In a new course, Penn Law Interim Dean and Presidential Professor Wendell Pritchett and his students from the Law School and the Graduate School of Education are examining whether or not new models of higher education can help students confront the challenges to earning a college degree.
“There are a lot of challenges with higher education right now,” said Pritchett. “One is the significant cost of higher education. It’s much more expensive than it was a decade or two decades ago and people are really worried about that.”
Along with the increase in cost, student debt has dramatically increased, Pritchett added, and only about half of students complete their degree in six years of study, even though the traditional time to degree is four years.
In response to these concerns, students in Pritchett’s course “New Models for Post-Secondary Education” are studying new educational models, which often rely on technology, that aim to increase access and decrease the cost to students. After beginning with an abstract consideration of the purpose of college, the class moved on to specially examine different alternative educational models.
One of the new models is the MOOC, or massive open online course. These classes give large numbers of students from around the world access to online course material, often in the form of video lectures, then allow them to interact with each other and their instructors.
The University of Pennsylvania currently has multiple MOOCs run by its various schools. The Law School is launching its first MOOC, Introduction to American Law, on February 15, 2015. The course will feature lectures by Penn Law faculty members on foundational areas of the American legal system, and discussion boards for students to engage with their peers.
In addition to MOOCs, Pritchett and his students also examined bundled degree programs, fast-tracking (which helps students earn a degree in three years instead of four), and competency based education (which tracks students’ skills instead of credit hours).
“Students see the value of what they’re learning or what they’re being assessed on,” said Pritchett, “because they’ve been shown how it’s going to be successful in the world they want to work in.”
And last month, Pritchett and his students attended “Will Reauthorization Save the Higher Education Act,” a panel discussion co-hosted by the Penn Law Government Service Initiative, the Law School, and the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“The issues that we’re talking about in class actually are the issues that they’re talking about in D.C.,” said Pritchett, who moderated the panel along with Washington Post higher education writer Nick Anderson.
The panel also featured Kevin Carey, Director of the Education Policy Program for New America; Laura Perna, Executive Director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the James S. Riepe Professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education; and Ted Mitchell, Undersecretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education.
A frequent subject of discussion during the panel was how the federal government should regulate colleges and universities. While access has increased — 75 percent of students currently have access to some form of higher education — traditionally the federal government has been hands off in regulating higher education outcomes, Pritchett noted.
There are regulations on how sports are allocated and the number of books in libraries, said Pritchett, but “almost no regulation, no investigation, of what students are learning.”
He added that there’s no “one-size-fits-all fits all in regulation” for higher education. The panel’s experts debated the kinds of regulation appropriate for colleges and universities.
For Pritchett’s students, both in the Graduate School of Education and at the Law School, the issues surrounding post-secondary education hit close to home. They all have stories about financial aid troubles or difficulties getting the classes they need to graduate, said Pritchett. “There’s a lot of personal connection to this issue.”