COVID-19 has upended the traditional logic of recessions and higher education. Typically, when jobs evaporate, Americans turn to colleges and universities to increase their skills and marketability. With this downturn, though, the increased interest is there, but enrollments aren’t.

The financial risk of entering higher education was already high, precisely because of the cost of failure. Degrees hold significant weight in the workforce—further evidenced by the fact that workers with college degrees are faring better in the current recession. But too few students actually earn degrees. Even in more stable times, four out of ten freshmen never get to the finish line of a BA, and many of them leave with student debt.

This problem has long bedeviled policymakers, accreditors and other entities charged with quality assurance in higher education. More recently, it has led to calls from both sides of the aisle for “risk-sharing.” The idea is that colleges should be at least partially on the hook financially if students aren’t successful.

We are indeed long overdue for a new approach. But what if, instead of just redistributing risk, we used the advantages of online learning and other innovations to substantially reduce that risk?

As COVID-19 reshapes higher education, we must ask, “what makes higher education such a risk in the first place?” Ultimately, it boils down to the high cost, both in the rising cost of tuition and in the opportunity cost, coupled with a substantial likelihood of failing to complete a degree.

One key to changing the equation is to reduce the cost of starting higher education. The majority of students who stop out of college do so before their sophomore year. Front-loading low-priced coursework would reduce the risk of starting a degree program.

Read the full article about reducing the risk of starting higher education by Burck Smith at EdSurge.