KOKOMO – There might not be more than three people in 10,000 who would proudly tell you that statistics was one of the three things they most enjoyed about college. I’m sure that parties, spring breaks, home football weekends, fraternities, sororities, dating, drinking, no in loco parentis and cruising through life for four to six years would probably consistently outrank statistics class in their “these were a few of my favorite things” song salute to higher education.

What made a traditionally difficult and boring class move to the top of my personal list of things that I most enjoyed about college? For me, the answer was simple, Dr. Lou Mattola, who made statistics come alive and rendered order out of the chaos of randomly arranged numbers and mathematical equations. In short, he put the story in story problems. 

His secret was to reduce a seemingly complex subject like statistics into real life scenarios such as casino betting odds, coin toss probabilities, batting averages and the likelihood of outcomes. Just think of him as the kind of guy who could explain the movie “Moneyball” to you over a beer and you’d sit listening to him all night. As someone who struggled with trigonometry and calculus, I appreciated Dr. Mottola’s ability as a professor. I wish I had told him at the time what I thought of his teaching.

Recently, in the midst of this pandemic, I’ve thought of the educational plight facing students from kindergarten through graduate school. I’ve particularly given extra consideration of colleges that have suspended on site classes in favor of online learning. Until recent times, online learning received mixed reviews from academia, students and real world employers. There just weren’t many online graduates going around bragging about their online degrees.

There is an old joke about how do you guess if someone went to Notre Dame? The answer is you don’t have to guess, they’ll tell you. This generally isn’t the case with those who completed their degrees online. For one, the academic demands of many online degrees have been somewhat less than stellar. Secondly, as any red-blooded DePauw or Wabash graduate will tell you, the college experience is as important as the academic work. Maybe, but that may not be true for everyone.

Now I grant you, I became interested in learning for learning’s sake at a later age. I was always a good reader but I only read what I was told to read. In fact, I was so unimpressed with the whole educational aspect of college that I started plotting in the spring of my freshman year ways to graduate early. With course overloads, night classes, summer classes and a 16-credit-hour internship working for Congressman Elwood Hillis, I was able to graduate from Ball State University in three years, instead of four or more.

Several years later, I realized what an opportunity I had squandered in the quest for a diploma. I became a voracious reader in a variety of subjects, conducted my own academic research and even cranked out two Civil War history books. I had been bitten by the education bug and I loved it. Today, my reading continues, but I have also expanded my thirst for additional information to “Ted Talks” and an interesting group of You Tube channels.

Recently, the sun, moon and stars have aligned and have laid out in front of me a vision of a potentially radical alternative to our traditional post-graduate academic training. In large part, I have the pandemic to thank for this revelation. As schools as diverse as Harvard and Indiana State demonstrated this spring, a student has the potential to receive an education via Zoom or Skype that is equal to an “in classroom” version of the same course. At least this is what most universities imply by failure to reduce tuition costs associated with classes conducted on line.

The issues about higher education that have troubled me for many years have been the high cost of a college degree and runaway annual increases that greatly exceed inflation. This has resulted in parents either dipping into retirement savings to send their darling children off to college or in the students amassing huge student debt that eats away at their standard of living for the rest of their lives. The massive national student debt in excess of $1.5 trillion has helped alter marriage rates, birth rates and housing starts, all due to the monthly burden of debt repayment.

In the past, a college graduate would have looked at a person and said, “Gee, that guy or girl is attractive to me. I think I’d like to marry them, buy a house, have 2.6 children, send them to college and then retire with them to Palm Beach.” Now, the mental conversation goes something like this: “Gee, that guy, gal or binary person is attractive to me. I’d go out with them but that might lead to marriage and children and there is no way I’m going to pay off the $90,000 student debt that they ran up paying for an indigenous peoples studies degree. No way I’m going to live in my parents’ basement.”

In addition to student debt, as a conservative, unwoke traditionalist, I have also been greatly concerned by the campaign of political correctness, impingement on free speech and liberal indoctrination perpetrated by most institutions of higher learning. The real world rarely intersects with the academic preparation of the average college graduate.  Or, as one professor once told our alumni advisory board, “It is not my job to prepare students for the workplace.”

Finally, thinking back to my college days, I remember all of the great professors that I had, because I could count them on one hand. Most were just coasting by on tenure or desperately trying to get tenure or what amounted to on-job retirement. They were substandard lecturers who had no enthusiasm and a questionable grasp of their subject matter. As I watch academics such as Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson teach astrophysics on “Ted Talks,” I think what a great education you could get if we retooled our educational model. Ah, what a faint hope – or is it?

I believe that the pandemic has presented an excellent opportunity for a “disrupter,” an academic Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, to completely shake up higher education and strike a needed blow for quality of education, cost containment and against social indoctrination.

Imagine a world where a new university springs up and offers professors such as Dr. Tyson for astrophysics, Steven Levitt for economics, Mark Cuban on entrepreneurship and Jeff Bezos on strategic planning. This new university would offer a full range of traditional academics, both conservative and liberal, in every discipline. The difference would be that the online student would select who the take each class from, depending on availability.  

There would be many, many college professors who would have the potential to greatly expand their incomes. Consider this, you could take a college professor who today might make less than $125,000 and who if skilled, could charge $800 per student for a three-semester-hour class. Let’s say they sign up 50 students for the course. That’s $40,000.  They teach three classes a semester and two or three semesters each year. We’re talking $240,000-$360,000 in gross revenues. Someone has to be paid for handling the technology, marketing and academic records, but there is a lot of money left for a gifted professor.

What about the student who pays $800 each for five classes a semester? That’s $8,000 per year to learn from the best academics in the United States or the world. Total cost of your first-class degree is $32,000. That makes higher education affordable for everyone and allows students to work or volunteer as they see fit.

Of course, there are losers in this system. Unfit professors, university bureaucrats, dorm managers and the academic flotsam that keeps the current system running in its inefficient manner would all find themselves superfluous. We would also need to address the college athletic machine on many big time campuses. Perhaps, professional sports would just expand their minor league systems and institutionalize what is already a de facto situation for the Alabamas, Kentuckys and Ohio States. Would anyone other than ESPN notice the loss of women’s field hockey or men’s cross country?

I predict that some very smart and well-funded entrepreneur is out there today working to establish just this sort of system. It will not be a one-off event when this model is created. The bar to entry will be low enough that the model can be duplicated throughout all of academia. Higher education will be permanently stood on its ear and the vast majority of us will be better for the experience.

If I was an assistant dean of the department of women’s studies or the vice president of inclusion services for a university, I might search “Ted Talks” on YouTube for a good class on launching second careers. 

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican chairman.