In October 2006, Netflix launched a remarkable contest called the Netflix Prize. The company was in search of an algorithm that would improve the results of its movie recommendation engine by 10%. Netflix made a bunch of its data publicly available on the web and offered a million dollars to the person who could solve the problem.
This year, Wesleyan tuition, room, and board costs $57,080. I think it’s time for some college—and I hope it’s Wesleyan—to draw inspiration from the open technology world and announce a contest like Netflix’s. Open the books, put the entire Wesleyan budget on the web, and ask the world to help higher education find a better way.
It’s not a perfect analogy, though the goal in this case would also be a formula of sorts: a formula for offering an awesome college experience while acknowledging that tuition and student debt at this point in history are simply ridiculous. The technology world in which I work is not unfamiliar with bubbles, and many people say that college tuition is the new bubble. Some of the most respected voices in tech are even encouraging smart high school kids to skip college altogether.
Over the last few months, I’ve wondered how many Wesleyan alumni are participating in the Occupy movement because the cost of college put them deeply underwater.
Why a “Wesleyan Prize” is good for Wesleyan and everyone else: People will take the challenge.
Within a year of launching, more than 10,000 submissions had been received for the Netflix Prize. College tuition is a high- profile issue and there are a lot of smart people who would be thrilled to take a crack at it. The open-source software movement is a perfect model in which very capable people work on big problems for minimal compensation. Think outside the box. This problem isn’t getting much in the way of new ideas. Getting it out of the ivory tower could lead to some powerful, fresh thinking. Show that someone actually cares. While this would be great PR for Wesleyan, it would more importantly show that someone in higher education is actually trying to solve this problem rather than just paying lip-service to it.
We challenge the status quo. Amidst orthodoxy and a herd mentality, someone needs to show leadership and an ability to think differently. Wesleyan is that kind of place. It could work. You’ll get some harebrained ideas no doubt, but some of them just might work. And some of them just might propel Wesleyan and American higher education at large into a much brighter future.
I hope you’ll take this into consideration. Feel free to drop me a line any time.
Avi Class of 2001 @avistopper