Raking in the dough

Why is the real cost of higher education so much higher for today’s students than it was for their parents or grandparents? Why does it continue to skyrocket, far outpacing official inflation figures?

Demand. These days, it seems you can’t get anywhere without higher education. Inexplicably, many jobs that do not use the skill set provided by a college education still require a bachelor’s degree. For this and many other reasons, demand for higher education is at an all-time high. The supply, on the other hand, has not kept pace. This translates to rising prices. As selectivity goes up due to an ever-broader pool of qualified applicants, costs go up.

Student loans and federal aid. It may be odd to hear, but federal student aid has been shown to drive up tuition fees. Universities feel much more comfortable charging exorbitant fees when the government is willing to guarantee that students will pay them (and then spend half a lifetime paying off the debt). The extent to which this is a factor is a topic of heated debate, but the paradoxical fact remains: before student loans came into existence, it was possible for most people to afford college without them.

Rising spending by institutions. This may be a consequence of higher revenue rather than a cause, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. Universities are paying their professors and staff more than ever before, and they’re also hiring more people than ever before. They’re also spending record amounts of money on their real estate: nice gyms, activity centers, recreational facilities, and so on.

Resistance to change. There are many cost-cutting measures available to universities. For example, York College in Pennsylvania has proven that, with minor adjustments in administrative culture and smarter allocation of resources, it’s possible to provide students with a private, four-year education for about half the cost of its competitors. This being a tech blog, it’s also meaningful to point out that there are many ways in which technology can help institutions to cut costs and lower their prices. The problem is that most universities are quite happy with what they have. And who can blame them when they’re rolling in cash?

What do you think about the exorbitant costs of college education? Leave us your thoughts in the comments section, and check back in a few days for an overview of some exciting technological solutions to the cost problem.

Why is higher education so expensive?

So, you want to go to college. I don’t blame you: college is basically four years of fun (with a side of class for about three hours a day), and when you’re done, you get a big, lavishly framed, magical piece of paper that helps you make money. It’s like there are no downsides!

Well, actually, there is one. The average cost of a college education in the United States is currently about $140,000 for a private institution and $56,000 for a public one. This is quite a hefty price tag for a four year party and a piece of paper – and that’s before you pile on a generous smattering of extra tens of thousands for room, board, and books. Given that the median American household earns just under $45,000 per year, these numbers are very perplexing.

When I talk to people who attended college 40 or 50 years ago, I notice a common theme: many were able to pay for it themselves with part-time side jobs, like working at a restaurant or delivering newspapers. In 2012, the income from such employment would barely be enough to buy books for the semester, let alone cover tuition. The vast majority of today’s students are unable to pay for any kind of college education without sinking into the abyssal chasm of student loan debt.

What changed? Somehow, I doubt that part-time waiters in the old days got the 2012 equivalent of $30,000 a year. The culprit must be tuition.

Why is education so expensive, and how can technology help bring that cost down? This week we’ll be discussing this topic in depth and attempting to find some answers. Stay tuned, Rukuku readers!

Online learning woes

As of 2008, over four million US students in postsecondary education – that’s 20.4% – were taking online distance learning classes. Are today’s distance-learning platforms adequately addressing the needs of online learners?

In this post I’d like to focus on the 800-pound gorilla of the market: that is, of course, Blackboard.

Very recently, I took an online course on Blackboard. I found the interface to be wonderfully interactive and conducive to learning. As soon as I logged on, I was smitten by its user-friendliness, humbled by the profound student-professor rapport it establishes, and downright awestruck at its productive learning process.

Wait a second. No I wasn’t.

The actual experience was more like this.

The interface on Blackboard looks a bit like it was designed by someone constantly referencing their “Intro to C++” textbook. Actually, that explains a lot: the interactivity level of the site closely resembles a textbook as well. The way a course is organized on Blackboard lacks any direction or purpose. With tabs on top, tabs on the right, boxes here and there, and a pervasively gloomy brown-ness throughout (you’ll find more cheer in a Franz Kafka novel), the user experience is far from easy. Not to be outdone, the actual performance of the program is fantastically… mediocre.

Maybe this is harsh. After all, there’s nothing wrong with Blackboard. The problem is that there’s nothing right with it either. It doesn’t engage, it doesn’t excite, and it doesn’t inspire. It’s as interesting and sophisticated as, well, a blackboard.

Shouldn’t a learning platform make me want to learn something?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Rukuku team would like to heartily wish you and your loved ones a Happy Valentine’s Day.

This Valentine’s Day, surprise someone special with a cute, cuddly, lovable Jaipur Pink Owl from Rukuku. Use him as a card holder or a supplement to a bouquet of flowers. If you follow instructions carefully, you’ll discover a secret pattern at the end. Once you’re done, be sure to visit Rukuku.com and sign your sweetheart up for our launch!

