It’s Time for Colleges Where Students Are in Charge
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because college is broken — and maybe you could fix it.
With each passing day, the American higher education system seems more bloated. Student loans are becoming untenable, with the average debtor owing around $30,000 — and that’s just for a bachelor’s degree. Graduates claim they are willing to do insane things to rid themselves of that ball and chain. In a survey from LendEDU, an online loan marketplace, more than a quarter of respondents said that to get rid of their loans, they would name their first-born child Sallie Mae; two-fifths said they would take a year off their life expectancy, and more than half would abstain from alcohol, drugs and coffee, or social media forever.
Meanwhile, many students feel like they are getting less and less for their pound of flesh. As universities continue to raise tuition and student fees to new highs, perhaps there’s a better recourse: Get rid of the stuffy career academics and put the future in the hands of those students already paying an arm and a leg for their education.
That’s what Outer Coast College — a two-year college forming in Sitka, Alaska — aims to do. More than a mere nod to student government, the college (ETA: 2020) would let its students make almost every decision, from hiring faculty to choosing class curriculum and admitting the next crop of students. The project pulls from the playbook of Deep Springs College, an idiosyncratic, all-male school in the California desert that includes a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm.
Students will be responsible for both campus upkeep and engaging in outreach with the local community.
With a proposed first-year tuition cost of around $15,000 before scholarships — and in line with Alaska’s public universities — a college for the students, by the students, doesn’t just make fiscal sense, argues Bryden Sweeney-Taylor, CEO of America Achieves and the future administrator of the nascent school; it also has many other advantages over existing models. Like Deep Springs, Outer Coast will keep enrollment low, about 20 students per class, and students will be responsible for both campus upkeep and engaging in outreach with the local community. The new education model also helps address three gaps in traditional college offerings, says Sweeney-Taylor. Among other things, Outer Coast is a place for those who are disenchanted with mainstream education models and want more ownership of their studies, those who believe current systems are broken and don’t teach practical, success-building skills, and/or those who desire teachers that are skilled educators and motivators rather than pure researchers or academics.
While advocates of radical self-governance say Outer Coast could prove a model for like-minded educators to emulate, it’s difficult to imagine the experiment working for larger class sizes. Getting accreditation is difficult, and many startups like Outer Coast are forced to attach themselves to larger institutions as satellite campuses before branching out on their own. And there are real risks to a model relying on student governance, including the possibility of poor hiring decisions and a lack of ideological and cultural diversity as students self-select their peers. “There are going to be all kinds of mistakes made,” says Sweeney-Taylor, who himself attended Deep Springs College. “In the short term, that often can make for a pretty chaotic and turmoil-filled experience.”
But there is a long-term benefit to making those mistakes too, argues Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, an Alaskan state representative who has worked to bring Outer Coast to the Sitka area. “It’s not symbolic self-governance, it’s real power,” he says. “And there’s a huge amount of learning from being given that level of responsibility, inevitably failing, and learning from that failure.”