(Looking Back and Looking Forward takes look at the articles and posts I found interesting from the previous week, along with reflections about how the trends they point to might shape my thinking about education and technology.)

Affordability in education has been a recurring theme in my writing over recent years ( for example, here, here, here, and here). There are a number of reasons for the persistent theme, particularly in higher education, not the least of which is the fact that college tuition prices have increased 170% over the past 20 years. With regard to consumer goods and services, this increase is only exceeded by hospital services, which have increased by 203%. For context, I find it helpful to compare the change intuition to the change in Pell Grant amounts over the same period of time — 35+% (from $4,800 to $6,495).

And, while we have yet to address the rising cost of higher education in any kind of systemic fashion, there are various efforts underway to ensure that, at the very least, students are receiving a measurable return for their tuition investment.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s news draft of the gainful employment rule includes “two metrics to assess career education programs. One would compare college graduates’ earnings to their student loan debts, while a new measure would compare their earnings to those of high school graduates in their states.” That’s certainly a good start, but the gainful employment rule can really only have an impact if it is applied to for-profit/non-profit and public/private universities alike. This is especially true given the analysis of Texas Public Policy Foundation senior analyst Andrew Gillen. He “used earnings and debt data from the Ed Department’s College Scorecard to approximate the old gainful employment rule’s debt-to-earnings test. In that analysis, 89% of programs failing the test were public or private nonprofit institutions.”

One way to think about this is by comparing our approach to higher education regulation to that of our K-12 systems. In K-12, we closely monitor the performance and academic value provided by public schools and school systems because (1) they enroll the majority of our students and (2) they receive the greatest amount of public (federal and state) funding. However, while public universities enroll more than three times (3X) the number of students at private non-profit universities, and while these two groups combined enroll more than 90% of all college students in the U.S., they are not subject to the gainful employment rule.

In short, we seem to be fine with the unfounded assumption that, public and private non-profit universities as a whole are providing real value to students (as would be measured by the gainful employment rule), enough their price increases over the past two decades have far surpassed increases in inflation, wage gains, and grant amounts.

And speaking of assumptions (founded or unfounded) about the value provided by individual higher education institutions, in Jeff Selingo’s latest newsletter we find this tidbit. “One interesting stat is that among those who don’t complete their education, the more education their parents have, the more debt the student ends up leaving school with.”

Chart showing cumulartive student debt for higher education in the U.S.

By the way, all of the above is not to excuse in any way the harmful marketing practices and false promises about the value of degrees perpetrated by bad actors in the for-profit sector of higher education. The recent ruling against Zovio serves as a painful reminder of that past. In its ruling, the course found the following:

The Evidence Shows Defendants Deceived Students On Topics Critical to Student Decisionmaking.

  • Defendants Misled Students About Their Ability to Become Teachers Using Ashford Degrees.
  • Defendants Misled Students About Their Ability to Become Nurses, Social Workers, and Drug and Alcohol Counselors.
  • Defendants Misled Students About How Much Financial Aid They Would Receive and the Costs It Would Cover.
  • Defendants Misled Students by Downplaying Their Debt.
  • Defendants Misrepresented Federal Financial Aid Rules.
  • Defendants Misrepresented the Feasibility of “Doubling Up”.
  • Defendants Understated the Costs of Attendance.
  • Defendants Misled Students About the Pace and Time Commitment of an Ashford Degree.
  • Defendants Misrepresented Students’ Ability to Transfer Credits.

The Evidence Shows that Defendants Knew of Extensive Deception Within the Admissions Department.

Defendants Tolerated or Promoted Repeat Compliance Offenders


To be clear, when we talk about affordability, we talk about students’ ability to attend college without incurring significant debt or making undue financial sacrifices.

Finally, it’s also important to keep in mind that one of the reasons higher education tuition prices keep going up is that bureaucracy (internal and external) is expensive. Case in point, the new Florida bill that ould force the state’s public colleges to change accreditors every accreditation cycle. There is no doubt that changing accreditors on a regular, prescribed basis would increase operational costs and result in, you guessed it, still higher tuition prices.

Further Reading

Higher Education

Finding the Middle Ground: What Higher Ed Can Do to Appeal to As Many Learners As Possible

When Universities Can’t Back Up the Moving Van

Zovio Loses California Lawsuit on Deceptive Admissions Practices

Gainful employment proposal looks at college vs. high school grads’ earnings

Should gainful employment be applied across higher ed? 

Online Learning Can Lead to Increased Success for Minority Students in Higher Education

Challenges persist for formerly incarcerated students

Prisoners, poverty, and prosperity; a plea to ask better questions

Florida passes bill pushing accreditor changes, post-tenure review

K-12 Education

High school students find employers and colleges are trying to recruit them

How Schools Can Help Students Maximize Their Return On Investment

PROOF POINTS: Debunking the myth that teachers stop improving after five years

Education Design and Technology

Four Design Imperatives for Effective Learning Design

Students Co-authoring Their Own Learning

Do We Really Want Academic Permanent Records to Live Forever on Blockchain?

What is the future of assessment and feedback?

Hope for the Future

Stephen’s Web ~ Hope for the Future

Edtech Companies Must Place Learning Ahead of Revenue and Engagement


The Great Resignation: Why workers say they quit jobs in 2021

Hybrid learning for hybrid jobs: Reskilling for the digital age

Technology and Retail Trends

Azure moves ahead of AWS in cloud adoption