Last night on NPR they ran an article on the School of the Ozarks, the liberal arts school in Missouri in which each student works in lieu of tuition. They reported that fifteen applicants vie for each spot in this 1500 student school. Then they talked about the size of the school's endowment--260 million dollars. I must admit that this seemed a fair bit of money to me, given in order to ensure that the kids worked in the campus bakery at college. But then I began to daydream of other things that I wish had endowments, so that they could function effectively free for people.
The affordability of college has worsened substantially in the mere 22 years since I got my bachelor's degree. College tuition has outpaced inflation by a fairly dramatic amount.
I can make the argument that affordable college and university tuition makes more difference than any other thing in helping prevent the "rich get richer, poor get poorer" scenario, which I perceive America faces.
I am glad that the distance learning movement has been gaining so much momentum. I really think that this is a way to help "even the score" for folks. I grant that the campus experience is for some in itself educational (although my own recollection of my own experience is that it largely educated me in man's inhumanity to man). But I think that affordable education one can take at one's computer is a very good thing.
One problem I have with many distance learning programs is that while their cost is reasonable as contrasted with a residential college, the cost is nonetheless high if one has the goal of making available a true, virtual "open university" system.
I have a few peculiar reading hobbies. One is research into unique but accredited distance learning degrees. I tend to roam places like the Distance Education Training Council website (www.detc.org, I believe, but I just google it up) for curios. I love the Atlantic University website. The Atlantic folks are devotees of the mystical fellow Edgar Cayce, and offer a master's in Transpersonal Studies. I love the sound of that degree--transpersonal studies. I am not at all a follower of Mr. Cayce--I think my acquaintance with his work is limited to a single, slightly chewed ("bad dog! bad dog!") leatherbound biography, written by a devoted follower. But the tuition, even for the "continuing education" courses, is less in the "pleasant pastime" level than in the "earnest expense" level. I will save my transpersonal tendencies for the used paperback store and the lending library.
Similarly, the Earnest Holmes Institute, which teaches Religious Science ministers, and the Emma Curtis Hopkins Theological Seminary, which more generically train New Thought ministers, seem quite intriguing. I have no desire to become a New Thought minister, but the courses sound fun and interesting. But the tuition makes clear to me that I would have to figure out some new thoughts on tuition-funding in order to formally study New Thought.
In Garland, Texas, where I have my office, Amberton University runs a very worthwhile distance education program, which is much less expensive than most distance education programs. It is something like 200 dollars a credit hour, which means one can do a 120 hour bachelor's for twenty four thousand dollars and a 30 hour master's for six thousand. Although I like what the Amberton folks have accomplished, I'd like to see far less expensive programs arise. While the University of the State of New York's programs, which now have some catchy name that eludes me, can be inexpensive indeed, I'd like to see even more options.
As time goes on, I realize that the public library remains the great equalizer for the person without funding for further formal education. I see the debate now raging over "books v. multi-media and the internet" from time to time in the press. Yet, to me, the question is whether the library is stocked with the things to provide a triple role--education, reference and fun. Yet libraries seem to me to get less than their due in the public funding arena. I tend to favor funding fewer things in government, but those much more lavishly than government currently does.
My mind works very much in the "hey kids, why don't we just put on a show" way, although I do not look like andy rooney nor sing like judy garland. I imagine what it would take to put together a credible accredited distance education institute, which offers useful courses at nearly no cost.
During the 1990s, some rich guy said he was going to do just that, but I think the stock market cured his philanthropy.
I'd like to open a distance learning school that worked in a totally different way than they usually do. First of all, there would be absolutely no promises of any vocational improvement from the degrees on offer. The entire goal of my particular school would be life-enrichment, not material enrichment. I do not knock, of course, career-oriented education--I am a big proponent of taking schoolwork that leads someplace useful. But at my school, learning would be recognized as its own end. Does anyone really need to know
the thermodynamic potential of a factory flume when one can learn about the religion of the Quapaw native Americans or trends in early Canadian poetry?
I'd love to put on-line a meaningful set of liberal arts studies, leading to some certificate draped in a ribbon.
The tuition per hour would be three trips to Starbucks' worth of cash. The school would be essentially a website, some underemployed professors who can't get a full-time teaching job, an office space for coordination, and a really cool set of servers delivering course work. The school brochures would never promise that the degrees and certificates were useful for anything. "So you know you'll smart!" might be the campus slogan, or "Liberal arts should be inexpensive!".
For years, I've looked longingly at distance learning programs--the master of arts in humanities at Cal. State--Dominguez Hills, the master in liberal arts at the University of the State of New York, or the master's in media studies at New College of California. But ultimately, I don't take any of them because their cost outweighs their economic benefit. I suppose that my public library and used bookstore will remain my first choice institutionso of higher learning.
I must look up, though, what it would cost to start a university for the study of poetry. Five dollars a credit hour, 30 hours to a master's. The 150 dollar certificate in poetry. Qualifies the student for--absolutely nothing the student wasn't already qualified to do. Coursework in "deconstructing nature" and "imagery in a video age".
A required "honors paper", in which the student must compare two totally incomparable poets with a third, irrelevant historical figure. This idea has potential.
I'm intrigued this morning that folks are called upon to make educational/vocational decisions when they are too young to know the options. Will I be a doctor, a plumber?, an eighteen year old asks. My own profession, law, draws far too many folks who go to law school because they could not think of anything else to do. The California bar magazine this month had an article on drastic increases in law school applications. Here we have a national crisis in finding health care workers and science teachers, and yet people are flooding the law schools. We do not, by the way, have a national shortage of lawyers. We do, interestingly, have a national shortage of legal services for middle class people at affordable rates, but the current "lawyer boom" tends not to address this problem at all. Instead, it generates most graduates who feed into the existing system, and a few graduates, who never work as lawyers at all.
So now we have desperate needs for nurses, med techs of all kinds, and a myriad of other medical fields, but we turn out more lawyers. It's enough to make one want to enroll in a poetry university, so that one can write about it. My own thesis poem would be about how needless science-o-phobia deprives folks of the chance to make money and do good, and shuttles them into liberal arts degrees that sometimes force them into retail. But that poem would be unfair, because I have a higher opinion of the liberal arts degree than that.
But I would like to see less expensive education available to folks after high school. Then education could be more like a visit to the plant store. Plant something, and if it grows, great. Plant it and it fails--go buy something else.
This is a very hard thing to do when one faces 20 or 40K or student debt. But "the system" would improve if education were more affordable, permitting folks to easily start over.
Speaking of affordable, my quest for places to run inexpensive chess tournaments continues apace. Why does every meeting room want 150 dollars? This is what I miss about small towns. In Camden, Arkansas, or Gurdon, Arkansas, I'm fairly sure I could find someplace that ranged between 25 dollars and free. I suppose I need to go back to that cool Garland game room place, which was quite reasonable, based on a per-player charge. I have this vision of making chess cheap and fun--like a poetry degree--but it's taking actual work. I hate it when my daydreams require work to make into realities.
Perhaps I need a new cactus, and to finish cleaning my art room. Then I can look at my plant grow, and run chess tournaments at home.