It's hard to say which is more remarkable about Kayla Heard, that she is graduating this spring from Washington State University at age 16 or that she earned her degree without ever entering a classroom.
Teen-aged college graduates are rare (shades of "Doogie Howser, M.D.") but online degrees are increasingly common and gaining respect among employers, even when the graduate never had to set his or her actual feet on campus.
The home-schooled Union, Wash., girl's attendance by PC in the bedroom space that she calls her "nerd cave" is significant in light of another story in the news: soaring college costs and student loan debt. Ms. Heard's achievement was made possible by online learning, an innovation that illustrates how much more clever colleges and universities have been at making money than finding ways to save it.
Over the past 25 years, college tuition and fees have risen three times as fast as individual family income, according to the College Board, and tuition has increased over the past decade at a rate of 5.6 percent per year beyond the rate of general inflation.
That's not all the fault of the colleges, of course, especially public institutions whose budgets are being cut by state governments and other hard-pressed funding sources. Nevertheless, other hard-pressed funding sources like parents and students are asking a question that used to be unthinkable: Is college worth the cost?
No question that we Americans still love college diplomas, polls show. We only hate the soaring price. Student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year and is likely to top a trillion dollars this year, compared to less than $200 billion in 2000, according to Fastweb.com, a site that compiles public and private student loan information.
As a result, the average college graduate leaves school with $24,000 in debt, a figure that begins to weigh on the diploma's potential value in many minds and many wallets. A recent Pew Center poll found a majority of Americans (57 percent) now say the higher education system in the United States "fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend." Even more (75 percent) say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.
As grandiose as it may sound, the future of the American dream is at stake. We Americans like to think that our kids will earn a better standard of living than we have. Instead, it is becoming harder for the next generation merely to hold on. Student loan debt is a drag on individual lives and overall economic growth. It means young people take longer to marry, buy a home, have children and, in general, grow up.
What can be done? The growth of online courses nationwide -- even at Harvard -- illustrates how much we need to rethink about education in the new century.
We can begin by making the future of education funding part of the coming year's political debates on the federal and state level. Congress is considering cuts to Pell Grants for low-income college students, for example, at a time when the potential value of a college diploma is more important than ever.
But colleges and universities also need to investigate and report why college tuition and fees have risen at a higher rate than general inflation -- and family incomes -- over the past 25 years, even during recessions.
Particularly troublesome are the for-profit colleges, whose students are more likely than those at nonprofits to default on student loans. Although they make up only about 12 percent of those enrolled in higher education, says the Department of Education, the for-profit colleges' students make up almost half of those who default -- and about a fourth of the federal Pell Grant funds.
The Obama administration is pushing new regulations under which for-profit colleges would lose access to federal student aid if they fail to meet benchmarks for loan repayments. Those benchmarks would include penalties for producing too many graduates whose incomes are too low to repay debts. The for-profit schools say the rules put an unfair burden on them. That's worth debating. But so is the obligation that institutions of higher learning have to help students get a good return on their time, effort and money, whether it is spent online or in an old-school classroom.
(Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail responses may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.)