The way higher education is delivered in the US needs to undergo a “dramatic change”, which could be driven by the accreditation of massive open online courses, according to the nation’s former president Bill Clinton.
At public colleges and universities, the cost of tuition has been rising above the rate of inflation for more than a decade, and although the federal government has increased its funding for students in a bid to reduce levels of student debt, this has been negated by a drop in average family incomes.
“A lot of people will have student debt that goes beyond the federal student loan programme. I think the only sustainable answer is to find a less expensive delivery system,” Mr Clinton told Times Higher Education.
“You’re going to see a dramatic change because we simply can’t continue to have the cost of university education go up at twice the rate of inflation every decade when wages are flat and aid programmes are not keeping up.”
Pointing out that student debt in the US had risen by 58 per cent in the past seven years, Mr Clinton said that the “next big step” in driving down tuition costs could be “figuring out some way of validating the merits of these online courses”.
“A lot of universities are now participating in online courses, in Moocs…the whole delivery system is in the process of changing, and there has to be some way of saying which online courses give you what you need to know to be certified,” he said.
“[Reducing college costs] has become more urgent because so many public schools have lost a lot of their public aid because of the budget problems in various states.”
Mr Clinton was speaking to journalists ahead of the Clinton Global Initiative University event, which took place at Washington University in St Louis last weekend.
His comments come as a row builds in California, sparked by a Democratic state legislator’s proposal to allow Mooc providers and for-profit colleges to fill gaps in public provision.
Meanwhile, Moocs have been criticised by speakers at a special symposium held in honour of Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
In his address to the event, held at the institution on 5 April, Professor Altbach said Moocs were “somewhat overhyped” and might take longer than expected to find their place in the global academic system.
He made the point as part of a wider critique of globalisation in higher education, which he said had created “chaos” because of a brain drain of talent from the developing world to developed English-speaking countries.
Professor Altbach also said that governments did not have the money to support the huge expansion in student numbers, which was one of the reasons why tuition fees had increased and why the idea of higher education as a public good had been “greatly weakened”.