In a previous posting I looked at the forces causing national higher education costs to rise so fast. These same forces will affect Hawaii but I would argue that as an isolated set of islands, we have the option of thinking differently about solutions.

First, on the mainland and increasingly here, we have bought the argument that higher education is not a common good, like high school, fire departments or defense. Those who use it should pay for it. If we accept this, then students become customers buying degrees and higher ed is like fast food: cheap and fast. Excellence comes third, if at all.

Seeking only efficiency, we could move to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), with one professor lecturing to tens of hundreds of thousands of students. Venture capitalists are already circling like vultures, figuring out how to make money from them. An “accrediting” agency — approved by the national government — would award degrees, so we would save money for buildings and faculty. Science, music and craft labs would become virtual: there would be an app for that.

Why, in a few years, we might even have video games or virtual reality that could teach science or history. We could cut a year off the typical four-year degree and drop all the typical requirements for liberal arts — like language, history, and art or, for some majors, even math. We could move more college courses to high school as extensions of Advanced Placement (AP) even though many high school graduates require remedial courses in basic skills such as reading, writing and mathematics.

Of course there are some downsides. There is little evidence MOOCs work well except for highly motivated students, and they probably still need human interactions to reinforce the content. If MOOCs set the bar too high, there is no backup for floundering students. At their best, like television, MOOCs may focus less on content and more on production values. At their worst, MOOCs don’t allow students to learn how to interact or to advocate in the real world by testing ideas with faculty and their fellow students. Without the broad base of liberal arts, we risk producing narrow, albeit competent, technicians, less able to adapt or to function in our democracy where there are rarely “right” answers, just functional ones.

If we in Hawaii do see higher education as a public good, such that the education of an individual benefits the general community, then we need to either make education “free” within some limit or limit the costs the individual student must pay. Current state and federal funds to higher ed are almost sufficient to do this, if one removes many of the frills and the bureaucracy. Or society could pay the tuitions and graduates would repay the money from future earnings, up to a certain percent of income. Either removes the dangerously high debts students are piling up to finance their educations– a debt that discourages entry into many low-paying but necessary professions like teaching.

Whether a public or private good, here are 11 ideas that will help provide economy while helping to preserve quality.

At the national level, our legislators need to take a lead in:

  1. Forcing universities to disclose how much of their budgets actually goes to teaching as opposed to student frills, administration and debt service, working toward some public consensus as to what the balance should be. This will help embarrass universities into containing their costs;

  2. Cutting state and federal bureaucracy imposed on higher ed to a minimum. Nationally administration costs are increasing much faster than costs for actual education. Much of this is a result of ever more mandates from Washington and state governments;

  3. Directing the U.S. Department of Education to allow states to appoint their own accrediting agencies for higher education, ending present monopolies and allowing a better local fit.

At the state level, the public, the Governor and Legislature need to

  1. Decide how much higher education the state needs and then funding it, consistently.

At the state level, the UH administration, Board of Regents and faculty need to think about:

  1. Deciding how the UH system fits together: what unit does what and how much duplication do we need?

  2. Creating one or more no-frills two-year or four-year campuses or sub campuses with limited majors, facilities and administration, in return for lower tuition;

  3. Making entrance requirements more stringent for four-year institutions so that only college-ready students gain entrance;

  4. Creating an intensive year of study, for those who require it, between high school and college to prepare kids for the rigors of college.

  5. Diverting more students to learning vocational skills in community colleges. Not everyone needs a four year college education;

  6. Empowering the faculty to teach, giving them reasonable resources; then holding them accountable in realistic ways;

  7. Finding more efficient but effective ways to teach, while avoiding unproven fads. Don’t just jump on a national band-wagon but try new ideas, use them if they work, and discard them if they don’t;

  8. Using real metrics to measure effectiveness of colleges. Where are students 3 to 5 years after graduation, not how fast or how many graduates are produced. How big is their debt? Have they learned the things they need to master for a particular course of study as determined by the faculty, not someone in Washington, D.C.; and

  9. Recognizing that in Hawaii a lot of students work their way through college, avoiding debt, so they are likely to take longer to finish than is the national average. Can we provide more student jobs on campus?

We are not the mainland. We have our own unique needs and problems that mainland solutions may not fit. As small islands, if we do not address our problems, we can’t escape them. We know our present economy can’t grow and it is unlikely to persist in a changing world. We have to plan and teach for change. Being small we can experiment and change more easily, if we want to.

About the author: David Duffy runs the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit and is a professor in the Botany Department at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He has worked on marine ecosystems and the ecology of diseases including Lyme Disease, avian flu, and avian malaria in such places as Peru, Alaska, southern Africa, eastern Long Island, southern Africa and here in Hawaii. He received his Ph.D. in population biology from Princeton University.