What If Universities Offered Subscriptions?

Reconsidering tuition in an era of lifelong learning

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Yale University, where I attended graduate school. I was allowed to take any courses I wanted, in any discipline, as long as they fit into my schedule.

While many businesses move toward subscription models, I can’t help but wonder what stops universities from doing the same.

Hear me out before you call me crazy.

Before we talk about how universities spend their money (because they’re usually not using it to pay their adjunct professors respectable salaries), let’s consider how a subscription model could benefit both students and educational institutions.

What’s the value of a college education?

In 1940, just 4.6% of adults over the age of 25 had a 4-year degree. Today, according to the Census Bureau, that number is hovering around 33%. The value of a college degree has changed over the past few decades. Jobs that once required a high school diploma now require a 4-year degree. Some jobs that once required a 4-year degree now require an advanced degree. Some jobs that once required an advanced degree now require no degree at all — many major tech companies, for example, no longer require software engineers to have Computer Science degrees.

Students who enroll in a university are sometimes taking an expensive risk. It’s not easy to change or supplement your course of study without increasing your debt. The rising cost of a college education is a deterrent for some students, and an absolute turn-off for others.

What if we do this differently?

A subscription model would help students get the most out of their investment, and would give universities leverage in making admissions offers.

Using a subscription model instead of a semester model could yield any combination of the following benefits, depending on how the university chooses to structure its subscription program:

  • Students could take as much time as they need to complete a degree program, increasing the university’s graduation rates, and, by extension, their funding.
  • Students could accelerate their degree programs, staying on campus for, say, 2 years instead of 4.
  • Students could only take courses that they actually want to take, whether or not these courses lead to a degree.
  • Students could explore courses outside of their major before committing to a course of study.
  • Students could return to their alma mater to complete additional coursework, or an advanced degree in the same discipline without having to re-apply. Instead of matriculating ahead of time, students could qualify for a degree program by acing the coursework.
  • Students could audit courses for life, perhaps paying a small fee to receive credit for courses taken under these conditions.
  • Universities could offer “bootcamp”-style course sequences for students who don’t want to work toward a degree.
  • Universities could increase their online course offerings and their winter/summer term offerings, which would accommodate increased course enrollment.
  • Universities could retain rigorous admissions standards, especially for specialized programs, while giving students a more worthwhile return on their investment. (Students who don’t meet the qualifications to gain admission into, say, a graduate-level dance program, might still be able to take a course or two of interest with the professor’s approval.)

Before you say “Courses are already overcrowded!”, let’s really think this through.

Courses are overcrowded because students have to cram these courses in else they lose money by not being enrolled full time.

Students are pretty much conditioned to register for the fall and spring terms, 3 or 4 courses, no matter what. They are often told which courses to take. Most courses are ONLY offered in 2 of the 4 semesters (fall and spring, not summer and winter), and additional sections are not easy to open, so of course some courses are a bit overcrowded.

If students could take courses at their discretion without worrying about the bill, we’d likely see more universities offering summer and winter courses, more students spreading out their courses over a longer period of time, and fewer students repeating courses that they weren’t ready to take the first time around.

We’d also likely see more sections of popular courses and the elimination of ones that have low registration rates.

This doesn’t have to ruin the small class sizes that universities proudly flaunt. Collect some data and open more sections as necessary.

It also doesn’t have to change the way specialized programs admit students. It just changes the tuition structure.

A flat rate for an undergraduate degree. A flat rate for an undergraduate + graduate degree. A flat rate for unlimited courses. Have a field day with the possibilities.

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A subscription model could benefit universities, too.

Listen… I didn’t study economics (maybe I would have if it were included in my subscription) and I’m not an accountant, but public universities in NYC are free now. Universities across the world are free. A subscription option could actually yield big profits for universities while making lifelong learning more than just a sentence from a mission statement.

Let’s say a 4-year degree costs you $100,000 by the time you finish. Of course, once you take that last course, your time on campus is done, even though you’ll be paying for it for the next 10 — 20 years. You don’t get to stay and take a few extra electives for free just because you chose not to apply for graduation yet.

Now let’s say you pay for a lifetime of education up front. You can still get scholarships and grants to lower the cost. You can still apply financial aid to the balance. But now it’s a lifelong investment.

Can’t finish your degree right now? You’re always welcome back. Need to take 1 class every term for a few years? You still belong here. Feel like doing a dual degree? Hey, you paid for it.

Graduated? Awesome. You can return any time you want to take additional courses (living expenses are on you). You can take as many courses as you want — for credit or not for credit — for the rest of your life. Of course, students currently enrolled in their first degree program could get priority registration, but the empty seats could be filled with eager alumni.

Maybe you pay a small transcript fee for each course you take (beyond your first or second degree, for example) for credit. You can audit as many courses as you want as long as there is space available. Audit as many online courses as you want.

I started to think about this when I was reflecting upon my time at Yale, where I did a 3-year MFA at the School of Drama. The best part about going to Yale was that you could take any course you wanted — in any discipline — as long as the professor gave you the green light. I was able to take courses in Italian translation, geology, and neurology (it was an elective; I wasn’t taking a med school course). These courses had nothing to do with my degree program and it was hard to squeeze them in, but they ultimately changed the course of my career.

Instead of giving alumni the unfair “privilege” of legacy admissions for their children, give them the gift of lifelong learning. Let them model for their children what learning is REALLY about.

The thing about subscriptions is that most people don’t abuse them. If you relocate, you won’t be flying back to your university every year to take more classes… but ten years down the line, if you decide to get an online certification or if you’re just dying to take a summer language course, your alma mater should be the place that welcomes you back with open arms.

The majority of students won’t use this type of subscription to earn 14 degrees. After all, if they receive a high-quality education the first time around, they should be gainfully employed. But inviting alumni back for continuing education can only reflect positively on the university and its affiliates.

Many coding academies offer free retakes with little effect on their bottom line. Most people don’t take advantage, but the option is there.

My undergraduate university had no limit on the number of credits students could take each term. Hardly anyone abused it. (I abused it, though.) They’re still in business, last I checked, with dozens of famous alumni.

It’s 2019. More and more people are learning online. For free. Or investing 5-digit sums in 3-month programs to jump-start their careers because what they got in college wasn’t enough.

And student loan debt can’t be erased. Not even in bankruptcy. I know I would be a lot less bitter about my student loan debt if I could take a computer science class at my alma mater this summer, or if I could return for a semester to take a course in a language I’ve been studying.

Just for the sake of learning.

I’ve written about my college experiences before and I got a lot of harsh feedback. My main gripe was the amount of time and money I spent when I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. It was my fault, but is college not a business with a ticking clock that charges for every semester of indecisiveness?

This method of operation doesn’t produce lifelong learners.

There are no easy answers.

But one thing’s for sure: it’s time for a change.

With more and more people taking learning into their own hands, universities will soon need to find a way to make a comeback.

Is college really for everyone?

Maybe not right now. But it really, really could be.

If your university tuition gave you access to courses outside of the terms of your degree program, would you take part? Would you take advantage? Share your thoughts.

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✨ serial questioner • technical writer/devops • editor of Diary of an SRE • thank you for connecting 👩🏻‍💻 kerisavoca.com

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