[A version of this post originally appeared on the TEL Education website on June 19, 2018]
Affordability in education matters.
It matters whether we’re talking about access to high-quality K-12 education in low-income urban centers or about giving every adult in the U.S. access to high-quality adult continuing education opportunities or college-level courses.
It matters whether we’re talking about the cost of tuition or about the cost of learning materials.
It matters whether we’re talking about the cost of getting started in quality education or about the cost of finishing a credential.
Affordability in education matters because simply being employed isn’t always enough. Currently, those working minimum-wage jobs don’t earn enough to rent an average-priced one-bedroom home anywhere in the U.S.
It matters because more than 50% of jobs in America require middle-skill education and training but less than 50% of adults qualify for these jobs.
Affordability in education matters because advances in technology will require retraining for a significant portion of our current adult workforce and we can’t let expense be a factor in retaining existing employees and helping them to be productive in the new world.
It matters because educational attainment, such as a high school education, is an inadequate measure of the literacy, numeracy, and skill levels needed for professional success. For example, OECD’s Survey of Adult skills from 2013 determined that 36 million US adults have low skills, a number more than 10 million higher than the current number of adults without high school diplomas.1 It also matters because the number of adults with low skills continues to grow in parallel with the demand for middle-skills jobs, and our current efforts to close the gap are not working.
It matters because about 2.2 million adults are incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons with an additional 4.7 million on probation or parole. We know that advanced adult continuing education and college-level studies reduce recidivism rates significantly yet there is a dearth of such programs available.
Affordable education matters because it means hope. Hope for a better job. Hope for a better life. Hope for a different future.
Yes, affordability in education matters! But what does it really mean?
In broad terms, it means providing equitable access for everyone to high-quality education.
Too often, however, “affordable education” is reduced to conversations about making education more affordable for the people who already have access to it, such as making textbooks affordable for students already in college or making community college affordable for people who already see a college education as a viable option.
But how can affordable education help those who aren’t in the system and who see no pathway for entering? How can we help those who are convinced that higher levels of education aren’t even a remote possibility?
How can we package high-quality, affordable education in ways that make sense to those who may need it most but don’t know how or where to start?
This can be done but it requires a bit of realignment in thinking.
First, we need to redefine our terms. We must begin by defining affordable education locally and in terms of specific contexts. We need to realize that “affordable” has a different connotation for an undereducated and underemployed adult than it does for someone who already aspires to a college education and has identified a clear pathway for attaining it. It likely means one thing for an inmate in a state correctional center but something different for a participant in an outpatient drug rehabilitation program.
In other words, affordable education cannot be stated in terms of “one size fits all” pricing. It necessarily means different prices for different products and different markets. Equally important, it means setting prices, not in terms of what “the market will bear” (i.e. the highest price companies can set without losing customers), but rather in terms of what customers in each market can truly and humanely afford.
We must approach this by asking a single question for each product and market. What amount is reasonable or possible for someone in this market to pay for this product with minimal assistance or sacrifice and without incurring debt?
But affordable education is also about providing learning opportunities that are appropriate for specific population segments. Education products, while they may have a common end goal, must be customized or designed from the ground up to meet specific population-segment needs.
Providing college-level courses to prison inmates is a rational and beneficial thing to do. However, taking into account both education attainment levels (high school or GED) and literacy and numeracy levels, simply offering existing college-level courses that are designed around the assumptions we have for traditional students will fail. Such courses and program designs will not allow us to scale our education programs to reach the full spectrum of eligible inmates and, for the small number who are able to participate in traditional courses, we will not have the retention rates and learning impact we desire.
Programs in some adult markets require scaffolded literacy and numeracy training that is embedded into the curriculum. Programs may also require a gradation in the reading level of the content. In markets where student persistence is a particular issue, curriculum needs to be designed to reward participation and to generate higher levels of relevance for students.
All of this is why our focus must be on creating what “appropriately affordable education.” This means delivering products that people can truly afford, regardless of their current life situation. This also means designing appropriately for specific population segments and markets.
This mission of “appropriately affordable education” will challenge us to think differently about content development and learning design. It drives us to think of different kinds of solutions for content and instructional delivery.
To be honest, it’s not easy.
But, as we prepare to release our first affordable dual-enrollment course products for high school and homeschool students, and as we look toward the pilot phase of our Career Foundations Program for underserved and undereducated adult learners, we can state categorically that the potential impact and promise far outweigh any effort or risk.
1| OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264204256-en