By Julia Long
Universities in the United States may seem like a complex web of rigor and diversity, but most colleges offer the same types of programs at similar levels of intensity. Higher education in the U.S. is limited primarily by cost, and by the opportunity cost of devoting an additional four years to studies without gaining experience in the job market. The new “Open Loop University” model, introduced by Stanford University in 2014, hopes to change that.
Instead of attending four consecutive years at a single campus right after high school as is typical with most students in higher education, the Open Loop University program would involve six years (12 semesters) of classes at Stanford to be redeemed at any point in the student’s life. Instead of a major, students would declare a “mission” that guides their studies throughout their lifetime. The idea is that with this flexible program, students can “loop out” for career opportunities during their studies and “loop in” later in life if they want to change careers or further their studies.
Obvious benefits of the program include increased ease in accessibility of programs and the potential for valuable career opportunities for younger students. College students are often prohibited from entering the job market after graduation by their lack of work experience, but the Open Loop University program would make it possible for students to “pause” their studies to pursue work experience or travel abroad. Additionally, the Open Loop program makes it possible for those who may not have gone to college early in life or are exploring new career option the chance to do so. This could be highly beneficial for many people as the job market continues to morph and to accommodate modern interests.
Despite the many benefits of such a program, there are still several consequences that have not been addressed by Stanford, the first being the topic of tuition. Six years of higher education is expensive no matter what university one may attend. With Stanford ranking in the top schools in the nation, it is particularly cost-prohibitive. Questions of if there will be a change in tuition for Open Loop students, how it will be paid, and how to take out loans and get financial aid are all important to consider. Additionally, six years may not be enough for someone pursuing advanced or multiple degrees.
The Open Loop University model borrows much from community colleges but puts a prestigious, research university stamp on it. Community colleges offer the chance for lifelong learning as well—classes are often relatively inexpensive and there’s no requirement to enroll for a certain amount of time or at a certain period in one’s life. If implemented on a local, community college level, it’s likely that the Open Loop University model could be even more accessible and be beneficial to significantly more students.
Ultimately, it will take a cultural shift for the Open Loop University model to be impactful at Stanford and other universities around the country.