A college degree offers the best guarantee that a young American will find a rewarding career and a secure middle-class life. And the local economy soars when more residents are high-earning university graduates. Therefore, college-going is vital for prosperity.
However, the cost of higher education keeps escalating so badly that it crushes families and teens. The tab has climbed 700 percent in the past generation, and total U.S. student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion. The average graduate owes $26,000. Students who drop out can owe heavy debts, but often don't gain enough earnings to repay the burden.
The National Center for Education Statistics says cost at a private university now averages $33,000 per year -- yet inflation-adjusted median family income fell 7 percent between 2006 and 2011. While costs rise, ability to pay them drops.
Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates challenged U.S. leaders to find ways to reduce college cost and boost upward mobility for more people. Two governors, Rick Scott of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas, asked their state education chiefs to devise plans for four-year degrees costing only $10,000. Gov. Scott Walker followed in Wisconsin.
Now, Florida has announced that 23 state-run colleges soon will offer $10,000 degrees, and some Texas schools already have complied. A Texas master plan is titled "Anatomy of a Revolution? The Rise of the $10,000 Bachelor's Degree." It notes that three-fourths of families now think college is out of reach. In California, Assemblyman Dan Logue has introduced an "Affordable College Act" to achieve the $10,000 level.
Such cost-cutting strategies depend heavily on online courses in which a few teachers reach thousands of students -- rather like the famed computer courses of Khan Academy. It's controversial, and some critics sneer that it will bring "Wal-Marting of education," weakening the value of degrees.
Nonetheless, commercial online universities already have spread across America, and other major schools are offering free MOOCs (massive open online courses). WVU is taking a first step into MOOC-land.
Mountainview Elementary School in Morgantown pioneered a "No Paper, No Pencil Day" in which pupils work solely on computers. America's Alliance for Excellent Education, headed by former Gov. Bob Wise, adopted the idea as National Digital Learning Day. Last year, more than 16,000 teachers in 42 states participated in the special day.
Recently, Gov. Tomblin proclaimed Feb. 6 as West Virginia's Digital Learning Day.
In the college realm, if computerized classes can bring the tuition expense of a four-year degree down to $10,000, it will be a blessing, enabling multitudes of young people to attain middle-class careers without incurring ruinous debt.
The Texas master plan says: "The ground has shifted beneath the feet of traditional public higher education." We hope this shift boosts future prospects for great numbers of young Americans.