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Posted at 9:40 AM ET, 02/22/2011

Fixing higher ed: StraighterLine's Burck Smith

By Daniel de Vise

In a story that published Sunday in The Washington Post Magazine, I offer eight suggestions to "fix" higher education. I will host a brief online Q&A on the fixes at 11 a.m. today. Click here to pose a question in advance. There is even a poll, which you will find a bit farther down on this blog.

For the story, I sought help from several great leaders and thinkers. Some submitted their own thoughts on how to improve higher education. I'm posting them this week. Here is the sixth of those submissions, from Burck Smith, founder of StraighterLine, a company that sells online general education for $99 a month. burcksmith.jpg

1) Allow all student loans to be discharged at bankruptcy -- This will force lenders -- the private sector and the federal government -- to do better risk evaluation prior to lending money. The risk evaluation would encompass total debt burden, school to which a student is going, occupation in which the student might enter, family finances and other factors. This would make the flow of financing somewhat more rational than it is now and should result in the expansion of better colleges and a reduction of worse colleges.

2) Accreditation should be done at the course level in addition to the institutional level -- College credit, and by extension, college courses are the currency of transfer students. Further, students are bringing credits into the college process in a magnitude never seen before. Students get credit from AP, CLEP, Prior Learning Assessment, StraighterLine, dual enrollment and IB. Also, with the growth of distance education, they transfer credits among institutions in ways never seen before. Yet, despite the huge growth in mobility of credit, accreditation reviews institutions, not courses. Among accredited institutions, there is a huge variance in course quality. Within accredited institutions and even within sections of the same course, there is a huge variation in quality. So, accreditation provides almost no information about the value of a credit, but it is used as the standard for credit validity.

3) Equivalent courses should receive equivalent credit -- Colleges have an "interoperability" problem. Colleges have strong incentives to either not award credit or not award meaningful credit for courses taken elsewhere. For instance, a college may award credit, but won't let it apply toward a major. Such practices force students to retake courses at the receiving institution. This results in redundancy, frustration and market inefficiency, but it protects the revenue stream of a college.

4) State higher ed funding should be voucher based -- Direct state support of colleges made sense when the market for a college may not have been sufficient to support a college in a given geographic area. However, the growth of distance education and the proliferation of colleges has created an explosion of options for students. With a better functioning market, states can continue to support post-secondary attainment, but do it in a way that encourages innovation and efficiency.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 22, 2011; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Access, Administration, Finance, Online, Technology  | Tags:  Washington Post magazine higher education, fixing higher ed Washington Post, fixing higher education  
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