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Technology, collaboration can help limit college costs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2012 - To help explain how higher education can get its costs down to a more affordable level, panelists on Thursday discussed two words that have struck terror in the hearts of generations of students – college algebra.

Teresa Thiel, an associate dean of arts and sciences at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said that eight years ago, only 55 percent of the students who took the often-dreaded math course on campus managed to earn a C-minus or better.

“It was a serious roadblock for students to get through,” Thiel said as part of a discussion on how schools can help lower costs by using technology.

“When students can’t get through college algebra, they may drop out. They not only don’t get a degree, but we lose them as students and lose their tuition.”

UMSL then did what Thiel called a total makeover of the course – cutting lectures from three a week down to one and spending $350,000 on a math technology learning center where students could go to work through their algebra problems, getting help if they needed it.

Class sizes went up, to as much as 90 from 35, because the lecture part of the course was seen as less vital, Thiel said. Students faced a 5 p.m. deadline each Friday to get their homework in, but they were allowed to try the problems as often as they wanted, with the actual numbers changed, and their highest grade would count.

In the technology center, she said, “students can get help whenever they need it. We wanted to take students out of the classroom and put then into an environment where they learn with a lot of support.”

The result: Their success rate went up, to between 75 and 80 percent. Thiel admits that the technique might work better in a math class than in other courses, but she said it was a good example of how technology can improve student success and drive down costs at the same time.

“Students were very resistant at first,” she said, “and the faculty was very resistant at first. Now, it’s just the way we do it.”

More degrees, stronger economy

Thiel was one of several panelists at a forum on innovative ways to drive down the cost of college, sponsored by the Regional Commerce & Growth Association. It was the second of two sessions devoted to increasing the number of college degree holders in the St. Louis area, as a way to improve the regional economy as a whole.

The first session, in April, concentrated on the student side of the equation, making sure that those who are paying tuition bills know of all the help that is available.

To bolster the argument for containing the cost side, the RCGA had a chart that showed how the cost of college has risen more than 570 percent since 1984; during the same time, medical care has gone up 300 percent, median family income has risen 144 percent, and the consumer price index has increased 125 percent.

That steep price rise works against the financial benefits of earning a degree. Figures showed that graduates of a four-year college are less likely to be unemployed, are more likely to be on a promising career trajectory and will earn on average 72 percent more than those with only a high school diploma.

Census figures show that if one out of every six of the 357,000 working adults in the St. Louis area who started college but did not finish went back to earn a degree, regional payrolls could increase by $1.2 billion a year.

In that context, panelists discussed two ways that colleges can help raise the completion rate by keeping costs down – through technology and by helping students earn credit for what they already know and learn skills to make them more employable.

Part of the technology segment, fittingly enough, featured a video from the TED conference with Richard Baraniuk of Rice University talking about how textbooks today can be viewed as music is available online: They can be created, ripped, mixed and burned, so that they can be updated as much as possible, customized and bought by students for far less than what traditional publishers charge.

What Baraniuk calls a “knowledge ecosystem” is just one way technology can help bring the cost of college down. Dan Viele, director of online learning at Webster University, recounted how his campus has built up a worldwide presence over the past few decades.

More recently, it has moved programs online and is now serving 9,000 students in 64 countries. The convenience and the access are such that, he said, a student taking Webster courses in Atlanta because the schools there did not offer what he wanted came up to St. Louis last month to take part in commencement exercises.

Mark Lombardi, president of Maryville University, said such developments mark “the greatest democratization of knowledge in history. It makes the Renaissance look like a church social.”

Unless colleges and universities adapt to these technological changes, he added, he expects to see 1,000 of them go out of business in the next 15 years. To stay afloat, they will have to rethink their business models, particularly in the area of designing curriculum.

“The days of curriculum design being done completely within the academy and by faculty is over,” Lombardi said.

But such changes won’t be easy, he added.

“You have to rethink every assumption you have,” Lombardi said. “That’s very very difficult for universities to do. Universities are some of the most unchangeable entities every created by human beings.”

Changing curriculum

Part of the change in curriculum design was shown by the first part of the discussion, where representatives of area schools talked about how they are working with older students and helping to tailor courses to their needs as well as give them credit for what they already know.

Many of those adults have tried to earn a degree before and have failed, so they need to update their skills as well as bolster their confidence. And it helps for them to be able to see directly how their degree will help them in the workplace.

Jennifer Giancola, dean of the School for Professional Studies at Saint Louis University, said she has worked closely with BJC to work through all of those issues. The university has helped customize classes to meet specific needs at BJC and provided classes onsite so employees of the hospital can attend with their colleagues, encouraging them to succeed.

At Fontbonne University, Arthur Hunborg, the director of prior learning assessment, said the school is developing evaluations to help prospective students gain credit for what they already know. The assessments can be exams or an essay portfolio reviewed by faculty members.

“Students can save a lot of time and a lot of money” with such a system, Hunborg said.

Four-year schools and two-years schools are also working more closely together so that students can get basic courses out of the way at a cheaper price, then transfer those credits to a four-year institution. And schools like Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville are developing interdisciplinary approaches that make their graduates more valuable to employers.

Helping experienced workers gain the degree they need to progress on the job is also important, said John Wood, vice president for student success at Ranken Technical College, which is about to expand to a second location in Wentzville.

“We don’t want to insult people who come to us with a lot of skills by putting them into introductory classes,” he said.

He noted that all of Ranken’s graduates in the machine trades had jobs waiting for them before they graduated, which is important for students who may be earning $16-$18 an hour at a part-time job and may not see any reason to complete their degree.

“We are finally starting to see Mom and Dad, the influencers, realize that manufacturing is a good field to go into,” Wood said. “We’re still trying to catch up. We see so many requests that we cannot fill them. It’s very cyclical.”

He added:

“The recession was tough on industry in St. Louis, but it was good to us.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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