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Originally published December 18, 2013 at 4:57 PM | Page modified December 18, 2013 at 5:00 PM

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Guest: A way back from the decline in college enrollment

Many in the educational community are incorporating technological innovations to produce new and affordable delivery methods, writes guest columnist Samuel H. Smith.

Special to The Times

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IT’S a tough time to be a college student, and it’s a tough time not to have a degree.

Despite dim reports of high cost and limited accessibility, however, we are seeing a revolution of immense changes, many brought on by technological innovations reshaping how we learn.

Recent College Board and census data show the average cost of a four-year college education has increased by more than 250 percent, to about $22,000 per year, since 1980.

Too many students are relying on loans to pay for school. The average 2013 graduate took on $30,000 in loan debt during his or her college career. Some students are borrowing amounts they are likely never to repay. The U.S. Department of Education says recent college graduates are defaulting on loans at the highest rate in decades.

The financial pressure is likely a reason why enrollment at colleges and universities dipped in 2012. A continued decline is simply not acceptable if Washington state is to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

It’s unacceptable if we want jobs created by Washington employers to be filled by people from Washington. Too often employers must look out of the region for the skilled and educated workers they need.

Simply put, without more affordable, high-quality educational options that lead to family-wage jobs, our economy will suffer.

Seeing this as a call to action, many in the educational community are incorporating technological innovations to produce new and affordable delivery methods for course content, creating educational opportunities for potential students previously shut out from a college degree.

Many of us have heard of the Khan Academy, a free educational platform with a library of more than 4,300 videos and an estimated 300 million students learning academic subjects such as mathematics and science.

And now the University of Washington has opened courses to the public over the Internet — free of charge. Those courses generally feature video-based lectures and require students to take quizzes and complete assignments.

The above examples prove that all it takes to effectively deliver and receive important academic information is a high-speed Internet connection. The use of the Internet also provides a convenient, cost-effective medium for nontraditional learners to access college degree programs.

Western Governors University (WGU) Washington is an accredited, online university that offers career-focused university credentials for about $6,000 per year for most programs. Washington lawmakers endorsed WGU Washington in 2011 as an option for working adults who, because of busy schedules and other limitations, can’t attend a traditional university. The online modality also makes it an excellent option for people in rural areas.

Because it’s online, WGU Washington can offer a more personalized and efficient learning model. Known as competency-based education, the model allows students to study and learn at their own pace, with one-on-one support of a faculty mentor. Students advance as soon as they can demonstrate their mastery of subject matter through proctored tests and assessments.

The online competency-based learning model has recently been duplicated for some courses at Edmonds Community College. Bellevue College is expected to launch a similar program in the coming months.

It’s clear innovations in technology can be used to address the major problems in postsecondary education, particularly cost and accessibility.

Are we witnessing the meltdown of higher education, as some believe?

On the contrary. We are witnessing an amazing time of promising new practices that are revolutionizing higher education. Innovation, whether it is in the form of technology or in a new academic model, is taking us in the right direction.

Samuel H. Smith is the former president of Washington State University and a founding director of Western Governors University and the College Success Foundation.

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