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Will Colleges Go the Way of, Well, Newspapers?

Is higher education the next industry to fall before the Internet? Kevin Carey investigates:

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries — automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

In combination, these two trends threaten to shake the foundation of the modern university, in much the same way that other seemingly impregnable institutions have been torn apart. In some ways, the upheaval will be a welcome one. Students will benefit enormously from radically lower prices — particularly people like [online student Barbara] Solvig who lack disposable income and need higher learning to compete in an ever-more treacherous economy. But these huge changes will also seriously threaten the ability of universities to provide all the things beyond teaching on which society depends: science, culture, the transmission of our civilization from one generation to the next.

Carey's article falls into the vaunted "too good to blog" category. You should read the whole thing.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 23, 2009; 3:08 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Would you ever recommend that a friend's child or your child or niece or nephew get her or his education from an on-line entity of higher education? If not, then why would you want anyone to pursue a degree that way?

I bet you know in your heart of hearts that it may work to take math classes that way, but not anything that requires critical thinking and examination. And of course you can't take lab sciences or art or music classes that way either. But, hey, if you want to exploit adjunct professors and pursue dumbed-down, profit-centered education, go ahead.

Posted by: mainer2 | September 23, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Colleges don't sell "information," they provide a generally agreed-upon standard to measure labor and (for elite schools), social access. From the perspective of the student (that is, the people paying for these services) the school is just a qualification factory. The internet isn't going to change that at all -- I could spend all day watching Open Courseware lectures by great thinkers at Ivy League universities, but no employer is going to hire me based on that.

Posted by: NS12345 | September 23, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

To be fair, some of those Open Courseware lectures really are quite good. And I've taken some genuinely well-taught online courses that feature all the social interaction and critical thought you would ever want, albeit through electronic communication.

I have also attended more than my fair share of lectures filled with glassy-eyed students fully aware that their only responsibility is to regurgitate information on the final. Physical presence doesn't have anything to do with pedagogy.

But as I said, pedagogy is a secondary concern at best. Employers see degrees from old brick schools covered with the right plant life as being "better" than ones obtained online; that's what will keep Yale alive and kicking long after 100% of its content is pirated to the web.

Posted by: NS12345 | September 23, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

One notes that the article is silent about whether this 99 dollars a month was a waste of money or not, and I think we can all guess why. It can't look good having that on your resume.

I'm not saying that this is an insurmountable obstacle for online education, but it's certainly one that hasn't been surmounted yet.

(Full disclosure: I teach at a college, so I'm biased. But I think I'm also right.)

Posted by: clifton_ealy | September 23, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, do you think Harvard costs so much because it's just that many times better an educational institution than most public universities, for material taught at an undergraduate level?

College is first and foremost a credentialing process. One can envision a world where some organization could issue certification of proficiency in various skills based on writings and examinations-- but that world does not seem to be our own. Absent that, the actual ability to impart information online would seem to pose little threat.

Posted by: adamiani | September 23, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

This is already a fairly old idea that has enticed investors for years: replace colleges and universities with for-profit on-line ventures. What's far more likely than the death of colleges and universities is that on-line ventures will coexist with traditional bricks and mortar institutions. The on-line courses will most likely be useful for some highly motivated students taking very standard courses, while many more students will continue to take courses both in person and on-line from traditional colleges and universities.

Posted by: bdlieberman | September 23, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Similarly to the credentialing argument, at the elite schools at least you're paying for the student body who is drawn to those places. It's not as much about what you're being taught as much as who you're spending your four years around.

Posted by: mboster | September 23, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that it wouldn't be terribly difficult to streamline universities without rendering them completely obsolete. How much money, in the aggregate, goes into maintaining hundreds of largely redundant university libraries? Wouldn't a national online library, supplemented by smaller physical archival collections, serve a very similar purpose at a fraction of the cost? And then you use those saving to lower tuition while maintaining the most difficult element of a university experience to replicate online: the sort of face-to-face interaction that breeds critical thinking and exchange of ideas.

Posted by: WHSTCL | September 23, 2009 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Look for community colleges to start offering four year professional degrees. That's the model that will prevail over private colleges and public universities.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | September 23, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

I work as a custodian at a community college, and judging by the tone of this article I'm surprised the author didn't complain about the need for paying for some lazy, alcoholic janitor to clean up the school buildings. I agree that technology will eventually transform higher education, but I hope it isn't through an army of low-wage teachers slaving behind computer screens.

Posted by: crowinsane | September 24, 2009 1:26 AM | Report abuse


If you view a college degree as just another hoop to jump through, as simply a different form of credentialing, then online is as good as offline, at least for bottom feeding colleges. But I seriously doubt an online degree from University of Phoenix will ever seriously compete in terms of automatic job consideration with the likes of MIT, or Harvard, or even the University of Texas.

If, however, you view it as a measure of knowledge gained and skills acquired, an online degree is largely junk. It amounts to becoming, say, a physicist by reading a bunch of books about physics but never actually doing any physics. That doesn't work.

Trouble is that many colleges (including, as it happens, Harvard) aren't really any better. They aren't so much diploma mills as they are networking mills, where the most important skill is getting yourself admitted. However, colleges have a significantly easier job reinventing themselves in a way that online educations can never do since they offer the opportunity for a close cognitive apprenticeship with an expert practitioner. I have an undergraduate student this semester doing research with me in observational astronomy and another in cognitive development of scientific concepts. One involves telescope time, and learning how to use a telescope, not just ordering pictures. The other involves watching students in a classroom as they wrestle with unfamiliar problems and devise experimental methodologies. Neither of these experiences are available to an online student, who can only look at text and canned video. They can't even do an experiment of any sophistication, let alone carefully observe how novices approach experimentation.

I can't help but think that, at then end of the day, employers will be able to notice the difference between people who were credentialed and people who acquired the skill of creating new knowledge. That skill is not taught at all colleges, or even the majority of them, but the barriers to teaching it online are nearly insurmountable.

Posted by: pj_camp | September 24, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

It's not only colleges whose "business model" is going to blow up. It's the entire, bloated, rotten mess we call our educational system. Good riddance.

Posted by: lfstevens | September 24, 2009 8:11 PM | Report abuse

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