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My Old School (Photo by Dave Bleasdale)

Minnesota’s two-term governor Tim Pawlenty challenged the status quo of higher education when he appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Thursday night. He talked about the role of government and how we educate our students at the post-secondary level, but the overall message was about efficiency.

“Do you really think in 20 years somebody is going to put on their backpack … haul their keister across campus, and sit and listen to some boring person drone on about econ 101…?” asked Gov. Pawlenty. The segment in which he discussed education can be seen here.

If it seemed unusual for a governor to be on a national television program touting alternative methods of higher education, his timing was perfect. Across the United States, public universities are raising tuitions due to budget cuts, making it harder to afford traditional higher education. Community colleges have become selective because they are oversubscribed.

Enter the innovators.

Burck Smith, an internet entrepreneur and founder of  StraighterLine, an online venue for college courses, is “bent on altering the DNA of higher education as we have known it for the better part of 500 years,” wrote Kevin Carey in Washington Monthly. “Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and — most importantly — fiercely competing on price.”

Pawlenty is also questioning the status quo.

“Is there another way to deliver the service other than a one-size-fits-all, monopoly provider that says ‘Show up 9 a.m. Wednesday morning for econ 101?’” asked Pawlenty.

Yes! Eager learners can access lectures whenever and wherever they please — assuming they have the technology — via open courseware from MIT, UC Berkeley and other universities. But free online courses don’t necessarily lead to a degree.

Econ 101: Supply and demand curves intersect at the market price. (Image Courtesy MIT OpenCourseWare.)

The U.S. now ranks 10th in the world as measured by the percentage of our population with college degrees.  President Barack Obama has set a goal of having  the U.S. produce five million more college  graduates, with the hope of regaining 1st place by 2020.

Challenging the status quo, though, will require more than simply downloading a lecture.

“The real power of the technology is not delivering the classroom instruction but using technology to change the way we do instruction,’’ said Robert Mendenhall, president and CEO of Western Governors University, a private, not-for-profit online university founded and supported by 19 governors — although Minnesota was not among them. Western Governors University accepted its first students in 1999.

“For higher education to be more effective,” said Mendenhall, “you have to deliver the content and make it self-paced … you have to individualize it.” Like their peers on campus, students communicate with professors using Skype, iChat and email. However, they access their online courses at their convenience, not at set times.

Mendenhall did not watch The Daily Show on Thursday, but he applauds the governor’s open-minded approach to different ways of delivering higher education. He said, however, that it is Pawlenty’s neighbor to the south who is embracing an entirely new and even more innovative system of delivering higher education.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a fellow Republican, established WGU Indiana, a partnership between the state and Western Governors University, to expand access to higher education by encouraging students to enroll in online degree programs. Indiana ranks 44th in the country in the percentage of adults with postsecondary credentials, Daniels said last week.

“WGU Indiana will fill the clearest and most challenging gap remaining in our family of higher education opportunities, helping thousands of adult Hoosiers attain the college degrees they’ve wanted and needed, on a schedule they can manage, at a cost they can afford,” Daniels said, in a press release and in remarks broadcast on YouTube.

The average age of a Western Governors University student is 36 years old. So, for students who put off higher education and graduation until later in life, as with their younger counterparts, a degree offers broader professional options and the potential for higher income.

WGU has students in all 50 states, including Minnesota, and 22 percent reside in rural areas with little access to university campuses.

Regardless of age or locale, the reality is that while U.S. college enrollment rates have grown rapidly over the past 40 years, completion rates haven’t kept pace. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 70 percent of 2009 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities. However, 30 percent of college and university students drop out after their first year, according to U.S. News and World Report. Half never graduate at all. The idea, of course, is that by offering courses online, more students will be able to complete their post-secondary degree.

WGU enrollment grew from 14,000 to 20,000 students this year. What matters, of course, isn’t how many students enroll but how many of them complete their post-secondary education. Fifty-six percent of full-time, first-time WGU students graduated within 150 percent of “normal time” to complete their degree.

Gov. Pawlenty, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1983 and its law school in 1986, is the first in his family to earn an undergraduate degree. In summing up his iCollege notion, he said, “We want you to go to college, we want you to do well … let’s put the consumer in charge. Whether it’s education, whether it’s healthcare, to the extent we can, technology can help a lot.”

He will complete his two-term tenure as the governor of Minnesota at the end of 2010. It is widely believed that by opting out of a race for a third term, Pawlenty is positioning himself to run for president.

Gov. Daniels, who graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton in 1971 and earned his law degree from Georgetown in 1979, will complete his two-term tenure as the governor of Indiana in 2012. He is also often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate for the GOP.

Susan Sawyers

Liz Willen contributing reporting to this post.

To learn more about Pawlenty’s thinking, past, present and future on higher ed, read Sharon Schmickle’s June 16 story that ran in Hechinger Report partner site, MinnPost.com.