(Alone on the 14th? Making Valentine Ru is the perfect way to occupy yourself. Put him on full display to make all your friends think you received a valentine!)


In the previous installment, I discussed a selection of hurdles faced by the education world in the viability, effectiveness and adoption of new technologies. Here at Rukuku, though, we’re optimists. To us, that doesn’t mean crossing our fingers and hoping everything turns out okay. Instead, we recognize that for every problem, there exists an array of intelligent, creative, and occasionally, downright awesome solutions. As it pertains to tech and learning, a few examples follow. Some are uncontroversial, others are mutually exclusive, and many are subject to lively, opinionated discussion based on one’s political or social viewpoint.

Policy solutions. In our political discourse, the primary rhetorical tools have recently become beating each other over the head with vapid talking points and just generally yelling at everything. That is quite unfortunate, because there is a serious, level-headed discussion to be had on the subject of technology and our (failing) education system. A sober discussion on the topic might go something like this. Those favoring robust federal involvement in our schools and universities may say that more funding is needed, technology should be introduced into resistant systems with incentives and pressure, the system should be made more efficient and equitable (perhaps through subsidies for disadvantaged students and locales), and accountability should be increased. Deficit hawks and decentralists might retort that the right solutions are to give localities and institutions more leeway, stop constraining them with one-size-fits-all federal standards, and diminish what they believe to be the entrenched, change-resistant behemoth of an educational bureaucracy that we have created over the last couple of decades.

Natural market processes and innovation. Whatever your views on policy happen to be, anyone who has taken an introductory Economics class probably knows that peaceful, lawful competition among innovative producers results in ever-improving products and services at ever-lower prices. If you are a child of the era when the personal computer was an exorbitantly expensive, fantastically slow, nauseatingly beige, boxy monstrosity, you know this very well. The computers of today are enormously better, faster, and more functional than their counterparts of ten or 15 years ago. Despite that, the average price of personal computer equipment fell an astounding ninety percent between 1998 and 2009. The introduction of the tech revolution into education will be no different. In the last post, we placed special emphasis on socioeconomic factors causing disparities in the quality of learning. To be sure, this problem exists, and is serious. But in the face of the unrelenting innovation machine, it’s also temporary. Technologies are very rapidly becoming more accessible and more equitable for people of all backgrounds. If the demand exists (and it sure does), the innovators will always respond. To end with a small but shameless plug: Rukuku strives to be among those innovators.

There are so many reasons to look forward to solving the educational problems of the modern age.

Who’s aboard?

Source for stats.

Technological problems in education

While the rapid introduction of new technology into the world of education brings many obvious benefits, it’s worth noting that it creates a host of new problems. An overview of some of the most discussed issues follows.

Cost and socioeconomic disparity. As alluded to in the previous post, the cost of adopting new technologies can be prohibitively high, especially for economically disadvantaged students and locales. The ubiquitous iPad, for example, will set you back at least $500. The fear, then, is that technology could widen the socioeconomic education gap because the quality of education for students of affluent backgrounds, or those that attend cash-rich schools and universities, will skyrocket ahead, while that of their poorer counterparts languishes in mediocrity.

Resistance to the adoption of tech by educators. This problem stems from a very simple set of circumstances. Much of the faculty, both at schools and at universities, is not technologically savvy. The primary reason for this is pretty obvious: the only kind of Blackboard your 60-year old history professor knew when he was growing up was the kind that gave him chalk allergies and occasionally made dreadful screeching noises. Without ever having seen the benefits of new advances convincingly demonstrated, many educators either ignore or actively resist introducing technology into the classroom.

Red tape and institutional resistance. Resistance from bureaucracy is nothing new. Smaller and more autonomous institutions have had an easier time transitioning to new methods of learning; unfortunately, bringing change to a big public education system is like rolling a giant boulder up a hill. It shows: as late as 2010, over a third of US schools still did not have internet access.

Technology as a distraction. Many educators and schools are concerned that introducing iPads, computers, and internet access into the classroom will facilitate students’ knowledge of Farmville rather than science and math. It’s hard to argue with this one; anyone who has sat in the back of a college lecture hall knows that this is a valid concern. By the way, if this is an issue for you, check out our procrastination post.

Lack of research on the effectiveness of particular technologies. Because much of the technology we use in education is so new, there is no conclusive, thorough, peer-reviewed research on its effectiveness.

These concerns are legitimate and serious, and rightly invite robust discussion among stakeholders in education. However, here at Rukuku, we know a couple of things for sure. The problems are not insurmountable, and solving them will only reinforce a very exciting expectation: that technological advancement holds the promise for vast improvements in teaching and learning.

In the next installment, I’ll be discussing the various solutions to the problems outlined here, as well as the very exciting prospects for education in the near future.

[sources for this article: 1, 2, 3]

*Edit 02.03.12: fixed faulty link.