this can have severe consequences. According to one study, “20% [of students] indicated that they had received a lower grade than expected in a course because they could not afford to purchase the course materials.”
As an alternative to costly textbooks, many higher learning institutions are promoting the use of OERs (Open Educational Resources), which are freely accessible, openly licensed text, media, and other types of digital materials.
OERs are not new (they first became a global movement in 2012), but faculty awareness of these materials surged when the pandemic forced an abrupt shift to online learning. That being said, some instructors might still need to be convinced and resist the change. To combat this hesitation, institutions can design a communications plan to ensure key faculty are well-aware of key OER benefits.
Along with OERs, Universal Learning is another avenue for alleviating the financial burden associated with textbook costs. Universal Learning is a content procurement and provisioning model where content is packaged with enrollment in a class. With Universal Learning, course materials like e-textbooks are digitally distributed through learning management systems (LMS).
Universal Learning solutions offer a wide range of content from thousands of publishers, including Open Education Resources (OER), via a single platform. The benefit of Universal Learning is that students enrolling in a course automatically gain access to the digital materials on day one of class.
Universal Learning delivers a significant reduction in course material expenses for students: cost savings can range from 30 to 50 percent. The upshot? A student who would otherwise spend $1,000 on textbooks in a given year would have an extra $300-$500 in their pocket for food, rent, or other necessities.
Hybrid college programs are picking up steam — and for a good reason. “With more than a year of online learning under their belts, colleges in Minnesota and nationwide are reimagining the menu of options they offer to students,” according to this Government Technology article.
The programs offer students greater flexibility and can be more efficient and affordable than traditional colleges. According to the Hybrid College Network, its member programs have high persistence rates and low tuition rates.
There is no standard format for hybrid learning models: some will offer a 50/50 split for in-person and online learning, while the ratio might lean more towards online learning for other programs. While the benefits are well worth it, there may be some kinks to work out at first when rolling out a hybrid model — experiment with a few courses before deploying hybrid learning more broadly.
It’s time to make higher education serve its fundamental purpose of creating more opportunities for all — and this is where digital learning enablement can help. There is no one silver bullet solution for the crushing financial burdens students face today. Still, with digital learning enablement, higher learning leaders can put a college education into the hands of the people who need it most. In this way, education can become the great equalizer it is meant to be.
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