We are reminded these days, more often than not, of the main challenges the U.S. faces in remaining a prosperous and competitive society. Perhaps one of the most concerning issues is the growing wealth gap between top income earners and the middle class. As a matter of fact, one recent study by the University of California, Berkeley rings alarm bells, as it shows that in the last 5 years all the income gains have been concentrated at the top of society, while middle class wages have stagnated, or even fallen. This means that American households have less disposable income than in pre-recession years, and even before then. As President Barack Obama has repeatedly said, “The gap between the top 1% and the rest of the country is not just morally wrong, it is bad economics”. Indeed, it is terrible economics when it comes to higher education, as it is an essential component of competitiveness.
Higher education has the capacity to aggravate the problem of a wealth gap further or be part of the solution to fix it. The rationale is simple. With the rising cost of higher education and stagnant wages for most Americans, fewer people can receive a higher education. This makes education a privilege for those of higher socio-economic status, rather than a right accessible to all who aspire to it. Overtime, the wealth gap would be cemented, as higher-income families at the top of the economic ladder would have not just an economic but also an educational edge over the rest of the population. In short, equality of opportunity would be eroded, if not lost. And social mobility, the very essence of the American dream, would be put into question, at best.
On the other side of the spectrum, if education is made accessible to all by way of innovation and creativity, it could serve as a catalyst for development and economic growth. The answer is not reducing spending budgets in educational institutions so as to reduce costs, simply because that in turn would hurt both research and quality. Instead, spending should be maximized in effective ways, so as to broaden accessibility to potential students. By having more Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), studies would become considerably cheaper and more students would be able to receive a higher education. Furthermore, by not being stuck in one particular place at one a particular time, MOOC students would have plenty of cost-saving opportunities. The more people there are receiving higher education, the more we can spur innovation. As a result, more people would be competitive in the job market and our businesses will be competitive enough to create the jobs of the 21st century, narrowing the wealth gap, and making America more prosperous.
It is important to acknowledge that higher education is but one of a constellation of factors contributing to the wealth gap. Nonetheless, educational institutions are supposed to be leading the way in providing new opportunities by the being the laboratories of innovation. The Internet has revolutionized nearly every industry—why not, then, the educational laboratories themselves? In the words of Mahatma Gandhi ”be the change you wish to see.” MOOCs offer educational institutions a way to provide new opportunities to all.